Cool Lyrics: James McMurtry – See the Elephant

Recently I was watching a video in which the late governor of Texas Ann Richards was giving a speech to the DNC in the late 80s. (I think it was some springboard clickbait from Rick Perry’s latest foible). In the speech, she taunted Republicans by saying “We’re gonna tell ’em how the cow ate the cabbage!” This caused me to look up the phrase’s origin, and I found this hilarious story:

A circus had arrived in a small town, and one morning one of the elephants managed to escape. The fugitive pachyderm made its way to the backyard garden of an elderly (and very near-sighted) woman, where it began hungrily uprooting her cabbages with its trunk and eating them. Alarmed by the apparition in her garden, the woman called the police, saying, “Sheriff, there’s a big cow in my garden pulling up my cabbages with its tail!” “What’s the cow doing with them?” he asked, to which the woman replied, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you!”

Funny, right? So I brought this up at a big family dinner with my in-laws that same night. That led to Googling and sharing various UrbanDictionary definitions of idioms, the best of which was “See the Elephant.” I thought “hey, I know a song by that name, but I didn’t know it was a thing.”

So, the etymological story goes that in those same 1940s Texas small towns where a traveling circus would have been the most exciting thing in one’s lifetime, to “see the elephant” would be to have “seen it all.” Then, during the war years the phrase became synonymous with the experience of going to war – something that sounds attractive, and that the individual really wants to see until he sees it in all its ugliness and gore – and then he never wants to see it again. Soldiers drafted or called up for deployment might say “Well, I guess I’m off to see the elephant.”

I always thought this song was a little out of character for McMurtry, the famous social protest Americana troubadour. It seemed too innocuous. But now I see it in a totally different light. See if you can catch the depth and haunting double meaning(s):

I saw Pete and Johnny too
Dressed up in their Sunday suits
Getting themselves all up to go
Down to Richmond to the traveling show

I fixed the gate like you told me to
Done my chores like I always do
And I won’t tell mama you let me go
Down to Richmond to the traveling show

Please Papa can I go
Down to Richmond to the traveling show
Please Papa don’t you say I cant
I just want to see the elephant

I’ll borrow the truck from uncle Phil
You know I can drive it well
He won’t need it now that the hay’s all in
Just let me go and see the elephant

Sister she can’t go with me
This is not for her to see
Little brother you’ll get your chance
To go down and see the elephant

They’re looking for a few good men
Could be war by summer’s end
Sure would hate it if I went
And never got to see the elephant

I saw Pete and Johnny too
Dressed up in their Navy Blues
Gettin’ themselves all up to go
Down to Richmond to the traveling show.

I heartily recommend the entire album Childish Things for which this song is the perfect opener. Mr McMurtry is on my bucket list of artists to see, hopefully sooner rather than later.

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