Conversations with Death: Clementine

Still from "Clementine," Neil Young and Crazy Horse (2012)

Still from “Clementine,” Neil Young and Crazy Horse (2012)

A Sharp Turn

A girl. A daughter, a sister, a lover.
A prostitute. Ruby lips. Thin, delicate, pretty. Big feet.
A fat girl. A clutz, a clod, a chub.
A drunk girl. Drowned, lost, forgotten, betrayed.
A dead girl. A corpse, a ghost, a zombie. Merciful, lustful, vengeful. Bloated, stinking.

Oh my darling …

So it goes with “Clementine,” the classic American folk song about a goldminer’s daughter who stumbled into a river and drowned. Every year, thousands – maybe millions – of American children now sing about Clementine as they sit around campfires, line up at scout meetings, perform in school plays, and amuse themselves with cartoon apps before bedtime. In this post, I join the “Conversations with Death” series that we started last year at Murder Ballad Monday. The series allows us to explore songs that don’t address a murder but do address death in similarly powerful ways and resonate with us personally. Previous posts in the series have explored some truly beautiful songs on some serious topics. I’m a little embarrassed that mine is best known as a jokey sing-a-long for the kids:

Family Sing Along Muffin Songs, “Oh My Darling Clementine”

Of course, the kids are not singing about drunk lovers, bloated corpses, or lustful ghosts. The version of “Clementine” that most children sing, and therefore that most adults know, is a scrubbed one. On this blog we’ve explored time and again how songs for children are often sugar-coated candies that contain nasty bites of human behavior and suffering. “Clementine” is no exception. Its darkness and cruelty run deep. I’m not so much embarrassed, then, as I am miffed that this song doesn’t have more street cred among adults.

Apparently, Neil Young was a bit miffed about that as well. His cover version of “Clementine” with Crazy Horse on Americana (2012) is electric, driving, and relentless, unleashing demons that have always been at the song’s core. The original video takes it over the top. Titled “A Sharp Education,” it depicts a female knife-thrower practicing her skills on her young daughters in their backyard as the neighbors, leaning on the white picket fence, look on in horror. No child is impaled – the mother is skilled – but it’s still disturbing (if you can’t watch the whole thing, the first two and a half minutes give you a good enough picture):

They replaced this original video with a much less disturbing but still kind of creepy one.

The mother’s grin in this video is maniacal, and I don’t know quite how to describe the expressions on her daughters’ faces. How did we get from “Muffin Songs for Families” to this scary place? Pretty easily, as the song’s origins reveal.

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