The Infinite Jukebox: Tim Rose’s ‘Come Away Melinda’

This isn’t the first time I’ve said this but sometimes you can hear a song many times over, be familiar with it throughout many a year, more than half a lifetime. You can be familiar with it, and know what it is about, at least in your head. Yes, I know, that’s what it means, it’s easy to understand. Then, one day, for no apparent reason, you will hear it again and it will split you apart.
I must have heard ‘Come Away Melinda’ sometime in the early part of the Seventies, and it would most likely have been in the melodramatic version recorded in 1967 by deep, dark-voiced singer-songwriter Tim Rose. Rose hadn’t written the song. It’s composers were Fred Hellerman and Fran Minkoff, and it was first recorded in 1963 by Harry Belafonte, yes, he who is best remembered now for ‘The Banana Boat Song’.
It’s an anti-War song, that much is self-evident from even the most cursory scan of the lyrics. It’s a two-sided song, the accumulating verses being in the voice of a little girl, excited at discovering something she had never seen before, the choruses in the voice of her father, who knows very well what it is she has found, and who is trying to get her to leave it alone, and come inside, and forget what she has seen, because it is something that he has buried, not just that she should not see it, but that he should never have to see it again, himself.
Belafonte was the first to sing this, and I can imagine how he would have done so, laidback, calm, a style that with my sudden vision of the song I can’t imagine being the least bit suitable. Many others have followed, including Heavy Metal band UFO, which I certainly don’t want to ever hear. But only a few weeks ago as I write this, on a bus travelling through the Lake District, headphones on, it came on my mp3 player in a form recorded by a band called Cats Eyes, in 1970, in an arrangement closely following Tim Rose’s version.
And for the first time I ‘heard’ the words, and it took everything I had not to begin crying, because suddenly I understood exactly what it was all about, and I understood the levels of emotion that the song comprised, the innocence and the excitement of the little girl, and the unbearable pain of the father, seeking hopelessly to protect both his daughter and himself, in what little is left to the pair of them. He knows what they have both lost, and as the little girl asks her innocent questions, wishing to understand more of her finding, he is losing more of himself in the knowledge that he cannot protect her from what she might have been better off not knowing, that will not do her any good whatsoever, and which can only re-activate his anguish at what both have lost, for him a what-was, for her a what-never-will-be.
Because there has been a War. We don’t get any details but then we can imagine all that we need from the little we are told. The War was nuclear, the Bomb was dropped. He survives with his little daughter, a girl of maybe five or six, underground, inside, behind a door he needs to keep closed, to give both of them the maximum time to live. There isn’t a future out there, not any more. Melinda will never have time to grow to understand what it is she will not have.
But today she’s got out. She’s gone a bit of a way away, and she’s found something. Melinda has found a picture book, a picture book that she knows comes from before the War. Daddy knows it too. He is the one who threw it out, buried it. It contains pictures he cannot bear to see any more. He tries to minimise the significance of what Melinda sees, but he cannot be anything but honest to her.
As the verses climb on top of one another she sees more and she wants to know more about what she sees, like children must always know. The picture book enthrals her. She wants him to come and see it, look at it with her, explain it. Why, there are four or five little Melinda-girls in this book. And her father, who will never look at those pictures again, admits to her that there were lots of little girls like her, before they had the War.
And then there’s the one that is truly unbearable, look, there’s someone in a pretty dress, and she’s ‘all grown-up like you’. Broken, in vain he pleads with her to come away, come in and close the door, seal them off from everything outside, for that woman was your mommy, you had before the War. It’s all coming back, everything he’s tried to hide from her, everything he’s tried to hide from, himself, all those thoughts and feelings and emotions that the world has no room for because the world now is Daddy and Melinda and the impossibility of giving her more than a shadow of what she should have had.
But his little Melinda-girl is asking the one question he can’t answer. Her eyes have been opened too wide. Can he explain it to her, explain it if he can, why can’t it be the way it was, before the War began?
Come away, Melinda, come in and close the door. The answer lies in yesterday, which is to say nowhere, because there isn’t a yesterday any longer, it’s all burned up and gone, before they had the War.
I listened and it took me by the heart, the unutterable loss, the feeling of failure, the man who could protect neither the woman he loved nor the daughter they birthed, to whom only the briefest shadow could ever be given, and that will not last much longer, for the memories have escaped and they will complete the job of destruction.
It’s as if the song has suddenly taken on three dimensions for me, where until now it has only had two. I lived the larger part of my life in the shadow of that War, and though it’s threat may have receded, the life we have may still be taken away from us. Perhaps not so violently, so abruptly as Melinda and her Daddy, but just as surely and just as permanently.
Come in, and close the door.

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