Amon, Allen and Barbara Allen
Don’t you remember the other night
When we were in the Tavern ?
You drank a toast to the ladies there,
And slighted Barbara Allen. Barbara Allen, Traditional
I can hear the seagulls now. Allen Porter, attributed to Will Rogers
Alastair Sim , the English actor, was the finest Scrooge in the history of film. He appears in the 1951 version of the “Christmas Carol” should you ever want to see it. At the end of the film, Scrooge, having survived his three ghosts, pays a visit to his nephew Jacob’s house for Christmas Day. Jacob is the son of his late sister, his only surviving relative. Scrooge has been invited to the house yearly and has never gone. As he makes his way up the walk toward the door, the snow is falling and all we see is Sim’s back and the back of his head. Just as he is about to knock, the strains of Barbara Allen begin to play and his shoulders and head slump briefly in a sign of regret, which the song symbolizes. It is this moment which separates Sim from all the other actors who have ever played the role. The simple sign of regret.
In the song Barbara Allen, both Barbara and the “Young Man” die of regret, or at least are in a regretful state as they die,seperatly and alone. Nothing in the world is sadder than regret and it is almost impossible to escape this life without having some, even if you are Sinatra and have “too few to mention”. I have had some regret the past week are so.
I have been reading a biography of Amon Carter. Carter was the longtime publisher of the Ft. Worth Star Telegram and about half of the public spots in Ft. Worth are named after him. In his heyday, the 20s through the 50s he and his paper spoke for West Texas. The book, written by a fellow named Jerry Flemmons about thirty years ago, is delightful. My father was a West Texas boy in the Carter days. The paper on his breakfast table (and every breakfast table from Ft. Worth to El Paso) was the Star Telegram, and when he was old enough, he went down to the Train Station every morning, picked up and delivered the Star Telegram to the folks in his town. The newspaper and the country shaped my father. He lived in the big city for almost sixty years, but a part of him was always West Texas. A part of him was always the Star Telegram and the myths of Amon Carter about West Texas.
Many years ago, someone, I think it was the New York Times Magazine, ran a chapter of the Flemmon’s book in their publication. I don’t recall why. I was delighted with the story and sent it onto my father who was equally delighted. The next time I saw him he told me that he regretted that his brother Mike, who had recently died, had not seen the story. For a number of years I searched for a copy of the book for my father. It was quite rare because the publishing house which printed it had had a fire and it had destroyed most of the inventory. Every time I found the book at a used bookstore, it’s price was too high, always $50.
Book people (and I am one) are funny. They may pay $100 for the most frivolous time imaginable, but they will only pay exactly what a book is worth. I knew that book was not worth fifty dollars and I never bought it. Until last week, when I found a battered copy for $7.00. I began to read the book and found it to be even more delightful than I had imagined. Then, somewhere along the way, I began to hear the strains of Barbara Allen. Why had I never purchased the book ? Was my own father not worth a lousy fifty bucks, even if the book was overpriced ? Every few pages there is a reference in the book which reminds me of him and the stories he used to tell me about his boyhood. Regret set in deeply.
My favorite part of the book involves Will Rogers, a man who was very close to Amon Carter. Flemmons tells the story of Carter taking Rogers to the bank of the Trinity River and explaining to him how Ft Worth was going to dredge the river to the Gulf of Mexico, making Ft. Worth a port. Rogers wryly smiled and told Carter, “I can see the seagulls now. “ Or according to Flemmons that’s what he said. When my dad told the story he substituted the word “hear” for “see” which, because of the distinct cry of the Gull , is a lot funnier than the Rogers version. I’d have given anything to talk to my dad about that part of the book. Rogers had been a particular hero of his and he was devastated when Rogers and Wily Post died in a crash in Alaska when my dad was about 12.
Time passes so swiftly, my dad has been gone for a year, Flemmons for ten years. Carter died more than a half a century ago and we are fast approaching the 75th anniversary of Rogers death. All of these folks are closely linked in my mind, how can they be separated by so many years ? I would have to check, but I’m not sure that there was ever a time when they were all on the earth together. But there they are all joined, in my mind, the strains of Barbara Allen playing over them.
I think regrets are natural. I’m not even sure that they are always such a bad thing. They are life lessons, even f they are of the “hard knock variety”. I think it’s better that I have the regret that that I never got to read the book at all. It has been good to be with my dad again this last week.