How can we help you, Utah?
How can we make you great?
Well, we got to irrigate our deserts
We've got to get some things to grow
And we got to tell this country about Utah
'Cause nobody seems to know.
"The Beehive State"
What Americans do know about Utah must be a source of bewilderment. Setting aside the embarrassing antics of Chaffetz, Lee, Love and Bishop—all of which made news recently—homophobia is a case in point. I think that the average American has come to believe that homosexuality is anathema in Mormon Utah. But then, out of the blue, Biskupski beats Becker! The "openly gay" mayor lands on the front page of The New York Times just as Judge Scott Johansen turns tail and heads for the hills.
Yes, we need to tell the country about Utah. Maybe another "life elevated" PR campaign and a troubadour like Randy Newman to put our story to music. I mention Newman because so many of his songs are inspired by a place (e.g., Louisiana) and its residents (e.g., Huey Long). That is just what Utah needs, a purveyor of place. Consider this modest proposal: divert some of the millions being wasted suing the federal government. Use it to commission some Utah songs by a singer-songwriter like Newman or even Orrin Hatch, our moonlighting senator. Had Utah Phillips not died in 2008, the bewhiskered folksinger would have been the ideal candidate. He was a Joe Hill-type whose legacy is not anchored by his 1975 song, "I've Got a Home Out in Utah." Sing along on the chorus if you like:
You can take away all my money,
You can take away most anything I own,
But I've got a home out in Utah
And I'll always love my Rocky Mountain home.
I don't know how other states fared at the hands of songwriters in the last century, but Utah has done at least as well as Delaware. Here's one example from "Red Hills of Utah" written in 1963 by country-and-western singer Marty Robbins:
How green are the valleys, how tall are the trees.
How cool are the rivers, how soft is the breeze.
If it's just like my dreams, then I must go and see
For the Red Hills of Utah are calling me.
Robbins' 1959 chart-topping hit, "El Paso," was covered by the Grateful Dead 15 years later. I mention that as segue to the Utah hills which figure in the Dead's song, "Friend of the Devil," to wit: "Ran into the devil, babe, he loaned me 20 bills / I spent the night in Utah in a cave up in the hills." The words date to the age of electric Kool-Aid in San Francisco, and the song's narrative is arcane. You might have some fun by updating it like this: "Ran into Judge Johansen, babe, he was looking pretty ill. He told me he now spends his days in a cave up in the hills."
I have noticed that despite Utah's patriarchal culture—where a woman earns 70 cents on jobs paying a man $1—most songs valorize women. I like the Dave Carter one about a "wide-eyed and wistful, pretty little Mormon girl" who aspires to "the glamorous life of a cowboy singer." And the Beach Boys' "Salt Lake City," which must have made the tourist bureau giddy when it was recorded in 1965:
And girl for girl, they've got the cutest of the Western states, yeah.
They got the sun in the summer and wintertime the skiing is great, yeah.
Salt Lake City, we'll be coming soon.
Sure, the words seem corny. Singing redeems them. It is a disservice to decouple them from the music. Sometimes, the synergy of word and music is transcendent—even as anthemic as "We Shall Overcome" and "Blowin' in the Wind." In Utah, we turn to the Mormon hymnal for examples. "Come, Come Ye Saints" and "O My Father" come to mind. The latter is unique in that Mormons regularly cite it as evidence of their belief in a heavenly mother:
In the heav'ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I've a mother there.
My Mormon upbringing notwithstanding, I don't recall any mention of Heavenly Mother in Sunday school classes, so I was surprised to find a song by David Allan Coe (who composed "Take This Job and Shove It") about her:
But now and then we gather down in Salt Lake City,
To raise our voices in a joyful song,
And we sing Heavenly Father, Holy Mother.
The more I think about it, the only Utah-related lyrics I can readily recall are those of the University of Utah's fight song, "Utah Man." If there is an official state song, I don't know it. Gladys Knight used to tease the late President Gordon Hinckley about the lack of zip in LDS Church music. The same can be said of Utah. We need what Jimmy Buffet has done for the Caribbean islands rather than what the Eagles did for Winslow, Ariz. Neither do we need a "Ballad of Warren Jeffs" nor "States' Rights Blues." No rap, no metal. Just a catalog of sing-along tunes with enough zip to resonate beyond our borders.