In the middle of any decade, there is always something of a lull. The first half has passed, the second half has yet to come, and the pause can either come from stagnation, culmination, nostalgia or some combination of all three. Of course, in music there is always someone, somewhere pushing things ahead, but it takes a while for that new idea or noise to make it out of the clubs or garage practices and on to a hit record. In the meantime, the chart meanders along, mini-trends pop up and disappear, while the new thing, whatever it may be, gathers forces and strength. The old, which was once exciting, is now normal, regular even, and maybe even a bit dull.
Thus, we have Frankie Laine out west once more, and this time his agony isn’t caused by The Man or a certain woman but by a simple element: water. (It is as if all his songs could be subtitled Man Vs. Something – in this case, Man Vs. Nature.) He and his mule/horse/beast of general burden Dan are out in the “barren waste” (no explanation as to why they are out there – maybe this is what happens when you don’t have a map or don’t plan ahead when you’re escaping the sheriff) looking for water to drink. There is none to be found. A mirage (something the devil causes, apparently) appears and Frankie tells Dan to ignore it, but I doubt if Dan does. (I’ve been out in the desert and mirages can appear even if you’re not thirsty; they’re a natural phenomenon.) He asks Dan if he can see the tree nearby some water, but Laine’s voice is so big and stentorian that it sounds as if he is making up said tree, or is perhaps hallucinating it – yet another mirage in the relentless dry weather. It is hard to say – the song sounds as if it has a happy ending, but with the Mellomen’s deep ‘water…water’ it sounds as if the search has almost driven the singer to desperation. Or maybe there is water, but the journey itself is far from over.
Laine sings with conviction and a real thirst in his voice; now was a time when country and western music was popular – this song didn’t get to number one because of Slim Whitman, and a few other country standards were kicking around the charts at the same time. I am not sure why this happened, though a clue could come from, of all things, post-war immigration – specifically, from Ireland to Liverpool and Manchester. The Irish have always loved their country music; add them to Scotland and you have a formidable number of people who can relate in some ways to the search for something real and satisfying, cool and clear. “Cool Water” is a song of hope above all, and determination to “carry on” despite any illusions. Things may well have been at a standstill in the UK (as opposed to the US), but something was happening underneath the country and folk that was about to emerge on record. It will take a few more entries to get to it, but it will make this song seem – well, duller than it really is.