Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stockton Gala Days

Stockton Gala Days (from the 10,000 Maniacs albums Our Time In Eden and Unplugged)

that summer fields grew high
with foxglove stalks and ivy
wild apple blossoms everywhere
emerald green like none I have seen
apart from dreams that escape me
there was no girl as warm as you

how I've learned to please
to doubt myself in need
you'll never, you'll never know

that summer fields grew high
we made garland crowns in hiding
pulled stems of flowers from my hair
blue in the stream like none I have seen
apart from dreams that escape me
there was no girl as bold as you

how I've learned to please
to doubt myself in need
you'll never, you'll never know
you'll never know...

violet serene like none I have seen
apart from dreams that escape me
there was no girl as warm as you
how I've learned to please
to doubt myself in need
you'll never, you'll never know
you'll never know...

that summer fields grew high
we had wildflower fever
we had to lay down where they grow
how I've learned to hide, how I've locked inside
you'd be surprised if shown
but you'll never, you'll never know



In the career of every popular and well-known musical entertainer, there are two categories of "hit" songs. The first and most obvious category is that of the songs that are released as singles, get lots of radio airplay and not coincidentally are usually the most uptempo and catchy songs on any given record. There have been many of these songs throughout Natalie Merchant's career - These Are Days, Carnival, and Kind and Generous being just a few examples.

The second category of popular songs, though, are not songs that are played on the radio, that may or may not be uptempo and catchy, and that the casual fan may never have even heard. These are the songs that are beloved to the die-hard fans, the ones who are not satisfied with a "Greatest Hits" collection - they are instead intimately acquainted with every song on every album and thus have the pleasure of creating their own personal "Best of" playlist. I have no doubt that Stockton Gala Days is this type of song for many Natalie Merchant/10,000 Maniacs fans.

To start with, let's get a little history lesson about what Stockton Gala Days are.

Or not. I had an incredibly difficult time finding any information on this subject, primarily because when you search "Stockton Gala Days" in a search engine 99% of the results are about the song, not the actual...event? Is it an event?

"Stockton isn't exactly a small town. It's more like a place where two main roads meet. Every year they have this festival." - Natalie Merchant, Rock Compact Disc, 1992

Alright, event status confirmed. What else? Here's a sample of all the information I could gather (stop me if it gets boring): Stockton is a town in Chautauqua County, New York, north of Jamestown. It was settled in the early 1800s. They had problems with predatory wolves (see last week's blog). They were afraid of "hostile Indians." Some of the first names of people who lived there - Ichabod, Abner, Shadrach and Freelove (you heard me.) There were many butter and cheese factories there. And from that point the details really thin out. And by "that point" I mean about 1915. If you have some information about Stockton and particularly its Gala Days, please enlighten me. But for now I'm giving up.

Let's move on to the song itself. First, the lyrics. For me, Natalie's lyrics have always produced a general feeling more than any sort of particular visual image. But this song is an exception. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I was raised in a very large city and had very little experience with countrysides, rolling hills and open fields. If I had tried on my own to imagine experiencing these things as a small child, I think I would've ended up envisioning something that looked not at all unlike a fabric softener commercial. But the words to this song are so delightfully descriptive that I can listen to it and imagine an experience that is both beautiful and transportive, a vision that makes me nostalgic for a childhood I never experienced and homesick for a home I never had. Wild apple blossoms, garland crowns, wildflower fever. The very sound of those words coming from a voice full of love are as beautiful as the images they conjure up.

Here's what Natalie had to say about the song:

"Whenever we played that song, all I thought of was being a young girl and having the true friendships that we have when we're young. I had a rural upbringing and I feel very close to - I don't want to sound like a hippie girl, but I spent a lot of time in grape vineyards and cornfields and the forest, and that song just brought to mind how happy I was when I was younger, and that feeling of summer and this great expanse of time that summer was, and how I spent it, and who I spent it with." - Musician, November 1992

Musically, this song has two elements that I really love. First, it's the pacing. I really geek out over songs that build to a crescendo and this song does it beautifully. There's a point near the end of the song where it sounds like the instruments are all slowing down and you can sense the end coming...and then everything breaks open and the song just bursts forth with a final surge of energy. You can hear this particularly on the Our Time In Eden version.

Second, the instrument that really takes this song the extra mile for me is the violin. I think the violin is the most underused instrument in rock music, I suppose because it's not traditionally considered a rock music instrument (and yes, I know some might argue that 10,000 Maniacs aren't exactly a "rock" band, but let's just say I'm using the term loosely.) But in Stockton Gala Days, the violin is what keeps the song from being merely pretty and instead makes it beautiful. This aspect of the song is particularly notable on the Unplugged version.

In many ways Stockton Gala Days is a fine companion to These Are Days - songs that call to mind beautiful settings, meaningful relationships and reflections on the purest joys of life.

Download Stockton Gala Days on Itunes - Stockton Gala Days (Live) - MTV Unplugged: 10,000 Maniacs

29 comments:

  1. I am from the area and I can tell you that Stockton is a town in Chautauqua County NY. When I was younger, I did attend the Stockton Gala Days. It is nothing more than a small Fair held during the summer. I do not know if the Gala Days are still held, as I moved out of the area years ago.

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    1. The stockton gala days haven't been held in over 20 years due to a drunk driver crashing into a van carrying a family and killing most, if not all the people in the van. Now the Chautauqua County Firmen's Muster is held at the County Fraternity grouds in late august every year since 2005.

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    2. Interesting...so is the Firemen's Muster any fun? Compared to the Gala Days, that is.

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    3. Not even close to the fun we had at the Gala Days.

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  2. Anonymous -

    Thanks for the info. I hope Stockton still has its Gala Days. Not that I would likely ever get to attend, but I just like the idea that it still exists.

    Thank you for reading.

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  3. I grew up in Jamestown NY on McKinley Ave. My family lived in the "country", Cassadaga, Sinclairville, Stockton. The highlight of my year, and everyone I knew was the Stockton Gala Days! Carnival rides, games, parking in a field and amazing food. From memory, I can still smell the fresh air smell that exist nowhere else on the planet!! Blue skies,cornfields, sunflowers and barns, this is what you see in Stockton NY. These are some on my BEST memories! And Midway Park of course! I wish I could rewind time! And yes, the Stockton Gala Days still operates to this day.

    Stockton Gala Days is my favorite 10,000 Maniacs song. One of my favorite songs of all time in fact. It really stirs memories of my own childhood every time I hear it.

    Monica

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  4. Monica -

    Wow! That sounds amazing. Makes me want to hop on a plane right now. What time of year are the Gala Days? Summer, I presume? Have you been back since you were a kid?

    Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate the firsthand recollections.

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  5. Annie -

    It was in late summer from what I remember. I am not sure now whether it does still go on. I am going to call my cousin tonight to verify this. I did find something neat though. Check out this link. The metal arch is the entrance to the field where the Gala Days are held!
    http://www.starnewsdaily.com/viewby/contributor/john-siggins/story/Our-Town-Stockton-2010-11-05 There are some other neat photos of the area as well.

    Monica

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  6. Monica -

    Thanks for the link! I wish I had found that article back when I was writing this post. It had so much great info about Stockton. So are the Gala Days and Old Home Days the same thing? If so, I guess the Gala Days are no more. : ( I noticed the article also mentioned Lily Dale. Is that a coincidence or does it tie to the Wishing Chair song of the same name? Hmmm...very interesting. Thanks again!

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  7. I agree that the lyrics you quote and many other lines are mesmerizing. They are among my very favorite and I like the idea that the poet is speaking to her younger self. The song is very passionate. I assume that "Stockton Gala Days" refers to years of youthful summers so it hardly matters what the precise event was, though it's still interesting to know that it was a real place and event.
    -Peter

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  8. Hi Peter -

    I had never thought of the idea you mentioned. It's very intriguing, I like that interpretation a lot. And I agree, the song seems to be much more about a period in life rather than about a specific event.

    Thanks for writing!

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  9. Thanks for such a beautifully written piece. It is an exceedingly rare perfect pop song and is the best track on a magnificent album that still sounds great 20 years later. I never quite understood the references in the song. As you suggest, it is the sort of song that transports us back to a time and place where everything seems perfect and where we can experience a transcendent happiness. It is always an idealization of course, but it's the sort of memories that define a life experience. It is one of those songs that I can't just listen to once.

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    1. Thank you, Dave. If it's not a perfect song, it's pretty darn close. Absolutely one of my favorites from Natalie's entire catalogue. Thanks for writing!

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  10. Growing up in Chautauqua County, I always thought the name song was a bit of inside joke for locals. I think it is a reference to the time of year when the Gala Days were held, late summer.

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    1. Yeah, I'm sure it has a lot more meaning (or different) meaning for locals.

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  11. BTW, I always though the title of the album might have a double meaning, as there is an Eden, NY that isn't too far from where Natalie grew up.

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    1. Curious. Wonder what kind of place Eden, NY is. There's a Paradise, CA. Heard it's rather blah.

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    2. Eden isn't as close to Jamestown, or Stockton for that matter, as one might think. I lived in Stockton until 1986. I have been to Eden plenty of times, but closer to Buffalo than Jimtown. Eden is basically a town the size of Stockton. Not too much to do in either town other than looking at cows grow. I will never forget the smell of spring and summer in Stockton. It didn't smell like any other place I've been.

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    3. In a good way or a bad way??

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  12. No doubt this song is among the finest from 10,000 Maniacs' repertoire, however the analysis here seems to overlook a thinly-veiled lyrical allusion that implies an affair of sorts. It seems a rather shameless confession, but "no, you'll never... never know..." Ahem. I think I know. Interesting it is the only song on the album for which all the artists in the band are credited, making knowing who and what that much harder to say for sure.

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    1. I guess it's possible, but it's never really struck me that way at all. But...you never know. : )

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  13. I grew up in and around Stocton. I left around '87 when I was around 15. For a kid it was the best, everyone knew each other and there was freedom from the crap in the world. The Gala days were the end of summer carnival to go to when living out there in the country. Fireworks to the rides, set back by the cemetery down the road from the junk barn and Caves grocery. From Bear lake to Kelly hill road (when you could see over to Canada) to Sinclairsville, it was a calm place to call home.

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    1. I'm amazed at how many people have written me since this post to tell me about their memories of Stockton Gala Days. Pretty cool.

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  14. I love this song. Agree this album holds up even so many years later. This song has to be about a same sex experience. No girl as warm as you. No girl as BOLD as you....and the giveaway as I see it is "we had to lay down where they grow." So she certainly is speaking of a festival in a small country town. But each section speaks of this girl..this girl..and laying down is darn near exclaiming the meaning of the song. Of course she could be talking about herself as bold and warm but seems unlikely and a bit high and mighty. So, my friends, you can only arrive at one obvious conclusion. A lesbian experience she has fond memories of but doesn't speak off...unless it's somewhat hidden within a wonderful song. Love it!!

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  15. I believe you are right on with this take Nicholas; an additional point would be, in my opinion; "garland crowns in hiding..." often used representation of lesbian love, especially with younger women, nymph like which is again often used to represent an idyllic innocent same sex (female) love
    also, this is a stretch I admit, but note the look NM gives her co-singer, I must admit ignorance of who the is and would live to learn, during this song on the MTV Unplugged version; all I can say is if she looked at me that way...

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  16. I've known of 10,000M for many years, but unitl I'm mid-40's I'm really loving their entire catalogue, plus NM catalogue too. I bought a cardsleeve cd single of 'Wonder' back in the day, when I was good-looking, long haired 20-something architecture-student and always buying cds, Lps, like I still do now. 'Gala Days' is the best song ever by 10,000 M.---I read the entire comments section. Great info, as I thought 'Gala' was about Salvador Dali's wife when I first listened to the song. Regards from Mexico.

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  17. This is one of my favorite songs by this band, and a song I just love. One of the previous commentators was certainly correct that this song is Romantic, it's expressing a deep and not entirely fullfilled longing. However the main songwriter was one of the males in the band, so Natalie is doing an incredible job of expressing his feelings here.

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  18. My favorite song on this album. Glad to hear so many love it.

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  19. I enjoyed reading your posts Annie and the comments from others. I love this song and it reminds me of my childhood in Kentucky. Even though there is a reference to a specific place and event, there is a universality to it. Also, for me it has always been about the friendships girls have in childhood that are honest and intense. I never took it as love affair, since I always picture the girls as younger. I was always struck by the lines, “How I’ve learned to please, to doubt myself in need...” That seems to point to a loss of confidence some girls experience as they grow up (I certainly did) and hit adolescence. For me it was a woman reflecting on her past and remembering her friendship with a bold, young girl and thinking about how she has learned different behaviors as she “learned to hide” and her old friend would be “surprised if shown.”

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