I'll Take a Melody Down the River

by Cleo Hehn

The concert performed by Jerry Garcia Band at Merriweather Post Pavilion in September 1989 may be one of their greatest live performances of all time. A seamless blend of rock, reggae, R&B and gospel, the show spanned two days and covered songs like Allen Tousaint’s “I’ll Take a Melody.” These are the moments, and the songs, that inspire us at McMenamins – and they inspired much of the Cove at Kalama Harbor Lodge.

From artist Cleo Hehn:
This diptych illustrates a dream to the soundtrack of “I’ll Take a Melody” by Allen Toussaint. Since the narrator of the song is “a dreamer,” I decided my paintings would portray the dream version of these lyrics. I tried to capture the spirit of using music as a tool to brighten one’s spirits.

The paintings feature musicians who have performed different versions of this song, including Frankie Miller, the Jerry Garcia Band (JGB), The Hues Corporation, and Toussaint himself. All these artists sing happily, dancing as they are carried by the ripples of a psychedelic river toward an oversized golden skull. The sun in the lower left-hand corner of the first (left) panel is screaming, “Hey, you,” while rain pours upward. In the upper right-hand corner, the sky’s eyes close as a third eye opens, its dream-world insights revealing the reflection of a Star.

A headboard and mattress from the Kalama Harbor Lodge float down this wide bend in the river, carrying organist Melvin Seals (of JGB) as he joyfully plays a miniature Hammond B3 organ. The rest of the musicians (Frankie Miller, JGB singers Jacklyn LaBranch and Gloria Jones, and Jerry Garcia) wade in the water, not letting anything stop the music.

In the right-hand panel, the Hues Corporation (St. Clair Lee, Karl Russell, and H. Ann Kelley) dance to the music as Allen Toussaint plays a drifting keyboard. Behind them, the “old fisherman” sails alone in his butterfly boat, a nod to the early 20th century Columbia River fishing vessels. I used a portrait of late Kalama resident Basil LeRoy as the fisherman. The river winds its way into the left eye of a golden skull, who wears a summery flower crown reminiscent of skeletons found in Grateful Dead imagery.

I interpret the line about the fisherman, “Someday he’ll be gone,” as being about Death, and as the river flows into the skull, it spills out the mouth as a radiant spiral culminating in a shining Star. Yes, this suits the lines about “shining on,” yet it is also about seeing Death as transformation. As the narrator transforms their sorrows into song, Death is digested into the Star, a symbol of hope found in the Tarot's Major Arcana. The skull’s flower crown, as well as the screaming sun and the sleeping moon, remind us of the cycles of the universe, how every ending is also a beginning.

I’ll Take a Melody

Lyrics and music by Allen Toussaint
Lyrics as performed by Jerry Garcia Band live at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Sept. 1989: 
I've seen the rain pouring down
The sky was gray with a speck of blue
Peek through a hole in the clouds
The sun was screaming, "Hey You!"
As you ramble through your sorrow
Seems like everything come out wrong
I'm living in yesterday's tomorrow
I know something's helping me along
I'll take a melody and see what I can do about it
I'll take a simple C and G and feel brand new about it
I understand why the old fisherman
Sail alone, sail alone, sail alone
Someday he'll be gone
I hear you talking about your troubles
Everybody's got their troubles, too
You can make them burst like bubbles
If you know just what to do
You know I've been called a dreamer
Dreams that will never come true
But I've been called so many things before
Tell you what I'm gonna do
I'll take a melody and see what I can do about it
I'll take a simple C and G and feel brand new about it
Shine on, keep on shining, shine on
Keep on shining, shine on, keep on shining