“Oklahoma USA” & “Come Dancing” / The Kinks
Here’s another pair of songs I always link together, two more servings of Ray Davies nostalgia. The Davies brothers had six older sisters (!), and Ray was clearly thinking of them when he wrote both songs – and thinking of them with such fondness, the songs couldn’t help but come out lovely.
1971’s Muswell Hillbillies is full of references to the Davies family – the granny in “Have a Cuppa Tea”, the uncle in “Uncle Son” -- but the most tender track on the LP is “Oklahoma USA,” about a girl who, like Ray’s sisters, finds escape from drab postwar England in American movies. “She lives in a house that's near decay, / Built for the industrial revolution, / But in her dreams she is far away, / In Oklahoma U.S.A. / With Shirley Jones and Gordon McRea.” It’s a delicate, winding bluegrass-style melody (Muswell Hillbillies frequently drifts into country idioms), which Ray sings over a rambling piano, with an occasional touch of acoustic guitar and a quaint wheezy harmonium.
This song knocks me out, because in a weird reversal it is my life – except that the dream that kept me going was all about drab postwar London. But it doesn’t really matter which direction that cultural exchange flowed for you -- her fragile dreaminess, her longing for escape, speak vividly, and it’s classic Ray Davies. The refrain of this song – its moral, really – is one of the most poignant things he’s ever written: “All life we work but work is a bore / If life's for livin', then what's livin' for?” I ask myself that question EVERY DAY.
Twelve years later, on State of Confusion, Ray returned to these memories with “Come Dancing.” He’s in Village Green mode again, lamenting the loss of old England -- “They put a parking lot on a piece of land / When the supermarket used to stand / Before that they put up a bowling alley / On the site that used to be the local palais.” Like an archaeologist, he reconstructs an entire era from that one artifact: “That's where the big bands used to come and play./ My sister went there on a Saturday / Come dancing, / All her boyfriends used to come and call. / Why not come dancing, it's only natural?” It’s perky but deliberately retro, with a swing beat and synthesizers faking big-band horns; you’re caught up in the giddy joy of those long-ago dance nights.
The second verse sketches an elaborate courtship ritual, with her dates waiting in the hallway (can’t you just imagine little Ray at the top of the stairs, watching?). The scene’s loaded with desire and repression: “He'd end up blowing all his wages for the week / All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek.” In the bridge, Ray becomes an outright voyeur: “Out of my window I can see them in the moonlight, two silhouettes saying goodnight by the garden gate.” I can almost hear the heavy breathing.
Flash forward to the present: “My sister's married and she lives on an estate. / Her daughters go out, now it's her turn to wait. / She knows they get away with things she never could, / But if I asked her I wonder if she would, / Come dancing, / Come on sister, have yourself a ball.” We can still see the ghost of the girl that once was inside that suburban matron. (Which makes it a natural bridge to its companion piece on this album, “Don’t Forget To Dance.”)
The sister in “Oklahoma USA” is a lost dreamer; the “Come Dancing” sister is more of a party girl – but both of them find themselves in music. As Ray did – and as we do too, thanks to the Kinks.