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Cool Water

(Bob Nolan)

 

All day Iíve faced a barren waste

Without the taste of water, cool water.

Old Dan and I with throats burnt dry

And souls that cry for water,

Cool, clear water.

 

Refrain

Keep a-moviní, Dan, donít you listen to him, Dan,

Heís a devil not a man

And he spreads the burning sand with water,

Cool water.

Dan, can you see that big green tree

Where the waterís running free

And itís waiting there for me

And you?

 

The nights are cool and Iím a fool,

Each starís a pool of water, cool water.

But with the dawn Iíll wake and yawn

And carry on to water,

Cool, clear water.

 

The shadows sway and seem to say,

ďTonight we pray for water,

Cool water.Ē

And Ďway up there Heíll hear our prayír

And show us where thereís water,

Cool, clear water.

 

Danís feet are sore, heís yearning for

Just one thing more than water,

Cool water.

Like me, I guess, heíd like to rest

Where thereís no quest for water,

Cool, clear water.

 

        Fascinated by the desert from the time he was thirteen years old, Bob Nolan grew up hearing stories of people lost in the blistering heat of summer, dying because they had neglected to take enough water with them. Prospectors and their burros were not an unusual sight in those early 1920 days in Arizona when he was a youngster. Bob's ability to mentally place himself in another's experience demonstrated itself early; he was only sixteen when he wrote this poem. According to his brother, Earl, Bob wrote "Cool Water" as a poem in Tucson High School. Although "Cool Water" was the title, the poem was not about water, Bob said, but about lack of water - about a mirage and a raging thirst.

        Toward the end of 1936, Bob set the poem to music for a third collection of Sons of the Pioneers songs (Songs of the Prairie Folio No. 3 published by Cross & Winge in 1937). Since then, it has appeared in many movies, the latest being the Johnny Depp animated film, "Rango" using an old Hank Williams recording.

 


 

        "What was 'Dan'?" A burro? A horse? A friend? This question has been endlessly debated but in  a July 16, 1943, 10-2-4 Ranch radio program, Dick Foran describes "Dan" as an old prospector's burro and then sings the song with Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers. Bob himself, in Teleways Transcription #71, clearly stated that "Dan" was a burro. So now you have it from the horse's mouth!

 


 

        The lyrics continue to be given deep philosophical meanings of which the young Bob was unaware when he wrote it. He was simply imagining what it would be like to be dying of thirst:

 

ďI was strictly trying to paint a picture of the desert and I missed miserably because I picked up the wrong thing to write about - a mirage. You canít use the word mirage in a song. It just donít sing and you canít rhyme it. So I just left it out and I wrote in allegory and everything was nebulous but after I was through you couldnít help but know that I was talking about a mirage."  (April 28, 1976 interview by Betty Cox Larimer, the publisher of Music City News and Lee Rector, editor.)

 

        Because of the simple magic of his writing, Bob's song takes on a personal meaning to every listener. For example, in his thesis, Western Mystic: Bob Nolan and His Songs, Professor Kenneth J. Bindas spends 2 pages on the meaning of the lyrics. (The Bindas treatise was published in The Western Historical Quarterly, October, 1986.)

        In later years, to his friend Dick Goodman, Bob wryly confessed his irritation with publishers and singers who tampered with his chorus. He said, ďThe lyrics go:

 

"Dan, can you see that big green tree
"Where the waterís running free and itís waiting there for me
"And you."

 

ďAnd you is just a little addition," said Bob. "Itís not supposed to rhyme with anything. The publisher took it upon himself to change it from me and you to you and me. Unfortunately, before we could pull the sheet music off the market, a lot of it had been sold and as the years went by people like Rex Allen and Marty Robbins and a few others recorded it with the lyrics reversed. And as the royalties came rolling in, I became more tolerantÖ.Ē

 

        Among many awards for "Cool Water", Bob Nolan received a special citation of achievement from BMI for over one million broadcast performances. A 1951 national survey voted "Cool Water" the best-known song of the American West and it won the Grammy Award in 1986. As late as 2005, the song was still receiving awards, this time by the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. The song is still being recorded today because of its universal appeal to the senses. The lyrics are timeless.

 

A few Sample Recordings:

1936 01 Standard Radio Transcriptions (Leonard Slye vocal)
1941 03 27 Decca (Bob Nolan vocal)
1945 08 08 RCA (Bob Nolan vocal)

1951-53 Lucky U

1951-53 Lucky U
1953 07 03 RCA (Bob Nolan vocal)
1959 06 16 RCA (Tommy Doss vocal)

Ken Curtis

Ken Carson
1976 Bob, Marty Robbins and Lloyd Perryman (informal jam)

1978 01 Elektra - Bob's last recording (Bob Nolan vocal)

2011 Rango soundtrack
A sample of Bob's introduction to the song in Teleways radio transcription #40.

 

"Cool Water" recorded by dozens of recording artists.

Chords courtesy of Carlos Fiorelli

TRANSCRIPTIONS that used "Cool Water"

 

Songs of the Prairie Folio No. 3 published by Cross & Winge in 1937

 

 

Western Mystic: Bob Nolan and His Songs, Professor Kenneth J. Bindas, The Western Historical Quarterly, October, 1986

 

 

Chords courtesy of Carlos Fiorelli

 

TRANSCRIPTIONS

Standard Radio Transcriptions #3394, 1936 01

Orthacoustic "Symphonies of the Sage" (059427)

NBC Thesaurus 1898 Side B MS-059426-L (same as Orthacoustic #2 Side A)

10-2-4 Ranch: 1945 03 28 (#500)

    #173 10-2-4 Ranch Show Date: 02/24/43 (04)
    10-2-4 Ranch Show Date: 07/16/43 (04)
    10-2-4 Time Show Date: 01/24/45 (03) chosen for the Congressional Library
    #500 10-2-4 Time Show Date: 03/28/45 (64002-05)

Teleways Transcriptions: #Audition1- 11 Ė 40 -71-111-152-185-211-234

Lucky U Programs courtesy of Larry Hopper:

    Audition Disc No. 1 and No. 2.
    13 November 1951. Transcription Disc TR-87, 88
    14 December 1951. Special Bob Nolan Program. Transcription Disc TR-145
    7 February 1952. Transcription Disc TR-230, 231
    2 April 1952. Transcription Disc TR-308, 309
    8 May 1952. Transcription Disc TR-359, 360
    10 June 1952. Transcription Disc TR-405, 406
    27 June 1952. Transcription Disc TR-431, 432
    29 July 1952. Transcription Disc TR-453, 454
    1 September 1952. Transcription Disc TR-499, 500
    9 October 1952. Transcription Disc TR-511, 512
    25 November 1952. Transcription Disc TR-577, 578
    9 February 1953. Transcription Disc TR-684, 685
    20 April 1953. Lucky U Transcription Disc TR-786, 787
    25 May 1953. Lucky U Transcription Disc TR-836, 837

Smokey the Bear 1955 Show No. 3