The Holmes Brothers‘ “If I Had a Boat” has been stuck in my head for about a week now. It’s fantastic. It’s one of those songs I could listen to on repeat and not get sick of it. I’m writing about it for a few reasons. First, I just want to share. It’ll make your life better if you take a few minutes out of your day to listen. Second, cover songs are an art unto themselves, and this is a perfect example. Third, it’s got me thinking about depth.
The song was written by, and originally performed by, Lyle Lovett in 1987. (Here it is for reference.) The Lyle Lovett version is fine. It’s probably better than fine. It’s even good. But it’s very much of its time and place. It’s a country song from the 80s. The Holmes Brothers reinvent it while being faithful, which is a hard trick to pull off. The main changes are adding a swampy-zydeco type rhythm and vocal harmonies. The combination of these two elements make the song timeless. If this were the first version I’d heard, I would have thought this was an old folk song and wondered how it was neglected for so long. I would have guessed the Roy Rogers and Lone Ranger verses were more recent additions to a song that’s been around forever. It’s truly brilliant.
As for depth, the Holmes Brothers give it a depth that the original just doesn’t have. The lyrics walk that line between whimsy and nonsense. “If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean. If I had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat.” There’s something childlike and imaginative about it. When the harmonies are added, though, it’s like we’ve gone to church. Even though I can’t place it, I feel like there’s real wisdom in those words. They feel profound. That’s the power of music.
The Holmes Brothers were never famous enough. They are one of my all-time favorite bands. And they do covers better than any other band I can think of. I don’t know why this song popped in my head last week, but I’m glad it did. I hope you enjoy it, too.
If I had a boat, I'd go out on the ocean. And if I had a pony, I'd ride him on my boat. We could all together go out on the ocean. Me upon my pony on my boat.