The Lingering Mystery of 'Wildfire'

Michael Martin Murphey's "Wildfire" was one of the biggest songs of the '70s, and remains his signature tune. Despite its popularity, Murphey says "Wildfire" remains something of a puzzle to listeners — and to him as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WILDFIRE")

LYNN NEARY, Host:

Just those few notes are enough to let many of us know that we're about to hear one of the most popular songs of the past 25 years. This week on What's in a Song, our occasional series from the Western Folklife Center, about one song and its story. We learn how even a well-known song can continue to mystify.

MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHY: This is Michael Martin Murphy, and I'm a singer-songwriter. And the occasion of writing "Wildfire" was a dream.

(Singing) She comes down from Yellow Mountain. On the dark flat land she rides.

I was in my - about third year of college and working with another guy. Me and Larry Cansler; we wrote a lot of songs together. And on this particular night, we'd been just trying to pump out the songs just like a couple of Tin Pan Alley songwriters over a piano and the guitar and cigarettes and coffee.

I went to bed and Larry was tired. He went up to bed, and I had a dream, and I dreamed the lyrics. I woke up and I had it in my head.

(Singing) Oh, they say she died one winter when there came a chilling frost. And the pony she named Wildfire busted down its stall.

It was literally just something came right out of my subconscious - mystical inspiration, whatever you want to call it, but I can't say that I did anything mechanical.

(Singing) She ran calling Wildfire. She ran calling Wildfire.

It's impossible to ultimately really ever understand your dream, I think, and if you make a song and do(ph) it, you spend the rest of your life interpreting the dream. And it's taken me, from then until now, to even half understand what the song is.

(Singing) By the dark of the moon I planted. But there came an early snow.

But the song is very much about escaping hard times. And people have defined it for me, like, whatever their escape dream was. They'd come up and said, yeah, I went to ride on that magic horse and fly away, too.

(Singing) She's comin' for me, I know. And on Wildfire we're both gonna go. We'll be riding Wildfire...

I wasn't raised a cowboy in the traditional sense of, you know, on a ranch, on a farm all the time. For me, it was a fantasy to get away from the city. And, you know, I'm the luckiest man in the world because I got to do that in my life. I ended up getting to sing cowboy songs, living in a cabin in the high country for many, many years. And as I look back, I've realized "Wildfire" led me down a lot of paths that I was able to realize my dream of riding that magic horse the way I did ride a magic horse. It was a song, and it was a dream.

(Singing) Riding Wildfire...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: What's in a Song is produced by Hal Cannon and Taki Telonidis of the Western Folklife Center. This is NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

Unidentified Man: Our feature, What's in a Song, is produced with support from the George S. and Dolores "Dory" Eccles Foundation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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