Michael Martin Murphey – Wildfire

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Mystery and longing, aching and passion. Michael Martin Murphey’s Wildfire is a story about a woman who lost her pony called Wildfire, but it is easy to hear the song also as an allegory of love that was either lost or has never been. The melancholy piano and the lilting guitars also contribute to the feeling of indeterminate longing.

It is not exactly clear what is lost, what Wildfire signifies, but it is important. The night is empty, the call of the hoot owl sounds meaningful as the farmer is still working when the moon comes out. Life is hard as the narrator is sodbusting (breaking the sod to make fields), and thinking of a way out. Not necessarily a physical change, but getting “these hard times right on out of our minds riding Wildfire”.

I think of the pony itself as a symbol of love. The woman comes at night with a whirlwind by her side, she’s been even presumed dead because she went out into the blizzard looking for the pony, calling for it, yearning, risking her life. For Wildfire was more important than her safety. It is her companion, her meaning.

And the narrator understands. He is waiting, hoping that the woman comes for him too, and they’ll both be riding Wildfire. The image of just waiting in solitude for the woman and Wildfire is touching. One could argue that the narrator is being too passive, just longing for happiness amid his toil. But where could he go? He does not even know whether the woman is real anymore. Maybe she is dead, just a ghost from the mountains. But he must believe. Love is real, and one day Wildfire will be here.

Murphey has himself stated that he doesn’t know what the song is about, and he’s heard many interpretations. That is what makes sparse storytelling fascinating; it leaves room for the audience to insert their own meanings into it.

The song came to him in a dream, and it reminds him of a ghost story he heard as a kid. In that story the horse is a symbol of Jesus carrying people through hard times. While that interpretation could somehow fit also the song, it would make the lyrics even more mysterious. If it was a religious allegory, who would the woman be? It is her, after all, who’s the focus of the narrator, though Wildfire is also essential to the story. Nevertheless, even taken like this, the song is about love, albeit a different kind.

The song was actually finished with the co-writer Larry Cansler, which may explain the discrepancy. If the third verse was removed, it wouldn’t be a love song at all, but more in line with what Murphey is saying. So I think it’s possible that the verse that actually explains the narrator’s position was added only after the second songwriter came onboard. Still, the way the story is told now, I consider it to be a love song, if only for a woman the narrator doesn’t even know to be real.