When Can Brown Begin
Favorite version: Jimmy Webb, Letters, 1972
(excerpt from Jimmy & Me album notes):
If after the first six songs you’re still unsure whether Jimmy is a dreamer or not, this one should do the trick. This song is about so much more than racism—don’t stop until you’ve plumbed its depths. It’s about how we live such tiny little circumscribed lives, when we were really meant to live so expansively. It’s a prayer to the Lord, and a prayer to the people, that we could somehow, finally, start seeing the beauty around us in all its multifaceted glory, without trying to cram it into some preconceived spectrum of acceptable colors.
Bill Bryson, in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything*, points out how, even though we sometimes think we’re stretching our minds to think about four dimensions, particle physicists have posited the existence of something like 26 (and counting). That knowledge can either scare the daylights out of you, or make you sit back in wonder. Although I’m familiar with the former, I much prefer the latter response. What a wondrous God we have! To think we could limit God’s truth to two paltry dimensions on a page is ludicrous.
Ever since Hannah Hurnard opened my eyes to it, I like to think of truth as three dimensional, like a mountain range, with us as pilgrims on a journey. What looks like the truth to me today is partly due to where I am on my path. I tell you the truth looks like a snow-covered mountain peak, but you, ahead or behind by a day or more, may see something totally different. Only one truth, but a multidimensional truth, capable of being seen from more than one vantage point. Blows your mind, doesn’t it? Think I’m stretching things too far? Let me ask you then: If God indeed created 26 (or more) dimensions, does God’s truth only cover two of them—just black and white? Don’t think so. If God’s truth is living, it is at the very least multidimensional. And it is more than just living: it is Personal.
I think this line from the second verse is my all-time favorite lyric: “Fire and water won’t be mixin’, so they say, but I’ve seen the steam clouds…” There’s a whole world full of meaning in that line. Jimmy’s seeing like a rebel here again, but one that has a cause. This one wants to make us see beyond the box, beyond black and white, beyond proverbs and maxims and dictums and clichés. With a line like that, it’s no wonder Jimmy’s music speaks to me. For a kid who grew up climbing willow trees, dreaming and praying for a different sort of world, a world where there was room for all sorts of people and all sorts of love, this song was a solace—and a confirmation. My prayer for my version is that it will also be a challenge—for something the world still needs a lot more of.
Remember the triplets in the strings earlier? Here they come again, in another gorgeous string line quoted from the original arrangement. It’s so haunting, I think, the way it just draws you further and further along the enchanting, meandering chord progression—my favorite of any pop song.