“Do They Still Play the Blues in Chicago?”: Will This World Series Victory Change the Music of the Cubs?Music Features Steve Goodman
As any fan can tell you, baseball has its own music: the thwap of the ball hitting leather, the indistinct guttural noise we’ve all come to accept translates to a called strike three, the way that crack of the bat—one of the most beautiful, satisfying sounds in the world—sounds different when a ball’s headed out of the park and you can hear it’s a home run before you see it.
But beyond the music of baseball, there’s the music about baseball, perhaps moreso than any other sport. No other sport so accurately reflects life itself—no time limit, endless possibility, full of moments both spectacular and mundane—and as such, it consistently inspires great art. There’s a reason the most famous poem about baseball features the mighty Casey choking in the clutch and leaving Mudville joyless.
It’s the same reason so many of those songs are about the Chicago Cubs.
We can sit here and talk forever about curses and goats and 1908 and how prior to this year, the last time the Cubs won the pennant, Hitler had only been dead for a few months—but unless you’re a Cubs fan, you can’t really know what it’s like. The best way I can describe it is it’s like you’re Prometheus, chained to a rock for eternity, doomed to have your liver pecked out by an eagle every morning only to regenerate in time for tomorrow’s pecking, except instead of getting desensitized to it or resigned to your fate, you go to bed every night thinking, “Wait till tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the day that eagle stops coming to peck out my liver. I just know it.”
But that eagle keeps coming, and each time it does, you’re heartbroken. You’re not surprised—you’re not a fool—but you’re upset because deep in your gut, which is now being pecked apart by a bird of prey for the umpteenth time, you thought today would finally be the day that this monster stopped coming to shred your insides.
And then, one day, a bonafide miracle happens. Hercules shows up, kills the eagle and gets you off that miserable rock.
The Chicago Cubs overcome a 3-1 deficit to win their first World Series since 1908. In Game 7. In extra innings.
It’s easy to see why Cubs fandom gets romanticized in music; it’s got the same basic concept as thousands of love songs—you love someone or something deeply, they keep hurting you, but you can’t bring yourself to quit them.
Of course, there are cheerful Cubs songs too, fight songs like Hey Hey, Holy Mackerel or the Beach Boys’ 1987 Here Come the Cubs which is little more than a reworked version of “Barbara Ann” (featuring new lyrics like “Cubs Cubs Cubs, here come the Cubs” and “wind’s blowing out, wind’s blowing in, whichever way it’s blowing, the Cubs are gonna win”). And even if you’re not a Cubs fan, you’ve surely heard Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go” more than a handful of times this postseason, but it hasn’t always been the Cubs’ victory song.
It started as the theme for the Cubs’ radio broadcasts (hence the “you can catch it all on WGN” line, which, incidentally, is no longer totally accurate), and the tradition of playing it at Wrigley Field after every Cubs win is a fairly recent one, dating back to 2007. The Cubs won their division that year, and “Go Cubs Go” became a fixture, the team’s official victory song, a new ritual for a fanbase that lives and dies by rituals. You don’t mess with a winning formula.
Of course, “Go Cubs Go” isn’t the only song about the Cubs Goodman, a Chicago native and a diehard fan, wrote. There’s the goofy When the Cubs Go Marching In, a tongue-in-cheek version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that includes lines like “here’s to old Dave Kingman, his batting average is a joke, but lately he has seemed to find his batting stroke” and even references the staph infection in Bill Buckner’s ankle that moved him to first base with “here is to Bill Buckner, who is playing with a lot of heart, a lot of guys with two legs are not able to start.”
And then there’s “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” one of the best songs ever written—not just by Goodman or about the Cubs or baseball—period.
Recorded in 1981, three years before the leukemia Goodman battled for 16 (16!) years finally killed him, it’s everything one could possibly want a song about the Cubs to be—devastating, self-deprecating, nostalgic, full of that Midwestern wryness that you need to make it through harsh winters and decades of losing seasons.
It’s easy to see why they don’t play it at Wrigley (referring to the Cubs as “the doormat of the National League” and asking “do they still play the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolls around/when the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play in their ivy-covered burial ground?” doesn’t exactly get a crowd hyped), but “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” is a strong piece of evidence should one choose to argue that the depressing songs about the Cubs are the best songs about the Cubs.
But does that change now that the impossible has happened?
Will songwriters still be able to use a Cubs World Series victory as a shorthand for pipe dreams, like in The Mountain Goats’ Cubs in Five? Will we still be able to hear the weariness in Eddie Vedder’s choruses of “someday we’ll go all the way” as he sings of “not fair-weather but foul-weather fans” on a song that would fit right in at an Irish wake? Will lines like “have Keith Moreland drop a routine fly, give everyone two bags of peanuts and a frosty malt, and I’ll be ready to die” still make us laugh and punch us in the gut at the same time?
I don’t know for certain, but that’s only because the Cubs just won the World Series last night and I can’t be sure of anything right now. (Is this a dream? Am I dead? They did win the World Series, right? You guys saw it too?) But if I had to guess, I’d say all signs point to yes.
Cubs fans don’t forget. They weep and toast dead friends and relatives who got their livers pecked for a lifetime and never made it off that rock. They pour one out for departed legends like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and Harry Caray. (The latter’s been dead for nearly 20 years—there are now adult Cub fans who never shared time on earth with him— but they still pay tribute to him every home game by singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch.) They can tell you exactly where they were when that black cat got on the field in 1969 or when Brant Brown dropped that fly ball in 1998 or when Steve Bartman became a pariah in 2003 (even if the answer is “not born yet”—the lore is a part of them, passed down from generation to generation).
Just as they teach their kids to throw back opponents’ home run balls, they’ll teach them about the sad songs and the century of woe. They’ll make sure they know to never take a Cubs victory for granted, to always be ready for the bottom to drop out but remain hopeful that it won’t.
But, for today, they’re singing “Go Cubs Go.”