Let’s Sing a Song of 20/20… in 2020


Gene Autry Columbia label
Image via 45cat.com/Columbia Records/Sony Music

Welcome to 2020, The Year of Vision. We’re only four days in, and already countless companies and organizations, both optical and non-optical, have used the happy coincidence between the calendar year and 20/20, the standard measure of visual acuity in the U.S., as a messaging platform. (It doesn’t translate in metric countries, though, where visual acuity is measured as 6/6). Seeing clearly is clearly a priority for everyone, everywhere. Yet there’s another dimension to 20/20 vision that seems to be overlooked: the connection between visual acuity and lost love. And it’s best viewed through the lens of country music.

As historically minded country music fans know, there are at least two different songs titled “20/20 Vision,” that have been hits for different artists in different eras. The first, 20/20 Vision (And Walking Around Blind) was recorded by Gene Autry for Columbia in 1954. Known as America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy, Autry’s career spanned some 70 years in the entertainment industry.

As noted on GeneAutry.com, he became famous in radio, records, film, television, and live tour performances including rodeo. From the late 1920s through the early 1950s, Autry recorded and wrote hundreds of songs; he was the most successful singing cowboy, appearing in 93 movies and starring in 91 television productions.

Autry’s version of 20/20 Vision was the B-side of a single, the A-side of which was “You’re the Only Good Thing.” Written by Joe Allison and Milton Estes, both of whom went on to have varied and distinguished careers in country music. Here are their lyrics:

I been to the doctor he says I’m all right
I know he’s lying, I’m losing my sight
He should have examined the eyes of my mind
20/20 vision and walkin’ ’round blind

Since she’s gone and left me I feel so alone
I carry a heart that is heavy as stone
I knew that she cheated, I knew all the time
20/20 vision and walkin’ ’round blind

With my eyes wide open I lay in my bed
If it wasn’t for dying, I wish I was dead
But this is my punishment, death is too kind
20/20 vision and walkin’ ’round blind

You just couldn’t know her the way that I do
You say that she’s wicked and maybe it’s true
But one thing I do know, she’s no longer mine
20/20 vision and walkin’ ’round blind

I’ve lost her, I’ve lost her, oh what will I do
I bet you’re not happy if she’s there with you
The eyes of your heart will have trouble like mine
20/20 vision and walkin’ ’round blind
20/20 vision and walkin’ ’round blind

Although it was a B-side, Autry’s recording became popular and attracted the attention of rising bluegrass star Jimmy Martin, who cut a version later that year that became a hit, which he continued to perform throughout his long career. Other artists went on to cover the song, notably Bob Dylan, who has performed the song in concert.

Jimmy Martin
Image via Discogs/Decca Records/Universal Music Group
Gene Autry
Image via www.geneautry.com
Ronnie Milsap
Image via RCA Victor/Sony Music

Chris Thile and Michael Daves
Image via Paste magazine,
via Youtube
My favorite cover is by mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and guitarist Michael Daves, who cut a spine tingling version for Paste magazine in 2011 that manages to sound old and new at the same time.

That brings us to an entirely different song, “20-20 Vision,” which became a hit for country crossover star Ronnie Milsap. Ironically, Milsap is blind, which adds another layer of meaning to the lyrics.

The lead-off track from his 1976 album of the same name, 20-20 Vision was written by Geoffrey Morgan, who penned a number of hits for other country artists. Like Allison and Estes, Morgan also leverages the visual acuity metaphor (although he swaps the slash between the 20s for a hyphen.) But instead of being completely blinded by love and unable to “see” his lover’s infidelity, he realizes in hindsight how he lost her.

My life was right in front of me but now she's gone
Now it's easy to see I was the one who was wrong
How could I be that close and yet so far off the track
Well I've got 20-20 vision but only looking back
Yes it's clear to me now but I should've seen it all along
Why was I so blind to what I had at home

When a woman's not satisfied it don't take her long to pack
Well I've got 20-20 vision but only looking back
Lord it hurts to see it all when there's nothing I can do
Loving her now that it's too late makes me just a fool
If I open my eyes in time the future would look so black
I've got 20-20 vision but only looking back
I've got 20-20 vision but only looking back

As we revel in our 20/20-ness this year, let’s give a nod to country music, an American art form that gives new meaning to visual acuity by placing it in the context of lost love. As singer Johnny Nash put it, “I Can See Clearly Now.” But that’s another story.