And it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn—next stop is Vietnam
—Country Joe and the Fish, “The I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”
It was a children’s song trick to help us learn our numbers, and it’s still fun. Once you start counting you have a delightful anticipation of what’s in store for you over a certain homey interval. (In principle, you could count up to 999 trillion, and starting to count is as blindly adventurous as getting on the highway to Alaska; in practice, though, you know you’ll only be going a few steps on a well-worn path.) Country Joe and the Fish gets a wicked irony bringing the comforting routine of a children’s song to the Quagmire War. XTC does something similar in “[One Two Three Four Five] Senses Working Overtime.”
Los Lobos uses the counting trick in a different, remarkable way in “Good Morning Aztlán.” The line, “I gotta say one, two, three more things before I go on” comes between the verse and the chorus, belonging to neither; I shouldn’t remember it, but it’s the main thing I remember. The verses are slice-of-life descriptions of people getting up in the morning in a working-class community set in the mythical birthplace of the Aztecs. The chorus links the inescapability of the sun coming up (“You can’t run and try to hide away . . . Here comes another day”) with the singer’s spiritual connection with home (“No matter where you are/You’re never really far”).
The one-two-three line should bridge the narrative concreteness of the verses to the general point made in the chorus, and it does accomplish this, but in an odd way, hanging us up. You’d expect a one-two-three list of things needing to be said to refer to miscellaneous factual things, like the characters and situations in the verses. So he’s telling us he’s going to sing verses of that sort—which he’s already started doing. But he says he has to do this before he goes on. Before he goes on to what? To the distilling of wisdom in the chorus? But he does go straight to the chorus (not the first time but the second and third times). Not only that but, come to think of it, counting out one, two, three prepares us more for a big point than for merely checking things off a list—partly because one-two-three makes a trinity (suggesting completeness more strongly than one-two-three-four or any longer sequence would), but even more powerfully for the musical reason that the words “one,” “two,” and “three” come on the 1 beat of three successive measures, thus very purposefully, portentously even:
………………….1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
I gotta say one…………two……..three more things be-fore I go on
In truth, it’s not the semantic fascination of figuring out how this line refers to the other contents of the song that makes it stick out. It’s that the act of counting one, two, three makes the line so invitational, so participatory. I’ve been writing that he tells us he needs to say three more things, but really I push him aside every time and raise my fingers to tell the number-charmed world that I have these things to say, springing up in the hot morning with rockabilly drive. It’s just about saying things, and being bright-lit on center stage in the pure act of saying them. That’s the home that trumps all others—not opening your eyes to the sun, not being from somewhere, but singing this song, value guaranteed, compelling as one, two, three.