Choice Cuts: Kathy Mattea, “Beautiful Fool”

A repost from last year, in honor of Dr. King.

Beautiful Fool
Kathy Mattea
from the 1997 album Love Travels

Our antiseptic approach to the legends of American history often results in the life’s work of  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being reduced to four words and a three-day weekend. To prevent this in my own mind, I often revisit “Beautiful Fool”, a Don Henry composition that can be found on Kathy Mattea’s 1997 album Love Travels.

What I love about this song is its realism and its willingness to take on two voices of perspective at the same time. As an older woman reflects on King’s impact on her country and the sacrifices he was willing to make, she remembers her far less charitable opinion of him when he was alive: “Walter Cronkite preempted Disney one night, and all us kids were so upset. We thought you were a trouble instigator marching through our TV set.”


I particularly appreciate the line in the bridge that connects him to other peacemakers. Peacemaking is often confused with passiveness, when it actually requires far more work than reflexive response with violence. “Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ. History repeats itself so nice. Consistently we are resistant.”  King modeled his use of nonviolent resistance after Gandhi’s success in India and used the Gospel to make the case to the fence-sitters, a powerful approach given that the same Bible was being used by his opposition to make the case for continued segregation and denial of human rights.

The description of him as a “beautiful fool”  captures both the cynicism that was directed at him for attempting to “fight a fight without a fist” and the deep admiration  for him trying,  even if it was arguably in vain.  I suspect that it requires a good dose of hopeless naïveté to change the world, especially when surrounded by cynics who tell you that it’s a waste of time to try. There will always be more of the cynics. After all, cynicism is little more than naïveté without the concern for humanity and willingness to put in any effort for a cause other than your own.

The song is open to wide interpretation, but I feel that the final verse captures when the narrator moves from being a cynical observer of King to one who sees him appreciatively as a beautiful fool: “I saw you on the black and white with blacks and whites applauding you. I saw you on another time without a sign of life in you.”


  1. Beautiful write-up, and I’m glad you’re spotlighting this song. I picked up this album several months back and this was my favorite track, though there are lots of highlights.

  2. It’s a great album. My personal favorite is “Further and Further Away”, which has grown more painful to listen to over the years but still remains in my personal rotation. I have to be in the right frame of mind and appropriate place to listen to it, but wow, is it good.

  3. There will always be more of the cynics. After all, cynicism is little more than naïveté without the concern for humanity and willingness to put in any effort for a cause other than your own.

    Beautiful, Kevin.

  4. Great song and great review. I have 5 songs from “Love Travels” on my i-tunes and somehow I overlooked “Beautiful Fool” so I just added it and played it a few times. Saw Kathy Mattea last week and she sounded great. She sang 1 song from “Love Travels” – “455 Rocket”.

  5. Bob,
    What did you think of her show? We saw her last summer and she was delightful. That’s the only word I can think of to describe her.

  6. Leeann, The show my wife and I saw last week was at the Bluebird and included Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner and Suzy Bogguss with her husband Doug Crider. They each sang 6 songs. Kathy is very funny and friendly in addition to being a great singer. The show began about 9:15 and ended at midnight. We’ve seen her twice before at the Bluebird and back in the late 90’s we saw her at the Westbury Music Fair on LI with Kim Richey.

  7. Yes, Kathy is someone that I’d see over and over again if I could. The show that we attended was one that allowed for a lot of energy. I’m thinking that the Bluebird is a more quiet situation?

  8. It’s often referred to as a “listening room” so it is more quiet. Patrons are encouraged to refrain from conversation during the performances. They have these hand held “Shhh!” panels, although I’ve never seen them used. I have found it to be the most enjoyable music venue I’ve ever attended. You can hear every word of the lyrics. There are no screaming fans or people standing up in front of you. My next birthday will be the one celebrated in song by the Beatles so standing for any length of time is not an option.

    This is not to say that the Bluebird can’t rock. It’s just done at a lower decibel level. Most shows are in the round with the performers playing a guitar or keyboard. They have a small stage area that is used sometimes. We saw a show in December that included a drummer. It was billed as “Mediburpho” – short for songwriters Vince Melamed, Bob DiPiero, Gary Burr and Jim Photoglo”. These guys do rock.

  9. And yet what MLK truly stood for and his message are tossed aside in favor of the interpretation and agenda of others. MLK was a great man and what he believed in was beautiful. It’s a crime what people do, say, and insist on in his name. No doubt he has been SPINNING in his grave. God rest his soul.

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