The Ballad of a Would-Be, Too-Big-to-Fail Banker

BY Paul Solman  October 19, 2011 at 12:40 PM EDT


Our favorite country-western money manager, Harvard-trained Nashville econo-crooner Merle Hazard, has collaborated with brilliant lyricist Marcy Shaffer to produce his slickest video to date: the tuneful tale of a would-be banker who travels to Charlotte, N.C., to meet up with a mogul of modern-day finance, “Diamond Jim.”

Above is the video, “The Ballad of Diamond Jim,” uninterrupted (the song’s lyrics are at the end of this post), followed below by the “annotated version,” in which noted bank skeptic and MIT economist Simon Johnson, late of the IMF, explains the story behind the story of Diamond Jim, and the politics and economics behind his – spoiler alert! – triumphant exit from the song.

Hazard adds:

One of the inspirations for the sound of this song was Dimitri Tiomkin. His most famous composition is the theme to Rawhide. Tiomkin also wrote the scores for many of the great Hollywood westerns, including High Noon, Gunfight at the OK Corral and Giant. He is known as the great composer for the Hollywood westerns, in other words.

What makes it really interesting is that he wasn’t American by birth. He was Russian, of Jewish descent, and educated at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Even more interesting, while in Russia, he helped stage Communist festivals. So when you hear those cowboy choruses of men singing, and they sound like a Russian military chorus, it’s not accidental. That’s what they really are, apparently, in Tiomkin’s mind.

And to cap it off, his Academy Award acceptance speech in 1955 is absolutely priceless. Instead of thanking his agent and his family, he thanks Brahms, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov, Gershwin, etc., and gets guffaws from the audience.

‘The Ballad of Diamond Jim’ Lyrics
by Merle Hazard, Marcy Shaffer and Curtis Threadneedle

I was visiting Charlotte, a town I knew well.
The sunset was scarlet. I fell under its spell.
At the hotel bar, in the back of the place,
I saw a strangely familiar face:
Diamond Jim.

I knew Diamond Jim from accounts in the press.
He ran a New York bank with skill and finesse.
They say he had brains, but lacked a heart.
J.P. Morgan himself was only half as smart
As Diamond Jim.

Chorus:
Diamond Jim,
Diamond Jim.
Oh, oh, Diamond Jim.

Diamond Jim raised a toast, in a bankerly way,
To his massively outsized Wall Street pay.
“Our game is diseconomy of scale.
The key is to be too big to fail,”
Said Diamond Jim.

He mocked risk control, called it a sham.
He said there’s no need when you have Uncle Sam.
I thought back to my days at the F.D.I.C.,
And I knew I’d need to confront this S.O.B.,
Diamond Jim.

So I said, “Diamond Jim, there’s a problem to prevent.
Banks aren’t safe with capital of just a few percent.
They need more like thirty percent, or higher.
That’s what Simon Johnson has said they require,
Diamond Jim.”

Chorus

Diamond Jim, “Son, do you know who I am?”
I said, “You’re Diamond Jim. And you know what’s a scam?
The crime’s not what’s criminal. The crime is what’s legal.
You’d be buyin’ fewer diamonds if we still had Glass-Steagall,
Diamond Jim.”

“Low blow!” he cried. “You’re naive, and a fool.
You have thrown down the gauntlet. OK, let’s duel!
There are weapons to use in these banking law cases.
Securities lawyers at thirty paces!”
Said Diamond Jim.

So at noon the next day, hired guns at our side,
We met, and let our corporate lawyers collide.
They fired their mouths off, a few times at least.
My counsel fell down, desisted, deceased,
Because of Diamond Jim.

Chorus

“You lose,” Diamond Jim said. “You could never win it.”
With a scoff, he rode off, in a New York minute.
Well, at least I had tried. Yet, still, my heart sank.

I started to wonder: am I really a better man than Diamond Jim? Maybe not.
Because I had come to Charlotte to meet with investors, and to try to start up what
I hoped, deep down, would some day be my very own, high-paying, too-big-to-fail bank.

Oh, curse you, Diamond Jim!

Chorus

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. Follow Paul on Twitter.