IN GOOD COMPANY CROSSING STATE LINES
by Norman Warwick
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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is anovel, we were informed by The Guardian list, set in Georgia and the dubiously progressive environs of the New South. Tayari Jones’ hit novel tells the tale of newlyweds Celestial and Roy, whose relationship is shattered when Roy is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. An American Marriage has been widely heralded as a masterpiece of storytelling and a kind of sustained gaze into the past, present, and future of the country.
Of course, as soon as I read ´set In Georgia´ I was humming to myself the tune of Midnight Train To Georgia as performed by Gladys Knight And The Pips (right). So familiar is that title and the song that it is almost impossible to believe it was originally written and performed by Jim Weatherly under the title Midnight Plane to Houston, which he recorded on Jimmy Bowen‘s Amos Records.
´It was based on a conversation I had with somebody… about taking a midnight plane to Houston´, Weatherly recalls. ´I wrote it as a kind of a country song. Then we sent the song to a guy named Sonny Limbo in Atlanta and he wanted to cut it with Cissy Houston… he asked if I minded if he changed the title to Midnight Train To Georgia., and I said, ‘I don’t mind. Just don’t change the rest of the song !´
Weatherly’s publisher forwarded the song to Gladys Knight and the Pips, who followed Houston’s lead and kept the title Midnight Train to Georgia. The single debuted on the Hot 100 at number 71 and became the group’s first number-one hit on October 27, 1973, replacing Angie by the Rolling Stones. It remained in the top position for two weeks. It was replaced by Keep On Truckin (Part 1) by Eddie Kendricks. It also reached number one on the soul singles chart, the group´s fifth on that chart. The record was awarded an RIAA Gold single (for selling one million copies) on October 18, 1973. On the UK Singles Chart, it peaked at number ten on June 5, 1976.
I´m not the only person to love that song so indelibly linked with the State of Georgia but there is another song that always comes to mind, too, when I think of Georgia, and by recalling it I might not do much for whatever street cred I still have. But come on, didn´t all of us now in our sixties sing along with Me And You And A Dog Named Boo? We might even remember the lyrics about how
´I remember to this day, the bright red Georgia clay
and how it stuck to the tires after the summer rain.
Will power made that old car go.
A woman’s mind told me that so
Oh how I wish We were back on the road again.´
By placing that verse here I am reminded that ever since my primary school my preferred method of learning has been listening to music. I lived only five miles from Bury but at the time I learned that the clay in Georgia USA is bright red, long before I learned that the my home town´s puddings were black !
I was intrigued by another title on The Guardian´s list, and so read that The Giver Of Stars by Jojo Moyesis based in Depression-era rural Kentucky, where five courageous women sign on for an ambitious project: taking books and literacy to nooks and crannies of America. The British author has borrowed from actual events, and her novel brings an outsider’s perspective to American historical fiction with the amazing story of the Packhouse Librarians of Kentucky.
There are scores of songs ´about´ Kentucky, and not only because a three syllable word is often a big help in keeping a rhythm, so I considered selecting the Elvis cover of Kentucky Rain, but stuck in my mind was the nostalgia of My Old Kentucky Home.
My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night! to give it the full title is a sentimental ballad written by Stephen Foster, probably composed in 1852. It was published in January 1853 by Firth, Pond, & Co. of New York. Foster was likely inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as evidenced by the title of a sketch in Foster’s sketchbook, ´Poor Uncle Tom, Good-Night!´
Interpretations of the song vary widely. Frederick Douglass (left) wrote in his 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom that the song ´awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish´. However, the song’s inclusion in blackface minstrel shows, “Tom shows” (stagings of Stowe’s novel of varying degrees of sincerity and faithfulness to the original text), and other settings, have clouded modern day receptivity.
Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe (June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896) was an American author and abolitionist. She came from the Beecher family, a famous religious family, and became best known for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which depicts the harsh conditions experienced by enslaved African Americans. The book reached an audience of millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the United States and in Great Britain, energizing anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. Stowe wrote 30 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential both for her writings and for her public stances and debates on social issues of the day.
My Old Kentucky Home was performed by the late John Prine, just before his death. In 2019 he sang it live for the crowd at the annual Kentucky Derby, on of the most prestigious horse races in the world and subsequently recorded it on his final album
Stephen Foster songs endure to this day, and still contribute to political and social debate. I have an , Beautiful Dreamer. of his songs recorded by contemporary artists that includes a fun-canter through The Camptown Races. To be honest, I most favour his love songs like Beautiful Dreamer and I Dream Of Jeanie. Politics and social attitudes come and go but love is constant.
Writers & Lovers,by Lily King, was next on the recommended reading list offered by The Guardian
Following the breakout success of her critically acclaimed and award-winning novel Euphoria, Lily King returns with an unforgettable portrait of an artist as a young woman.
Blindsided by her mother’s sudden death, and wrecked by a recent love affair, Casey Peabody has arrived in Massachusetts in the summer of 1997 without a plan. Her mail consists of wedding invitations and final notices from debt collectors. A former child golf prodigy, she now waits tables in Harvard Square and rents a tiny, mouldy room at the side of a garage where she works on the novel she’s been writing for six years. At thirty-one, Casey is still clutching onto something nearly all her old friends have let go of: the determination to live a creative life. When she falls for two very different men at the same time, her world fractures even more. Casey’s fight to fulfil her creative ambitions and balance the conflicting demands of art and life is challenged in ways that push her to the brink.
Writers & Lovers follows Casey–a smart and achingly vulnerable protagonist–in the last days of a long youth, a time when every element of her life comes to a crisis. Written with King’s trademark humour, heart, and intelligence, Writers & Lovers is a transfixing novel that explores the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another.
I was reminded in that review that at the time of first hearing Massachusetts by The Bee Gees, an idea was forming in my heart and mind that I wanted to live a creative life. I have done just that, though I have to say there were weeks we nearly starved because the gas was cut off and when we couldn´t pay the electric bill and the light all went out in,….. no, sorry, I´m getting confused. That only happened in the song that I used to sing at home in the same larynx-wobbling, if less tuneful, style as Robin Gibb (right)
In this poignant song, the singer feels himself drawn back to Massachusetts, a state in the northeastern US. It seems there is a girl at the heart of hit, one he ´left her standing on her own´. That was pretty much all I knew at the time about the track, but the first handful of Bee Gees´singles were enigmatic to say the least, were they not?
Mrs. Gibbs´ Boys had never actually been to Massachusetts when the recorded this song, but liked the sound of the name (lots of syllables, you see, help fit a rhythm). In fact Robin Gibb explained to Spencer Leigh and co-author Jon Kutner, of 1,000 UK Number I Hits that ´we had never been there but we loved the word and there is always something magical about American place names, It only works with British place names if you put them ina folk song, like Roger Whittaker did with Durham Town.
He also told Spencer and Jon that, as they were writing the song, The Bee Gees actually had The Seekers (the original Judith Durham line-up) in mind to record the song. The Gibb brothers were great admirers of the group that had preceded them in arriving in the UK from Australia and who had started a very successful career, and fittingly The Seekers (left) gave a special performance of the the song live in concert some years later as a tribute to Maurice Gibb after his untimely death.
For the Bee Gees, music always came before lyrics – except for the title. ´We always believed there’s no such thing as a title you can’t write a song to, like ‘Massachusetts,’ Robin Gibb explained to Daniel Rachel, author of The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters.
“We wrote that in a boat in New York harbour as a challenge. When you look back, it’s quite a good exercise if you are songwriters to challenge yourselves to do something; we’d never been to Massachusetts. It’s an unusual title with all the S’s. [Assumes pompous voice] ‘How could anybody possibly write a song called…,’ so we did´,
Nevertheless, This wasn’t the first time the Bee Gees had a hit with an American place name in the title. Earlier in 1967, they had also scored with New York Mining Disaster 1941 (Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones). Another very enigmatic song. Another very strange title.
Perhaps we might think the same of Sing, Unburied, Sing the next novel on our list of America states.
Author Jesmyn Ward is the only woman—and the only African American—to win the National Book Award for fiction twice. One of those prestigious awards went to Sing, Unburied, Sing, her engaging and resonant 2017 novel about the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the plight of 21st-century rural families, and the still-unfolding saga of America herself. Ward’s writing has been compared with Toni Morrison’s and William Faulkner’s, and that’s pretty good company.
Mississippi is, of course, a regular inspiration to song-writers. I have long loved Mississippi River by J J Cale full of the river, the railroad tracks, motor cycles and cars and it all chugs along in perfect Cale fashion.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a book we are all surely aware of. It is a true blockbuster of a novel and one of the most successful books of the decade. Gillian Flynn’s 2012 thriller is set in the town of North Carthage, Missouri, but I will hold back on other details because Flynn puts plot twists on her plot twists, so I will avoid spoilers at all costs.
The music I have chosen to accompany this novel is Missouri Birds by John Stewart, (there is always a John Stewart song !) The song is from the excellent California Bloodlines album, Capitol 1969, best re-release as a double CD together with Willard (originally Capitol 1970) on BGO Records 2001.
California Bloodlines, (of which which I and Pete Benbow and American singer-writer Jeff McDonald performed the title track live on a radio programme presented by the afore-mentioned Spencer Leigh on BBC Radio Merseyside, was an album that sent Stewart´s career down Americana lanes rather than the rock and roll highway he thought he was driving along.
It contained the song, Missouri Birds, and the same song is also on what the Bite My Foot on line fanzine suggests is ´a very fine live double CD Front Row Music – Before the War, (Neon Dreams Music, 2001), as part of the medley ‘Looking Back Johanna – Missouri Birds – Cowboy in the Distance – If You Should Remember Me’. John plays the song in the key of C both times.
The song is not about Missouri per se but is of the birds in flight suggest to the songwriter a call to travel, and the song is as much about our changing notions of ´home´ as it is of a particular state.
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson is a novel in which Social worker Pete Snow is in deep trouble. After helping a nearly feral 11-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, Pete confronts the boy’s father, a disturbed survivalist with visions of Armageddon. Smith Henderson’s debut is squarely in the tradition of Big American Novels, with its weighty themes addressing the fundamental character of the nation.
photo 17 It brought me to think of Wild Montana Skies, written and sung about by John Denver, of course. Although I am lyric-led in my listening I have always taken the song to be a love of the landscape and natural habitat, but actually I now lear´n that quite a controversy once flared about the ´meaning of the song.
In the Canadian Journal of Musical Purism (Spring 2003, Volume XXXVIII, pp. 45-53) Dr D. Petna argued that Wild Montana Skies is not a genuine Momma ‘n’ Daddy song; it’s just about a guy who comes to feel at home in the wilds of Montana. But in a crushing riposte by Sam Garroner (CJMP forthcoming) Petna is shown to have overlooked the thematic complexity of Wild Montana Skies. Garroner doesn’t limit himself to pointing out that both the mother and the father of the child being sung about figure centrally in the early part of the song. He emphasizes the linked facts that it is the boy’s momma who appeals for him to be given a home in the natural habitats of Montana and that she then promptly dies so that her lapsed parenthood immediately passes into that quarter (‘he learned to know the wilderness’). In case there should be any further doubt about the song’s meaning, we are told that the momma’s appeal calls for her son to be given ‘the wild wind for a brother’. Garonner’s conclusion brooks no further quibble – and I quote – ‘If his brother is to be the wind, his momma ‘n’ daddy surrogates can only be those wild Montana skies themselves, or if not them, then something quite as elemental, like the clouds, or rain, or snows, or rocks, or other stuff like that.’
We must always intend what we write for light years of travel, for the writing of a song announces the Death Of Author, (in Barthesian theory) as ownership of the song is passed to the listener, so such arguments are fairly meaningless, but I would pour fuel on the flier that hearing the duet John recorded with Emmylou Harris (left) kind of emphasises the narrative above. Her delivery manages to feel cold, angry, harsh, sorrowful and optimistic. It could be the voice of the very land we are hearing rather than of a mother figure. It may be, for me, the finest performance of the thousands of fine performances she has delivered in her life time, and if John Denver and his writing gave her a platform for that, then why are we arguing anything?
Fangirl a novel by by Rainbow Rowell, the often strange and always intense world of pop culture fandom provides the backdrop. This is an acclaimed 2013 Young Adult novel, which tracks two Nebraska sisters and their enduring love of the fictional Simon Snow. Author Rainbow Rowell delivers a new kind of coming-of-age story for the fast-moving, multimedia, increasingly weird 21st century.
As I was when I first read the above synopsis, you might be already hearng the sandstorms and emptiness and bleakness that Bruce Springsteen brought to his Nebraska album some three decades ago. There is though, a song called Plains Of Nebrasky-o that achieves all that Springsteen did and more. It carries the same world-weariness but with a self-respect in the narrator´s voice that lets you know it is a respect he also pays to those who, like him, plough these unyielding fields.
It’s a wonderful, jaunty, Guthrie-esque delivery from its writer, Eric Andersen and the late Phil Ochs, who wrote There But For Fortune.
Having just wasted a clear opportunity to have included Springsteen in my play-list, though, I am delighted to accept this second opportunity.
Born to Run, is an autobiography by Bruce Springsteen, and much as his Nebraska album might have served the previous state we visited, this book is undoubtedly New Jersey’s biggest celebrity booster and surely its favourite son. His long-awaited and critically acclaimed 2016 memoir chronicles his unparalleled career in the music business, and also offers a unique perspective on the culture and history of New Jersey itself. Springsteen’s emotional eloquence translates just fine to prose, it turns out, and this book is a must-read for any serious fan. The same blue-collar eloquence that infuses his songs is evident here in his prose. We can sense his reticence in dealing with affairs of the heart and emotional well being, but Springsteen is always honest and his exploration of the fractious, fractured but ultimately forgiving relationship with his father is heart-wrenching.
With The Boss now squeezed into our playlist as an author I feel less guilty about bringing in Tom Waits´ celebration of the State as our musical inclusion. To be fair, though, Springsteen also covered this Tom Waits number
The gravelly king of cool sings about crossing the river west to see his lady (cheating on the whores of Eighth Avenue, who seem so often to be Waits´ Narrator´s company of choice. Wait´s doesn´t often do anything as romantic escorting a woman down the Shore, hugged us tight on the way to a carnival. Waits’s dreamy ballad (right) is almost enough to convince that romance is still alive and well in the State of Jersey
photo news News of the World by Paulette Jiles has recently come back in circulation due to the excellent film adaptation with Tom Hanks, Paulette Jiles’ News of the World is a thrilling update to the classic western genre. In the aftermath of the Civil War, retired officer Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd makes his living wandering between deep Texas towns, reading the latest newspapers to desperate, often illiterate pioneer communities. Then a ten-year-old orphan girl changes everything.
A few Texan musicians I know reckon that some of the best, or at least the most descriptive, songs written about Texas are by an English songwriter I was privileged to interview a few times back in the nineteen eighties. Wes McGhee is an slap-down ace of a guitarist and has great respect among his many Texan friends. He has played alongside them in Texas bars and honly tonks and found the courage to share with them and audiences his thoughts on the State of Texas. There´s a great opening verse that says
´There´s beans ´n bones ´n buzzards,
spiders, skunks ´n snakes.
It´s too damn hot and it´s too damn dry
but when the storm breaks, it sure does break
I can´t believe i´m standin´
right where Black Jack Ketchum* stood
but if this here´s the devil´s land
I´m sure glad I never was good.
* Thomas Edward Ketchum (known as Black Jack; October 31, 1863 – April 26, 1901) was an American cowboy who later became an outlaw. He was executed in 1901 for attempted train robbery.
Texas, with its history of gun fights and outlaws and its barren landscape of dry wind farms is perhaps now the most fabled of the United States Of America, and Wes McGhee, already steeped in the knowledge of Texas folk lore and attitudes, nevertheless would arrive and play there from England with a fresh and keen eye, eager to soak up even more from anything he saw. He played with singers and writers like Kimmie Rhodes, previously mentioned on these pages, and Robert Earl Smith and was great friends with one of the States most-loved djs, Joe Gracey, Kimmie´s late hisband.
Another verse in Texas 1, from which the verse above was also extrapolated, has him admitting´
´On the whole I´d rather be,
in Texas if I could.
They´ve got a million fiddlers there
and every one´s damn good.
On the whole i´d rather be in Texas any time.
Texas sure is hard but it sure is fine.
All We Ever Wanted is written by Emily Griffin, the author of First Comes Love and Something Borrowed. This new title is a dramatic story of scandal among the privileged and not-so-privileged in Nashville, Tennessee. Emily Giffin’s novel was a Goodreads Choice nominee for fiction in 2018 and continues to earn praise for its treatment of class resentments, family dynamics, and the dangers of drinking and clicking.
Jesse Winchester, a musician I have loved every time I have listened to him, and yet somehow have listened to him far too infrequently, was the stage name of musician James Ridout Winchester (born 17 May 1944 in Bossier City, Louisiana; died 11 April 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia). His best-known songs include Yankee Lady, “Mississippi, You’re on My Mind, and Biloxi; his song Step By Step was used in the final episode of the first season of The Wire on HBO.
The Brand New Tennessee Waltz, remains my favourite of his songs, being beautifully delivered ina his soothing voice, and reflecting a continued belief, perhaps, in romance, decorum and love. Many notable artists recorded Jesse´s songs, including Patti Page, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Anne Murray, Reba McEntire, The Everly Brothers and Emmylou Harris. In 2007 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
After playing with the Astronautes in Quebec, and while appearing as a solo performer in coffee houses throughout eastern Canada, he was introduced to Robbie Robertson (then of The Band ) and Albert Grossman (then manager of Bob Dylan). Winchester made his eponymous first album, with Grossman as his manager and Robertson as producer, and it was released on the Bearsville label. He subsequently toured in Canada as an opening act for The Band. Jesse went on his own road tour of Canada in 1973-74 along with drummer Butch McDade of the subsequently formed Amazing Rhythm Aces. He completed tours of both Australia and Europe as a performing musician.
Winchester recorded sporadically on several labels since 1970. Unable to tour in the U.S. until the 1977 Carter amnesty, he subsequently became best known for his excellent song-writing, despite being an equally accomplished singer and guitar and Keyboard player.
As a consequence of sporadic album releases, there was a high demand for his work leading to multiple releases of unauthorized recordings. Like many other artists, Winchester took a strong stance against the release of so called Bootlegs and actively urged his listeners to support only the “Original thing”.
Commonly referred to as ‘legendary’, and acknowledged as one of the premier tunesmiths of the late twentieth century, his self professed favorite rendition of any song covered of his covered is that of Ed Bruce in his rendition of “Evil Angel”.
While there was grace and gentle humour in Winchester’s writing, his body of work also reveals an undercurrent of darker forces. His vantage point is often that of the outsider, longing for the South, restless, and willing to betray those he loves for the freedom of the road. The protagonist in Yankee Lady callously abandons the woman who takes him in, just as the singer in Freewheeler warns that he “would ride rough-shod over lovers…time and time again.” Temptation and the eternal struggle between good and evil converge in Evil Angel, “first you start ’em with a little…’til they just can’t get enough.” That´s not unlike the synopsis for All We Ever Wanted, the book that sent me back to Winchester albums I haven´t played for far too long.
So, if you´ll excuse me I´ll sign off here. There are half a dozen albums I want to listen to again. I´ll leave you with the books for now, and we can swap notes another time.
sidetracks & detours
IN GOOD COMPANY ACROSS STATE LINES
An American Marriage by Tamari Jones (novel)
Midnight Train To Georgia by Gladys Knight And The Pips (song)
Me And You And A Dog Named Boo by Lobo (song)
My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night! by John Prine (song)
Writers & Lovers,by Lily King (novel)
Massachusetts by The Bee Gees (song)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (novel)
Mississippi River by J J Cale (song)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (novel)
Missouri Birds by John Stewart (song)
Wild Montana Skies by John Denver & Emmylou Harris (song)
Plains Of Nebrasky-o by Eric Andersen and Phil Ochs (song)
Jersey Girl by Tom Waits (song)
News Of The World by Paulette Jiles (novel)
Texas # 1 by Wes McGhee (song)
All We Ever Wanted by Emily Griffin (Novel)
Brand New Tennessee Waltz by Jesse Winchester (song)
A Find Your Own Way Production