DROP KICK ME, JESUS, through the goalposts of life

DROP KICK ME, JESUS,  through the goalposts of life      

by Norman Warwick

The name of the group, The Drop_Kick Murphys, at the centre of today´s story reminds me of one of those quasi-religious country songs that formed the solid base of my eventual conversion from pop music to Americana. Drop Kick Me Jesus, Through The Goalposts Of Life, was a song written by Memphis-born country songwriter Paul Craft. The lyric envisions Jesus as a divine football player who can send the narrator soaring past the temptations in life with a heavenly drop kick. However, not everyone was willing to accept Jesus in this rough-and-tumble role. Craft explained on his website: “When I wrote ‘Dropkick Me Jesus’ I figured everybody knew about songs like ‘I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap’ and ‘We Need A Lot More Jesus (And A Lot Less Rock And Roll)’ and would appreciate what I had accomplished with my song. Well, my mother didn’t, for one. She just KNEW there was something wrong with a song that had ‘kick’ and ‘Jesus’ that close together in the title. And she wasn’t alone. But Elvis Costello and Bill Clinton understand it and like it.”

Paul Charles Craft (left) was an American country singer-songwriter. The Memphis-born Craft was known as the songwriter for Mark Chesnutt’s single “Brother Jukebox”, and the novelty song “It’s Me Again, Margaret”, recorded by Ray Stevens, and Craft himself. Between 1977 and 1978, Craft charted three singles on RCA Nashville.

All the film buffs among our sidetracks & detours readers will surely remember the inclusion of the song in the film The Deer Hunter.

Drop Kick Me Jesus was most successfully recorded by Bobby Bare.(right)

Robert Joseph Bare Sr. (born April 7, 1935) is an American country music singer and songwriter, best known for the songs Marie Laveau, Detroit City and 500 Miles Away from Home. He is the father of Bobby Bare Jr., also a musician.

In the 1950s, Bare repeatedly tried and failed to sell his songs. He finally got a record deal, with Capitol Records, and recorded a few unsuccessful rock and roll singles. Just before he was drafted into the United States Army, he wrote a song called The All American Boy and did a demo for his friend, Bill Parsons, to learn how to record. Instead of using Parsons’ later version, the record company, Fraternity Records, decided to go with Bare’s original demo. The record reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, but Fraternity erroneously credited Bill Parsons on the label. The same track, with the same billing error, peaked at No. 22 in the UK Singles Chart in April 1959. In 1965, an album of older recorded material, Tender Years (JM-6026), was released on the Hilltop label. That same year, the material was repackaged by Sears and released under the title Bobby In Song (SPS-115). These albums are not usually included in Bare’s published discographies.

Bare’s big break in country music came when Chet Atkins signed him to RCA Victor. His debut single for the label was 1962’s Shame On Me. Follow-up, Detroit City, reached No. 6 Country, No. 16 Hot 100, and in 1964 earned him a Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording. Then a surge of hits followed, including 500 Miles Away From Home (based on a traditional folk ballad written by Hedy West as “500 Miles”) and Ian Tyson‘s Four Strong Winds. In 1965 he received two further Grammy nominations for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance and Best Country & Western single for the latter song. In 1966, he received a yet another Grammy Nomination for Best Country & Western Male Vocal Performance for his song Talk Me Some Sense. He also recorded two duet albums with Skeeter Davis and recorded six tracks as a trio with Norma Jean and Liz Anderson, which produced a major hit with The Game Of Triangles, a wife-husband-other woman drama that hit No. 5 on the Billboard chart and earned the trio a Grammy nomination. In 1968, he recorded an album with a group from England called The Hillsiders. In 1969, he had a Top 5 hit with Tom T. Hall‘s (Margie’s At) The Lincoln Park Inn.

Bare moved to Mercury Records in 1970 and immediately scored a Top 3 hit with How I Got To Memphis, and also had two Top 10 hits with early Kris Kristofferson compositions, Come Sundown and Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends (both 1971). He also scored a #12 hit in 1972 with a version of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show‘s pop hit Sylvia’s Mother, written by Shel Silverstein.

Bare returned to RCA in 1973, after two years at Mercury.  and scored once more with Billy Joe Shaver‘s Ride Me Down Easy, which nearly made the Top 10.

Bare started to release novelty songs recorded live with selected audiences. One such song, Marie Laveau, topped the country chart in 1974; the song was Bare’s only #1 hit. It was co-written by his friends Silverstein and Baxter Taylor, who received a BMI Award for the song in 1975.

In 1977, Bare released an entire album of songs by songwriter Bob McDill called Me and McDill, which contained the popular hit Look Who I’m Cheatin’ On Tonight.

Silverstein penned other songs for Bare including a Grammy-nominated hit, Daddy What If, which he recorded with his five-year-old son, Bobby Bare Jr. The song was an immediate success as well, not only reaching No. 2 on the country charts, but nearly reaching the Top 40 on the pop charts. Bare’s album, Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies, became his most commercially successful album, finding him a new audience with pop radio once again playing his songs and also gaining a new following with college kids. These songs, all 14 written or co-written by Shel Silverstein, however, would become Bare’s last Top 10 hits.

Bare later recorded a children’s album with his family, mainly of Silverstein songs, called Singin’ in the Kitchen. It was nominated in Best Group category in Grammy Awards, but was declined by Bare himself.

His biggest hits during this time included Alimony (1975), The Winner (1976), and Drop Kick Me, Jesus (Through The Goalposts Of Life) (an unusual Christianfootball waltz, and a 1976 Grammy nominee for Best Country Song). In 1977 he recorded Redneck Hippie Romance and Vegas (a duet with his wife Jeannie).

Bare signed with Columbia Records and continued to have hits like Sleep Tight Good Night Man, which barely cracked the Top 10 in 1978, alongside continuing to score critical acclaim with his releases Bare and Sleeper Wherever I Fall. In 1979, he started off Rosanne Cash‘s career in a big way by being her duet partner on the Top 20 hit No Memories Hangin’ Round. In 1980, he almost cracked the Top 10 with Numbers, which came from his album Down and Dirty. On that album, Bare started to experiment with Southern rock, which continued with his following album, Drunk and Crazy (1980). 

The next year, Bare returned to his country roots with his Rodney Crowell-produced album As Is, featuring the single New Cut Road, written by Guy Clark.. Bare was still doing well chartwise into the early 1980s. In 1983, his duet with Lacy J. Dalton, It’s A Dirty Job, hit the Top 30. His last trip into the Top 30 came that summer with the novelty song The Jogger. He also released Used Cars, the theme song from the film of the same name.

In January and February 2012, Bare joined up with Petter Øien at the 2012 Melodi Grand Prix to compete for Norway‘s entry to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest to be held in BakuAzerbaijan, in May. His song Things Change got through to the Norwegian final where Øien and Bare finished third.

Bare was also given an opportunity to star in movies. He acted in a Western with Troy DonahueA Distant Trumpet, and had a memorable scene being branded for desertion, and a few episodes of the TV series No Time for Sergeants. He turned his back on Hollywood to pursue his country career.

From 1983 to 1988, Bare hosted Bobby Bare and Friends on The Nashville Network which featured him interviewing songwriters who sang their hit songs on the show.

In 1985, Bare signed with EMI America Records where he scored three low-charting singles.

In 1998, he formed the band Old Dogs, with Jerry ReedMel Tillis and Waylon Jennings.

In 2005, he released his first new album in two decades, The Moon Was Blue, produced by his son Bobby Bare Jr., who is also a musician. He continues to tour today.

In 2012, Bare performed a duet of the song I’d Fight The World on the Jamey Johnson album Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran. Bare was reinstated as a member of the Grand Ole Opry on April 7, 2018, by Garth Brooks.  

On April 10, 2013, the CMA announced that Bare would be a 2013 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Other 2013 Inductees include Cowboy Jack Clement and Kenny Rogers.

However, let´s get back to our main story.

Mermaid Avenue is a 1998 album of previously unheard lyrics written by American folk singer Woody Guthrie, put to music written and performed by British singer Billy Bragg and the American band Wilco. The project was the first of several such projects organized by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, original director of the Woody Guthrie Foundation and archives. Mermaid Avenue was released on the Elektra Records label on June 23, 1998. A second volume of recordings, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, followed in 2000 and both were collected in a box set alongside volume three in 2012 as Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. The projects are named after the song Mermaid’s Avenue, written by Guthrie. This was also the name of the street in Coney IslandNew York, on which Guthrie lived. According to American Songwriter Magazine, “The Mermaid Avenue project is essential for showing that Woody Guthrie could illuminate what was going on inside of him as well as he could detail the plight of his fellow man”. It was voted number 939 in Colin Larkin‘s All Time Top 1000 Albums 3rd Edition (2000). 

During the spring of 1995, Woody Guthrie‘s daughter Nora contacted English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg about writing music for a selection of completed Guthrie lyrics after Bragg played a Guthrie tribute concert in New York City’s Central Park. Her father had left behind over a thousand sets of complete lyrics written between 1939 and 1967; as they had not been recorded by Guthrie, and he did not write music, none of these lyrics had any music other than a vague stylistic notation.

Nora Guthrie’s (left) liner notes in Mermaid Avenue indicate that it was her intention that the songs be given to a new generation of musicians who would be able to make the songs relevant to a younger generation. Nora Guthrie contacted Bragg, who in turn approached Wilco and asked them to participate in the project as well. Wilco agreed, and in addition to recording with Bragg in Ireland, they were given their own share of songs to finish.

Rather than recreating tunes in Guthrie’s style, Bragg and Wilco created new, contemporary music for the lyrics. Released in 1998 as Mermaid Avenue, the results were met with critical success The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and went on to place fourth on the Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1998.

Since the release of the Mermaid Avenue albums, several other musicians have released recordings that similarly have drawn upon unpublished Guthrie material.

Man in the Sand, a documentary about the collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco, was released in 1999. A DVD of the film is included in Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions.

Bob Dylan tells in his autobiography that Woody Guthrie asked him to reach out to Guthrie’s wife Margie and get the boxes of songs and poems that had been written but never set to melodies. Dylan makes his way to Guthrie’s place but Margie was not there, only Guthrie’s son Arlo and the babysitter. Neither had any idea about the box, and Dylan headed back to New York. Dylan writes in his autobiography Chronicles: “Forty years later, these lyrics would fall into the hands of Billy Bragg and the group Wilco and they would put melodies to them, bring them to full life and record them. It was all done under the direction of Woody’s daughter Nora. These performers probably weren’t even born when I had made that trip to Brooklyn.”

1.Walt Whitman‘s Niece” (Words: 1946; Music: 1997)Billy Bragg3:53
2.“California Stars” (Music: 1997)Jay Bennett/Jeff Tweedy4:57
3.“Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” (Words: 1946; Music: 1997)Bragg4:06
4.“Birds and Ships” (Music: 1997)Bragg2:13
5.“Hoodoo Voodoo”Wilco (Tweedy/Bennett/John Stirratt/Ken Coomer)/Bragg/Corey Harris3:12
6.“She Came Along to Me” (Words: 1942; Music: 1998)Bragg/Tweedy/Bennett3:26
7.“At My Window Sad and Lonely” (Words: 1939; Music: 1997)Tweedy3:27
8.Ingrid Bergman” (Words: 1950; Music: 1996)Bragg1:50
9.“Christ for President” (Music: 1997)Tweedy/Bennett2:39
10.“I Guess I Planted” (Music: 1997)Bragg3:32
11.“One by One” (Words: 1939; Music: 1997)Tweedy3:22
12.Eisler on the Go” (Music: 1997)Bragg2:56
13.“Hesitating Beauty” (Words: 1949; Music: 1997)Tweedy3:04
14.“Another Man’s Done Gone” (Music: 1998)Bragg1:34
15.“The Unwelcome Guest” (Words: 1940; Music: 1996)Bragg5:09

Billy Bragg and the Wilco crew perfectly captured not only Guthrie´s strength of poetry but also the gentleness of his love of the world. His rendition of the previous lyrics to Ingrid Bergman beautifully carried the melody he and the group had created. Another Man´s Done Gone also perfectly captured Guthrie.

So successful was that album that a second was bound to follow.  Thus Mermaid Avenue Vol. II is a 2000 album of previously unheard lyrics written by American folk singer Woody Guthrie, put to music written and performed by British singer Billy Bragg and American band Wilco. It continues the project originally conceived by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie which resulted in the release of Mermaid Avenue in 1998. Both volumes were collected in a 2012 box set along with volume three as Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions.

Track 9 Blood Of The Lamb is Woody’s overhaul of an 1878 gospel music standard Are You Washed in the Blood? written by Elisha A. Hoffman.

Man in the Sand, a documentary about the collaboration between Bragg and Wilco, was released in 1999.

Geoffrey Himes, a writer I much admire, says in his recent article in the wonderful Paste on-line magazine that ´At first blush, a recent pairing of the Dropkick Murphys and Woody Guthrie seems incongruous. The first is an urban rock ’n’ roll band, bashing out high-speed numbers like “Deeds Not Words” with punk guitars, rampaging drums and wailing bagpipes. The second was a rural troubadour, warbling hillbilly hymns like “This Land Is Your Land” with no accompaniment but his own acoustic guitar.

Yet when Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, invited the band to put some of her father’s unrecorded lyrics to music, the results were nothing less than sensational. The second attempt, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” the story of a sailor who lost a limb climbing a ship’s topsail and is now going back to Massachusetts to obtain a wooden leg, became a favourite of their hometown fans. Then it was heard by the Band’s Robbie Robertson, who selected it for Martin Scorsese’s 2006 movie, The Departed. The following year the Boston Red Sox adopted it as an unofficial theme song as they stormed their way to a world championship.

And now the Dropkick Murphys have released This Machine Still Kills Fascists, a full album of 10 more Guthrie songs—with the promise of a volume two in 2023. The partnership now seems so inevitable that it’s hard to remember when it seemed dubious.

Of course when the music is so precious to all concerned, including the commissioners and the commissioned, there are bound to be different hopes and fears on both side. It is no surprise therefore when Mr. Himes reveals early concerns.

As Mr. Himes continues, though, “I have to admit it, when the Dropkick Murphys picked ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ out of the stack of lyrics, I said, ‘Really? That one?’” says Nora, the manager of her dad’s estate. “The next thing I know it’s in a Scorsese movie. Then I’m watching the World Series on TV, and Jonathan Papelbon the relief pitcher is doing an Irish jig to the song. We had a hit, which we had never had before. So I’ve learned to trust the artists’ instincts.”

“We always felt comfortable with what Woody sang about and believed in,” adds Ken Casey, the Dropkick Murphys’ lead singer, “because we’ve always sung about those things. But from a musical perspective, it seemed a bit of a stretch. Upon further reflection, though, it made perfect sense. What we were doing with Irish music was very similar to what Woody was doing with country music. And, of course, American country music has its roots in the Irish stuff. Early in our career, we ignored those connections, because we were blasting through everything with power chords. Now that we’re older, we’re paying more attention to those links.”

Those ties are inescapable on a song like “Talking Jukebox” from the new album. Guthrie’s lyrics are not about a barfly describing the jukebox in the corner; they’re about a jukebox describing things from his point of view. He’s seen every helpless drunk, dishonest lover and angry brawler, and he’s got a song for each of them. To these words, the Dropkick Murphys have added a twitchy rockabilly guitar riff, a jungle drum beat and a growling vocal. The confrontational attitude of the words, written before Guthrie’s death in 1967 but never recorded in any form, has now found its musical equivalent.

“All of the artists I’ve asked to adapt Woody’s lyrics—Billy Bragg, Wilco, Del McCoury, John Mellencamp, all of them’” says Nora, 72, “I tell them the same thing: ‘Don’t try to be Woody. Don’t try to sound like him; don’t try to look like him. Just be yourself. When you hear Billy Bragg sing a Woody song, it sounds like Billy not Woody. Same with Ken Casey. My ideal is that Woody the person can fade, but the ideas and the words should carry on.”

Another barroom scene is evoked in the album’s opening track. A man is so distracted by his woman leaving him for another man that he loses 99 dollars in a poker game. He’s so distraught by his losses that he empties a .44 into his romantic rival’s chest. The killer is so easily caught that the judge sentences him to 99 years, which are, as the song title suggests, “Two 6s Upside Down.” To this numerical tragedy, the Dropkick Murphys supply a rockabilly groove as sharp as Johnny Cash’s hunting knife.

It sounds like rock ’n’ roll, but if you listen closely, you’ll notice that the band’s three guitarists are playing acoustic instruments, while drummer Matt Kelly is slapping the snare with brushes. It’s a reminder that amplification isn’t required for rock ’n’ roll; such pioneers as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers played acoustic guitar. And the semi-acoustic sound (Kevin Rheault plays an electric bass) provides a bridge between the band’s normal sound and Guthrie’s.

“Originally, we decided to use the acoustic instruments as a tribute to Woody and his time period,” explains Casey, 53, “but as we got into it, the tracks sounded more and more like a Dropkicks album. We found that we were a better band than we gave ourselves credit for; we didn’t need electricity to generate that beat and that energy. And the results were way better than our original idea. The acoustic version of the Dropkick Murphys has some Violent Femmes in it. In fact, the Femmes guest on one song on the second volume, coming out in the spring.”

Vol. 2, promised for St. Patrick’s Day, will include more songs from the same sessions at Leon Russell’s legendary Church Studio in Tulsa, across town from the Woody Guthrie Center**, where his archives are now housed and partially displayed in a public museum. At the other end of the same block is the recently opened Bob Dylan Center with its own archives and museum.

“I’ve always been skeptical of people who say they’re recording in Jamaica to get inspired by the music,” says Casey. “‘Yeah, right; you just want a vacation.’ But I stand corrected. It was inspiring to drive over to Okemah, where Woody was born and walk the streets. It was inspiring to go to the Guthrie Center and see his artwork on display there for everybody to see.

“It was inspiring to record in Leon Russell’s studio with all these tourists coming by to see it. We even met George Harrison’s wife in one of those groups. We don’t have a lot of experience in rural America, which is like another planet. The center of the world is always where you’re at, so it was fascinating to see what the center of Woody’s world was.”

The Anglo-Celtic music that inspired Guthrie via the Carter Family and inspired the Dropkick Murphys via the Dubliners was a crucial connection point. But just as important, if not more so, was the shared commitment to bettering the lives of working people. Guthrie not only wrote songs about farmworkers (“Pastures of Plenty”), organized labor (“Union Maid”) and immigrants (“Deportees”), he also sang to those people in schools, union halls and outdoor camps.

So, thanks to the italicised words above of Geoffrey Himes, I´m now trying to see how I can get hold of the Drop Kick Murphy´s album to add to my Billy Bragg and Wilco interpretations of lesser known works of Woody.

++ In a Sidetracks And Detours post of 15th July 2022 we took a look at not only the The Woody Guthrie Centre but also at the Phil Ochs fellowship scheme that reaches out and enables aspirant songwriters.

The prime source for this article was written by Geoffrey Himes who´s writing shows him as a perfectly objective lover of Americana music. The piece was originally published in Paste, an on line magazine that delivers scores of excellent articles on songs and songwriters by expert and enthusiastic writers.

In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but that we are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit blog knowing that we always seek to provide core original material even whilst occasionally spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with new genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.

This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.

Norman (right) has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.

As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.

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