We are perhaps wandering away from Bowie and the Kinks in this entry, but thinking about Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town in the previous post has reminded me of another succinct story in song which also made a lasting impression on me as a child: The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp, in the soulful version by O.C. Smith (above), a major UK hit in 1968.
Even if, as with Suggs and his response to the Kinks' Lola, I didn't really get it.
Looking at the opening chorus now, I'm chiefly aware of how quickly and efficiently the story is set up with a few telling details, preparing us for the fuller account to follow in the verses:
Oh, the path was deep and wideAt the time, however, I vaguely imagined that the song was about some ne'er-do-well father who had belatedly decided to reveal his identity to his son, regardless of whatever public humiliation the child might suffer.
From footsteps leading to our cabin,
Above the door there burned a scarlet lamp,
And late at night a hand would knock
And there would stand a stranger -
Yes, I'm the son of Hickory Holler's tramp.
Yes, yes, I do know that any cursory reading of the full lyrics might suggest at least one likely alternative. But I had just turned ten and hadn't yet acquired the habit of analysing songs. Even then, however, O.C. Smith's record was more than just an upbeat sound for me: certain lines stuck. Appropriately enough, these included the narrator's lack of awareness, when young, of local disapproval:
All we really cared aboutNot to mention a rather curious and not wholly logical mondegreen which may say something about my own childhood. I heard the final verse as:
Was Momma's chicken dumplings
And a goodnight kiss
Before we went to bed
Last summer Momma passed awayI can't think now how I squared that mishearing of the second line (suggesting the entire brood predeceased her) with lines 3 and 4, although "burden" is consistent with a religious upbringing that implied to be alive is to suffer and endure.
And left no one to love her
Each and every one was
More than grateful for their burden
Yet I didn't miss out altogether on the essentially joyous, celebratory nature of the song, and the fact that the family were still a unit, commemorating the mother who had kept them together, in this (corrected) version of the full verse:
Last summer Momma passed awaySo, listening as child, I picked out the bits I could understand, tried to make some sense of what I couldn't, but must also have been picking up something from the performance by O.C. Smith and those irresistible horns in the backing.
And left the ones who loved her
Each and every one is
More than grateful for their birth
And each Sunday she receives
A big bouquet of fourteen roses
With a card that reads
"The Greatest Mom on Earth."
I didn't know then about gospel singing or its relation to soul music - probably wasn't too clear what soul music was, other than the Tamla Motown hits I might have seen on Top of the Pops, which I had begun watching regularly with my brothers the previous year.
I'd like to say that hearing O.C. Smith was a revelation which set me capering down a trail of soul gems, but it wasn't so. Perhaps encouraged by his appearance on Top of the Pops (above), I was more taken at the time with the unhinged passion of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown - a hothead if ever there was one. On holiday in a small town in Ireland that summer, I tried to play Fire three times in succession on a jukebox in the local cafe - to the annoyance and incredulity of at least one other patron. I must have pressed a wrong button, however, because The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp played as the second selection.
(adopting sonorous voice:) Now, I don't know who guided my hand that day - possibly the same Person whose representatives on Earth encouraged me to think of life as a burden - but that slip may have helped fix the song in my mind forevermore.
And with the knowledge I have acquired since then, I can see that although it was originally a country song, it's not unrelated to the gospel tradition of celebrating the role of the mother. In fact, an earlier blog entry about the Soul Stirrers, here, includes a clip of the group performing live, straining to drive the crowd into a frenzy, and it's the maternal references, cannily held in reserve, which do the trick.
O.C. Smith came from a jazz, rather than a gospel, background, singing with Count Basie in the early sixties, (detailed biog on the soulwalking website here). And where actual gospel songs on the subject tend towards the self-tormenting ("Did I treat my mother right?"), the message of the song, even if delivered in soul/gospel mode, is essentially upbeat: the children weren't aware of what was happening, and as adults can only feel gratitude, not guilt, for the love in their mother's sacrifice.
The song was written by Dallas Frazier and first recorded by country singer Johnny Darrell (above) - also, incidentally, the first artist to release Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town.
Here are the two 1968 versions by Darrell and O.C. Smith - you may have to crank up the volume for the latter. Frazier didn't record it himself till 1970.
Darrell's recording, which I wasn't familiar with before, is fairly straight ahead: delivering the lyrics, trusting them to do the job. In his own way, O.C. Smith does the same, but a sense of celebration permeates the whole thing, and the (all-female?) chorus, as though representing the rest of the family, joyously affirm the truth of his testimony. I still think I prefer it - but then I've had forty more years to think about it. Maybe play O.C. Smith first, then Johnny Darrell.
Then O.C. Smith again. My revised jukebox selection, were it possible to turn back the decades.
You can find out more about Dallas Frazier in his page on the Nashville Songwriters Foundation website, here. Rather to my surprise, he was also the composer of the Hollywood Argyles' Alley Oop, a song referenced by both Marc Bolan ("dinosawer") and ... David Bowie ("Look at those cavemen go"). He also wrote Mohair Sam, the tune which Elvis kept playing on the jukebox when the Beatles came to call.
Of his songwriting he says:
I'm basically country because of being raised in the heart of country music -- but I have a lot of blues in my soul.