Elvis Presley, Mickey Newbury, and An American Trilogy: A Listener Comment, Vol. 2

It was 1972 and Elvis was adding to his Vegas show. New songs, a cape. Priscilla had left him, simply saying she no longer loved him and Elvis was remarking to friends that he was now past the age of Christ crucified. Gone was the power of the comeback special. The old hits were sounding like old hits and if there was redemption to be found, he would, as always, find it in a song.

Minstrel music, for better or worse,  is the original American music. Born out of comic sketches where white actors would darken their faces with charcoal or cork and tell jokes and sing songs and dance as if they were blacks and these sketches evolved into entire touring troupes. The lampooning could be vicious and blacks were depicted as lazy clowns, scared of their shadows and always ready to sing a little song. My purpose here is not to apologize or defend blackface. The lingering effects can still be seen in sitcoms & films today and quite simply, it is indefensible and the stereotypes perpetuated by the joke go far beyond an apology. It is important though to understand where our shared music comes from. The mother source of blues and jazz and country and rock n roll.

Daniel Decatur Emmett & The Virginia Minstrels - 1850

“Dixie” remains one of the early minstrel songs we know the best. Written, most likely, by Ohioan Daniel Decatur Emmett in the 1850’s it tells of a freed slave pining for his southern plantation days. The lyrics are a collection of other songs and as a narrative it’s a mess. In grand minstrel style the original sheet music went something like this,

I wish I was in de land of cotton,

Old times dar am not forgotten;

It’s not pretty, but common enough for the times. Emmett also wrote “Turkey In The Straw” and the Lincoln favorite “Blue-Tail Fly”.

The problem with “Dixie” is complex. It was written out of inborn racism and the way the song represents blacks as  Uncle  Tomish characters longing for the better days of slavery is absurd. The song, however, over the years has changed in memory and intent multiple times. During the Civil War it was adopted as a Southern anthem and stopped being a lighthearted minstrel song as it took on a cause. The song became further entrenched in Southern white culture as white’s would sing it back in response to songs like “We Shall Overcome” during the heat of the Civil Rights movement.

By the time I remember singing it in school however it had changed again to a sweet song about longing for the beautiful Southland with no history or memory attached to it. It was timeless and felt as unwritten as “America the Beautiful” or “Amazing Grace”. The song for all that it is, expresses a universal human feeling of estrangement, and living out of place. When re-written to not parody white representation of black speech patterns, the song, at least to younger generations unfamiliar with it’s history, still has the power to tap into that sense of disenfranchisement many of us feel in reaction to a world moving too fast and the wish for simpler times, whether they ever existed or not.

Mickey Newbury and Elvis Presley would both have been deeply familiar with “Dixie” while growing up in their Southern homes. The South has a romanticized ideal of itself and it’s past unlike any other American place. William Faulkner is quoted as saying “the past is not dead, it is not even past.” True enough, the American South is a haunted place where great pride and great shame mix tumultuously like the coming together of two powerful rivers.

There’s a point just below Harper’s Ferry, Virginia where the Shenandoah and the Potomac converge. The waters rush together in slight whitewater a few hundred yards away from where abolitionist John Brown made his last stand inside a small armory. In 1859 he was hanged for treason a few weeks after attempting to start an armed insurrection against slavery. He remains the patron saint to American fiery passion, self-righteous fanaticism, and underdog martyrdom. Brown was a dreamer, a liberator, a thunderstorm against black oppression and white ownership and ultimately one of the catalysts of the Civil War and the eventual freeing of slaves. When asked if white people could join the Organization of Afro-American Unity Malcom X replied “maybe John Brown.”

Tragic Prelude, John Steuart Curry

In 1855 William Steffe edited and wrote down a revival hymn called “Canaan’s Happy Shore”.

(Verse)

Say, brothers, will you meet us

Say, brothers, will you meet us

Say, brothers, will you meet us

On Canaan’s happy shore

(Refrain)

Glory, glory, hallelujah

Glory, glory, hallelujah

Glory, glory, hallelujah

For ever, evermore!

The tune went viral for the time and in 1860 Thomas Bishop wrote a new set of lyrics for it and taught it to his Massachusetts Infantry as a marching song and called it “John Brown’s Body”.

(Verse)

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave

His souls is marching on!

(Refrain)

Glory, glory, hallelujah

Glory, glory, hallelujah

Glory, glory, hallelujah

His souls is marching on!

A year later in the darkness of November 18th, Julia Ward Howe, abolitionist, activist, poet and New Yorker, feverishly re-wrote the words once again, and called it the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

(Verse)

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on

(Refrain)

Glory, glory, hallelujah

Glory, glory, hallelujah

Glory, glory, hallelujah

His truth is marching on

In his song “An American Trilogy” Mickey Newbury captures the eternal longing and strife of “Dixie’s” refrain and slowly builds into the triumph of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic’s”. He cuts out the fat, not that there’s much, but he knows where the guts are.

American’s know all about the need to believe tomorrow will be better. We’re founded on the very idea. This is after all, the land of opportunity. Even when it’s bad, there’s the dream it could be better. This is a profoundly spiritual idea. The concept of suffering on earth, with the dream of something greater beyond.

All my trials, Lord

Soon be over

The refrain to an old Bahamian lullaby adopted by the folk revivalist/revisionist of the 1950’s. This is the final piece Newbury needed. He had tapped into the American psyche. The great collage of color and religion, and political and social beliefs. The thing we affectionately call the melting pot. This cast iron thing that gives great joy and terrible suffering. At the end, he needed the thing we all seem to need. Hope.

In 1972 with the ’60’s gone, Vietnam on, and Priscilla Presley out of our collective lives we all needed a little hope. Mickey Newbury sings it as prayer in Gethsemane. A quiet pleading for something better. I wish I had been sitting next to Elvis the first time someone placed Mickey’s record on a turntable and dropped a needle on it. It must have reached in deep and grabbed the meat of him. Did he cover the trembling with rapture? Did he sit quietly and let it soak him like baptism? Elvis took it and sang it like a man holding onto a life preserver. He left Arenas with it ringing in people’s ears. People who needed to hear it from a man who needed to sing it.

Is it antiquated? Worse even than that, is it cheesy? My cynicism can run deep. It’s like scar tissue, ugly and tough. A song like “An American Trilogy” is the antithesis of all those scars. Sometimes, oftentimes, it’s easy to throw away, to pick on, to laugh at. And when I’ve teased it or mocked it, gently or not, I wonder what I’m mocking. Mickey Newbury or a caped and sequined Elvis? Or something closer to the bone?

In a recent blog I wrote about a conversation I had with a listener. A listener who will never get past “Dixie” and burnt cork. Earlier that same week I received an email from another listener chiding me for not looking deeper into the truth. He was pointing me toward an old Bahamian folk tale and cautioning against the cynic by barking out a little of the ol’ glory hallelujah. Thanks for that.

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About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Country, Folk, Honky Tonk, Music, Politics, Pop, Radio and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Elvis Presley, Mickey Newbury, and An American Trilogy: A Listener Comment, Vol. 2

  1. Pingback: Anita Carter « The Real Mr. Heartache

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