Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Top 10 Country Displacement Songs

A Dead-end Ride Down the Hillbilly Highway
by Robert A. Waters

The farm was a killer. Toiling day in and day out to coax food from unwilling soil made a man out of you pretty quick. It also made you dream of something better. So in the 1920s, rural Southerners whose grandfathers had fought the hated Yankees began a migration into the lair of the former enemy. That sweat-drenched southern dirt convinced many a native to pack up a beat-up truck or hit the rails to what they hoped would be a better life.

Once these emigrants landed in Detroit or Chicago or Cleveland or Cincinnati, the dream quickly faded. Manual labor in a toxic factory from daylight to dark six days a week felt more like a nightmare than a dream. It soon dawned on many that there would never be an easy way out.

That’s when the sirens started calling: the bars, the loose women, the drugs. Of course, these displaced souls could have practiced the same vices in the little Southern towns they came from, but family and friends provided a sort of buffer from overt sin. Up north, there was no family and the friends they made weren’t always the best. To many of these southern farm boys, the city was just a soulless stretch of dark streets that seemed to run on to oblivion. Wine, women, and song was preferable to the daily grind of farm or factory.

But then guilt began to tear them apart. Mom and Dad had taught them better, had read Bible stories to them when they were young. They could still hear those ancient hymns clutching for their souls: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”; “Amazing Grace”; and “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed.” And so began a mortal struggle between good and evil. For some, the cauldron of sin pulled harder than the God they’d left behind.

Some eventually returned home and made good lives. Others married local northern girls and lived comfortably. But a large percentage of these Southern transplants met their doom at the end of the lost highway.

Hillbilly singers were quick to describe their struggles. Here are ten of my favorite country displacement songs.

Detroit City. Written by Mel Tillis and Danny Dill. Recorded by Bobby Bare.

The refrain beats over and over: “I wanna go home. I wanna go home. Oh Lord, I wanna go home.” This is one of the great country songs of all time. Danny Dill had this to say about the lyrics: “About three years before we wrote this, I played a little old club in Detroit... and I saw these people that are in this song. They did go North. When I was a kid, they'd say, ‘Where's John now?’ ‘Well, he's gone up to De-troit.’ I sat there and talked to these people. They were from Alabama, West Tennessee, Kentucky, and they'd go to Detroit and work in the car factories. Now, they had more cash money in their pockets than they'd ever seen in their lives, but they were homesick. And to keep from being so lonely, they'd go sit in a bar and drink. And when they did get home, they'd get home with no money. They wasted, literally, ten or fifteen years of their lives, and they wanted to go home all the time. They'd think they were rich, but they'd spend it. Then, eventually, they'd... catch that Southbound freight and ride back home where they came from.”

City Lights. Written and recorded by Bill Anderson.

This song has been covered by many other artists, but I like the original version best. It has that honest 1950s feel of another lost soul wallowing in the cauldron of loneliness. The irony must have been seen by many: outside the saloon was an endless street filled with city lights, but for the doomed, there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

“A bright array of city lights
as far as I can see.
The Great White Way shines through the night
for lonely guys like me.
The cabarets and honky tonks,
their flashing signs invite
A broken heart to lose itself
in the glow of city lights.”

This is another one of the classic songs in the genre.

Tulsa Time. Written by Danny Flowers, recorded by Don Williams. Eric Clapton has a nice rockin’ version of this song, but his English accent detracts from the lyrics (after all, we’re talking Okies here).

In this song, the singer leaves Tulsa to make it big in Hollywood. Needless to say, he fails and decides to head on back to “Tulsa time.”

Hillbilly Highway. Written by Steve Earle and Jimbeau Hinson. Classic recording by Steve Earle.

Click the Youtube link above and hear it for yourself.

Streets of Baltimore. Written by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard. Recorded by Bobby Bare and many others.

The singer’s wife longs for something better than the Tennessee farm they own, so he sells out and moves her to Baltimore where she falls in love with the night-life. In the final verse, the singer laments:

“Well, I did my best to bring her back
To what she used to be.
Then I soon learned she loved those bright lights
More than she loved me.
Now I'm a going back on that same train
That brought me here before
While my baby walks the streets of Baltimore.”

Two More Bottles of Wine. Written by Delbert McClinton and recorded by Emmylou Harris.

“Years ago I had the experience of sitting around in a living room with a bunch of people and singing and playing,” Harris once said, “and it was like a spiritual experience, it was wonderful. And I decided then that what I was going to do with my life was play music, do music. In the making of records, I think over the years we've all gotten a little too technical, a little too hung up on getting things perfect. We've lost the living room. The living room has gone out of the music...” I couldn’t agree more. In this song, the singer and her lover move to Los Angeles, but he quickly leaves her for someone else. Stranded, she sings, “I’m fifteen hundred miles from the people I know...” So, like millions of others, she turns to booze: “It’s all right cause it’s midnight and I got two more bottles of wine.”

Waitin’ for a Train by Jimmie Rodgers. Recorded in Atlanta in 1928 at the beginning of the Great Depression.

In two short verses, this song describes the isolation, poverty of spirit and body, and loneliness of the wanderer. The original version, which features a jazz band complete with horns, is outstanding. In fact, the music sounds a lot like what you’d hear from a jug band. Here’s the first verse to this haunting song:

“All around a water tank
waiting for a train,
A thousand miles away from home
sleeping in the rain.
I walked up to a brakeman
just to give him a line of talk.
He said, ‘If you’ve got money,
I’ll see that you don’t walk.’
I haven’t got a nickel,
not a penny can I show.
‘Get off, get off, you railroad bum!’
and he slammed the boxcar door.”

San Francisco Mabel Joy. Written and recorded by the late great Mickey Newbury.

Although other artists covered this song, I like Newbury’s version best. It has that ancient feel of displacement--“he had fifteen years and ached inside to wander, so he hopped a train in Waycross and wound up in LA.” After falling in love with a San Francisco prostitute, the Georgia farm boy murders one of her johns and is sentenced to life in prison. He escapes and is shot and killed by cops in front of her home. Okay, the ending is kinda hokey, but it’s still a great song about a southern boy trying to make it in the big city.

My Old Cottage Home. Recorded by the Carter Family.

Although this song never specifically mentions that the singer has left the old home-place, it is implied. He remembers his friends and family and the old cottage home.

“I am thinking tonight of an old cottage home
That stands on the brow of the hill,
Where in life's early morning I once loved to roam,
But now all is quiet and still.”

I Sang Dixie. Written and recorded by Dwight Yoakam. Rhonda Vincent also does a moving rendition of this song.

“I sang ‘Dixie’ as he died.
The people just walked on by as I cried.
The bottle had robbed him of all his Rebel pride,
So I sang ‘Dixie’ as he died.”

Even though “I Sang Dixie” was first recorded in 1986, it captured the flavor of those Southerners who fled the farm and ended up as alcoholics in some big city, in this case, the City of Dreams. Thanks to my wife for reminding me of this one.

There you have it. A nice set of country displacement songs. If you have your own favorites, email me.

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