Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"I love you because you're home..."

My latest essay in The Normal School is out, a trip down John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" and some of the many, sometimes wildly different, cover versions that followed, including the Nashville Teens', Lou Rawls's, the Blues Magoos', Bobbie Gentry's, and Junior Wells's, and the maddening ways we define home. You can subscribe to The Normal School here.

Here's an excerpt from the opening:
Loudermilk rode his bicycle to Marvin’s Alley with a flashlight and a fistful of money orders to deliver: muddy road, no cars, seven or eight houses, each darker than the next. “But each porch lamp had a light in it of different colors,” he remembered. “I didn’t know what that meant. So I knock on the door of the first house, and the lights come on inside. And it was full of people. Quiet. Because they were not supposed to be so free with their Saturday nights.” Loudermilk would peer through the front doorway at the suddenly illuminated folks inside who, propped up on the couch, would quietly smile and nod back at him. “And when the guy was through with the business at the front door, I left, and he’d turn the lights off. And I went to the next house. That was Tobacco Road.”
A decade later, the imagery of the dark, mysterious alley and the people who lived there haunted Loudermilk and the words of the song he’d write and record. That kid born in a lump—some will sing “bunk”—whose parents vanish, who’s left to live or die alone, who hates Tobacco Road, enacts the great dream: he leaves town and, blessed by the Lord, earns lots of money, comes back, bulldozes that lousy road, and rebuilds it, proud, at long last, of the name. But there’s a paradox in the chorus made graphic by a change in melody and mood, a nagging conflict that makes the song real: the place will always be home, no matter how bleak and despised, as it’s the only life he knew. Can a song solve that puzzle, make something joyful of it?

Raised in the Baptist church, Loudermilk didn’t know the world and the people of Marvin’s Alley. He wasn’t writing autobiography. “My mother didn’t die in childbirth,” he made clear. “My daddy didn’t get drunk. I never saw him drink a drop. He smoked cigarettes and died as a result of it. I never heard a dirty joke or a curse word from my father.” The angry man in “Tobacco Road” lives in that space between Loudermilk’s upbringing and the zones he crossed into Marvin’s Alley, between home and fantasy, real life and fiction. Loudermilk already knew the power of the imagination, of an interior life engaged with the world outside. “Dad, he was very, very quiet. I’d come home at night after work and he and mother would be sitting in the dark having watched the sunset go down. And I said, ‘What are y’all doing in here?’ He said, ‘You’ll know someday’.”
And some strolls down Tobacco Road:

Lou Rawls, Tobacco Road (1963)
The Nashville Teens, single (1964)

Blues Magoos, Psychedelic Lollipop (1966)

Bobbi Gentry, The Delta Sweete (1968)

Junior Wells, Coming At You (1968)

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