Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Family First and Last: O.C. Smith: "Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp"

In music, as in life, there is no greater figure of importance than the mother; and especially in music from the South, whether it be folk, country or soul. This is not apologetic or high falutin music; it says what it says as if to say that this is reality, as opposed to the often idealistic/nihilistic edges of rock. Mother is the bedrock of everything; there can be no criticism, because criticizing her is tantamount to criticizing everything else that surrounds you, and ultimately, yourself.

So when O.C. Smith tells the story of how his mother got to be a woman of the night, however exaggerated the tale (how could there be fourteen children who didn't understand adults' gossip?), it is at heart more a song about the pride of the family - the mother and the children - than any factual details. It's a pride that is defiant; the father is feckless, a drunk, who leaves them nothing (and unlike a future song, the children here don't ask about him) and having so many children to look after, she hangs up her "scarlet lamp" and brings them all up, on "chicken dumplings" and "goodnight kisses." Trying to figure out the logistics of how all this works is not the point; the mother loves her children and vice versa, and she dies (no indication how or why; since there's none I'm guessing old age/illness) and is remembered fondly by all of them. (Since they have a farm I guess some of the kids farm, but again that's not mentioned.) The song is about a boy who grows up and returns to his childhood home, defiant in his own way, but not looking to provoke a fight. He is proud - no one helped the family when he was growing up, and so I imagine it became like a military unit, self-sufficient and wary of outsiders. But again, there is no fuss; justified self-satisfaction is due, just as the roses on the mother's grave are due.

That this song was written by Dallas Frazier (who also wrote "Alley-Oop" and "Elvira"), a country songwriter, and done in a soul style seals the link between the two musics - blurs them really, as this song was also a hit for Kenny Rogers. There is, unlike "Honey," no pathos here, no clammy uneasiness; there is some grief that what happened had to happen, but it is not dwelled upon. That this song is at rock bottom about doing what you have to do in order to survive, a mother's sacrifice - well, no one is unfamiliar with that, no matter where you live, in the country or the city.

This song was a hit during a time when the charts could - and did - have just about anything and everything in them, from avant-MOR to easy listening to soul to rock to bubblegum; 1968 in singles was a swirling and sometimes (as we've seen) morbid look at life, life often seen in extremes, as if regular life was somehow not big enough to contain the feelings and tendencies of the time. Apart from all the strangeness, a song like this is like walking barefoot on grass; a reaffirmation of the fundamentals of life, even if that life is lived as the narrator's mother had to live hers. It also feeds into the 'back to basics' movement that had its rock counterpart in The Band, whose first album* caused a whole wave of prominent musicians to take a step back from psychedelic heaviness and get into something more subtle, acoustic and, well, soulful**.

Next up: a song about Cupid, because there have always been songs about him, thank goodness.

*The Band had no doubt played in many of the places O.C. Smith had played and knew both country and r&b intimately.

**There is a whole other wave of musicians in the UK who are coming up via the blues, but I will get to them in time.

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