And now we go back to Detroit, of all places, for a song about rural Alabama. Native Georgian General Johnson wrote (and The Chairmen of the Board recorded) this song, but it took off when a real son of Alabama, Clarence Carter, covered it.
As the descendant of a whole line of farmers, I can feel this song in my bones, even though I’m not from the South*. A farm is a way of life, a perilous one, and dependent on many things, primarily Mother Nature herself. To be born on a farm is to be born attached to Earth in a way that either attracts or repels; my father was born at home, on the farm, and yearned to get away from it, but it’s hard to take the farm out of the boy, and his appreciation of food – fruit in particular, but all food – is always something I remember about him. He left home at 18, to pursue the arts, become sophisticated, but he had the stoicism and patience of a farmer, even if he wasn’t one.
Unlike “Patches” he wasn’t the eldest in his family – he was the youngest in fact – but that heavy mantle of responsibility was there, too. Carter sings about his life as if it was fated, as if no matter where he goes he hears his father reminding him of what he had to do, no matter what. The father dies of sheer exhaustion before "Patches" is a teenager, and unlike “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” his mother stays right there on the farm, doing the things a farmer’s wife always does, no more, no less. She doesn’t remarry (since this is rural Alabama I’m guessing a lot of the eligible men have gone north, to Detroit perhaps) and the son carries the weight of his whole family – in effect his world – on his shoulders. There is no bravado here, no defying expectations, just hard work and hoping that the crops will last until they’re ready to be harvested.
Carter sings the song as if he’s singing it on behalf of every kid who had to stay on the farm instead of being able to leave it and getting to explore the world – to show the solid roots of family, roots that make sure he cannot leave, and as far as I can tell he is still there on the farm, taking care of it like his father told him to decades ago, and will be there until he dies. He is attached to his family and the farm in a profound way, a scruffy kid inside, older than his years. You don’t have to have a farming background to understand that attachment; the farm was his father’s and is now his, and he respects his father by tending the farm, which has actual crops and bugs and has to be sown and harvested, but the farm is something else too. It is his father; it becomes his father, depending on him as much as his father did. It is a simple and moving story, ancient in a way, a story that takes place way out in the woods in Alabama but could be anywhere, any place a father puts trust in a son and the son, despite hardships, carries out that trust. 1970 has brought many realities to the fore, but none are as basic as this one.
Next up: hm, did I mention my father was a Mennonite? And that we’re pacifists?
*My father was born in rural Nebraska, at the beginning of the Great Depression.