The Choctaw Ridge 50

A Southern Gothic Mixtape

Here's something I worked up for my South class at Centre, an outline sketch of some roots and branches. Even though books and movies have held the big flags for Southern Gothic over the years, it's more than a little interesting to lend an ear to the soundtrack that's been out there in the swamps, hollers, and airwaves all the while.

1.  Bobbie Gentry, "Ode to Billie Joe"

The gold standard. The handwritten 1967 ms. of the original 11-verse version is in the Faulkner Room at the University of Mississippi. Gentry laid down the track as simple vocal-and-guitar, after which a Capitol Records suit told the session producer, "Just put some strings on it so we won't be embarrassed. No one will ever hear it anyway." A whole world opens up out of table-talk fragments as real as blackeyed peas. Is Choctaw Ridge cursed or do people just make their own trouble? Callousness, manipulation, silence, and division fill the spaces of the family portrait. Seems there's more than one kind of virus going around. Mystery deepens the resonance of it all. Why did he jump? The song never says. Pass the biscuits, please.

2.  Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues"

The site: where Highway 61 crosses 49 outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, says the prevailing legend. RJ prays, God turns away, darkness falls. Looks east, looks west: no love, no friend, no deliverance. You can run, you can run, but it's hopeless . . .  if the hellhound's on your trail? Bottleneck slide--that eerie likeness of a wail--makes the notes between the notes that make the blues. From the famous Gunter Hotel recording session in San Antonio, 1936, two years before his murder by poison.

3.  Rosanne Cash, "Money Road"

The Tallahatchie Bridge, Robert Johnson's grave, and the grocery store where Emmitt Till was marked for death--all three are on Money Road. Sacred tragic ground. "You can't separate the violence, racism, and history of the Deep South," Cash told an interviewer, "from the profundity of the music and literature that came from there. The fact that William Faulkner lived down the road from Robert Johnson, who lived down the road from Eudora Welty, who lived down the road from Howlin' Wolf, who lived down the road from Pops Staples . . . it's almost inconceivable."

4.  The Louvin Brothers, "Knoxville Girl"

From Tragic Songs of Life, 1956. Motiveless malignity. The darkest, cruelest, most freakish of all the Appalachian murder ballads. Waltzing along in that melodious brother harmony.

5.  Gillian Welch, "The Devil Had a Hold of Me"

The speaker feels the devil at her sleeve each stage of life from babyhood to deathbed. (What did she do to the butcher's boy? It's creepier left unsaid.) GW is the contemporary laureate of dark-minded old-time. The song is from Nashvegas 1998 but both the banjo and the stark dualism could be Black Mountain 1898. The prefab "Southern Gothic" playlist on the Spotify Browser has 100+ mostly contemporary items, approximately half of which take their modern cue from this song.

6.  The Steeldrivers, "Ghosts of Mississippi"

Corn whiskey can take you there: the crossroads where legend says Robert Johnson traded his soul to Satan for the guitar genius that seemed to emerge overnight. The crossroads protocol is that you hand your guitar to the devil at midnight. He re-tunes it, plays a song, hands it back, and the Faustian exchange is complete. Now you can sing like Chris Stapleton, play slide like Mike Henderson, and keen like this whole band on fire. But a ghost of Mississippi will smile back in the mirror.

7.  Sacred Harp Singers, "Idumea"

"And am I born to die?" Sometimes the frontier-Protestant hymns are so frightening that they're Southern Gothic. Song by Ananias Davisson, compiler of Kentucky Harmony, the first shape-note hymnal of the South (1816). This 1920s-era performance is by Alabama's J.T. Allison Sacred Harp Singers--in the ferociously percussive and all-out a cappella attack of shape-note that'll make your hair stand on end. The Battle of the Crater scene in the movie of Cold Mountain uses this for soundtrack.

8.  Tony Joe White, "Polk Salad Annie"

Well, it is a shame when your mama's working on the chain gang. But Annie the wildchild knows how to make do. This greasy swamprocker is on the high spirits side of Southern Gothic. It could be the Rough South soundtrack for a Harry Crews story or the watermelon tale in Suttree. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, 1968. Written by White (b. Oak Grove, Louisiana) under the influence of Bobbie Gentry: "I heard 'Ode to Billie Joe' on the radio and I thought, man, how real, because I am Billie Joe, I know that life. I've been in the cotton fields . . . . I know about polk because I had ate a bunch of it." Polk as in pokeweed, a traditional forage food in the South. If you're going to be a stickler, yes, it's poison. It's edible if the leaves are picked young and boiled three times to make sallet, cooked greens. White's grunts and swamp licks are not about having the sallet.

9.  Jesse Winchester, "Step by Step"

Maybe the devil smiles because it's so much fun to slick that ladder. Shrewd blues burner from Memphian JW--who can't get in step with the carefree climbing. This song plays behind the closing montage of Season 1 of The Wire. Talk about "trouble down below."

10. Patty Loveless, "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive"

The title line comes around five times and every repeat has a new context. The last verse is set up perfectly by the delusional joy of the preceding one. The song unfolds like a Greek tragedy. Harlan is as cursed as Thebes. The songwriter is Darrell Scott, son of London, Kentucky. Pikeville-born Patty Loveless's version is the best of five, all excellent, that were used as the theme music of FX's Justified.

11. Emmylou Harris, "Deeper Well"

A quest narrative that drives forward like an enigmatic nursery rhyme. It's a story song but the narrative is buried deep in those mysterious images. From Harris's mood-drenched masterpiece, Wrecking Ball (1995).  

12. Ralph Stanley, "O Death"

Folk spiritual at least a hundred years old. The hieratic melisma of the chorus sounds at least a thousand years old. Stanley sings it the Primitive Baptist way of his raising in Clinch Mountain country, Virginia. The man's increasingly desperate pleading is going nowhere in this deathbed dialogue with the icy-handed and icier-hearted power. It's both terrible and powerful that this is the sound coming out of the Klan Wizard's hood in O, Brother, Where Art Thou?.

13. Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, "In the Pines"

The distilled essence of the high lonesome sound. What train is this anyway? "I asked my captain for the time of day. He said he throwed his watch away." One of the best Southern Gothic moves, across forms, is to intimate the uncanny without going full paranormal. Lead Belly recorded a version of this number known as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", but the song originated, author unknown, in the Southern mountains.

14. Jerry Reed, "Amos Moses"

Tall-tale shenanigans. The detail of the lost sheriff is just for fun. This lyric reaches back to 19th-century roughneck grotesquerie of the Sut Lovingood type. Jerry Reed, a Georgian, didn't know much about real Cajuns--thus the stereotypes played for comedy- but he did know how to embody the backwoods yarnspinner role. Most of all he knew how to play the fire out of any kind of guitar. It's a Telecaster here, hammer of the honky-tonk gods.

15. Guy Clark, "Mud"

The early bird gets the worm. The second mouse gets the cheese. The world's wise saws cancel each other out. What we've got is mud. This is a song off Clark's The Dark (2002).

16. Lucinda Williams, "Ghosts of Highway 20"

Doesn't get any more Southern Gothic than this. Greg Leisz and Bill Frisell's guitars evoke everything Poe meant by miasma and Faulkner by effluvium. I started watching Sharp Objects last night. Wind Gap is one of the spectral exits off Williams' Hwy 20. If Lucinda had cutter scars they would spell out secrets, final days, and repent. I recommend listening to this recording in an optimal acoustic space. A jelly glass of Weller 12 with a single branchwater cube worked for me.

17. The Civil Wars, "20 Years"

Several tracks off Barton Hollow (2011) would be worthy. There's a masterful economy of both lyric and production in "20 Years." The strength of the genie comes from being confined in the bottle. Also, this song has a Poe-esque either/or: might be supernatural, might not.

18. Bessie Smith, "St. Louis Blues"

W.C. Handy said he first heard this tune in 1892. His arrangement became a standard. This is the 1925 Bessie Smith recording with Louis Armstrong playing those trumpet fills. The song is sometimes known by its first line--"I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down"--which supplies the title for haunting tales by both William Faulkner and William Gay. Faulkner's protagonist hates to see darkness fall because her estranged lover is waiting in the ditch to kill her.

19. Rhiannon Giddens, "At the Purchaser's Option"

Song from Freedom Highway (2017). Giddens wrote this after seeing an antebellum newspaper advertisement: "FOR SALE, A remarkable smart healthy Negro Wench, About 22 years of age; used to both house work and farming, and sold for no fault but for want of employ. She has a child about 9 months old, which will be at the purchaser's option."

20. The Band, "Long Black Veil"

The Band was 4/5 Canadian, I know, but they lived and breathed Southern music and Levon Helm was the pure Arkansas, larger-than-life 1/5 and this is the best of many versions of this haunted Southern ballad first made famous by Lefty Frizzell. Lefty's songwriting, by the way, began with the letters he wrote while in jail for having sex with an underage fan. Letters to his wife.

21. James Carter and the Prisoners, "Po Lazarus"

A work song in the genus "bad man ballad," with roots going back to slavery. "The Prisoners" isn't a band name. They were the Parchman inmates chopping logs the day in 1959 that Alan Lomax came by with his recording machine. The bad man ballad is especially alive and thriving right now in hip hop.

22. Wanda Jackson, "Funnel of Love"

This kind of love funnels to nowhere good and no one knows it like Wanda, the Queen of Rockabilly. A 45 of this is what the immortal vampire and collector of all things priceless is playing in the opening frames of Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive.  

23. Dan Tyminski, "Southern Gothic"

Title and core theme of the whole album (2017). Just released. It's disorienting to hear the Man of Constant Sorrow invite electronic beats into his world, but here we are, it's the cultural moment. Folktronica aside, the song is an emphatic example of the fascination right now with Southern Gothic as a target genre. Tyminski comes to the form from the inside, having spent three Southern decades with Lonesome River Band and Union Station, but one notices that Swedes, Brits, Californians, all flags of media folk, wield the term and employ the form à la rom-com or western or biopic. It's become a construction kit of sorts. This song would be more SG if it told a story but it otherwise digs into the kit with gusto: Spanish moss, guns and Bibles, Southern Baptists, shady preachers, dirty pols, cheating wives, a garden of good and evil, whiskey, pills, dope, and the Devil. Just needs a dead mule.

24. Robert Earl Keen, "The Road Goes On Forever"

Who says chivalry's dead? Sherry's the scary one. Eight verses of narrative momentum, chock full of just the right details, every rhyme clicking into place like fate.

25. Charlie Rich, "I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water"

"I just know you're a good man." "Nome, I ain't. Must have washed my hands in muddy water." Would fit seamlessly into "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

26. Lee Ann Womack, "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?"

"My dearly departed." Hmmm. Cool blues dulcimer too.

27. Carrie Underwood, "Choctaw County Affair"

From Choctaw Ridge to Choctaw County. Written by veteran Nashville songwriter Jason White after one of those bar conversations about what's missing from country music these days. The talk turned to Bobbie Gentry, "Ode to Billie Joe," and the genius of a story song with a mystery at the core. White headed home to his guitar wondering about the possibilities of a song titled "Choctaw County Affair." Soon thereafter the word catawampus was getting its best-ever use in song.

28. James Carr, "The Dark End of the Street"

The forbidden. Dread, shame, sure exposure and punishment: "They're gonna find us, they're gonna find us, they're gonna find us." That great bridge and then the key change--hope? escape?--no, the inexorable darkness: "Tonight we'll meet" . . . at the dead end of the street. Last, where the gospel piano has been pointing toward an "amen" there's just a moan and the tremolo chord with which everything started. What a love song. All-time favorite of both Mick Jagger and Duane Allman by the way. Everyone from Aretha to Dolly has sung it. This is the deep soul rendering by Carr, bipolar son of a Baptist minister from Coahoma, Mississippi. Recorded at Royal Studios, Memphis, 1966. Written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman. Their goal, Penn said, was "to come up with the best cheating song, ever." It ends up being about any kind of pathological compulsion and concealment.

29. Brenda Lee, "I'm Sorry"

The girl's not sorry. That chromatic drop in each verse is the first clue that something's off. Then listen to the frigid elocution of the spoken verse. She's got ice, no, novocaine, in her veins. And what after all did she do, which she indicates only with the underclass grammar and evasive passive of "that don't right a wrong that's been done"? And in what scenario would the seeming apology recipient also be the consoler offering an out? I think there are three characters in an insinuated narrative here, and one of them is a femme fatale of the nymphet kind, who knows perfectly well that love can be so cruel oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-O yes. "Little Miss Dynamite" (b. Brenda Mae Tarpley in an Atlanta charity ward) was 15 when she released this #1 in 1960.

30. Dr. John, "I Walk on Gilded Splinters"

Fire-walking, le grand zombie, a yellow belt of choison, multiple call-outs of musician Coco Robichaux because his name just sounds so good--what else could you want? Here's Mac Rebennack in the Dr. John persona that drives his concept album Gris-Gris (1968). The eponymic John was the nineteenth-century two-headed doctor who was the first voodoo king of New Orleans. The song is a Crescent City gumbo of West African polyrhythms, hoodoo folk magic, and maximum electric mist. Side note: Dr. John's magnum opus with voodoo-heritage material is "Litanie des Saints" from Goin' Back to New Orleans. It's got the Neville Brothers, invocations of voodoo loas, one of those 12-finger Dr. J piano breaks, and a poignant melody that the nineteenth-century Creole composer Louis Gottschalk picked up from listening to slave songs in Congo Square.

31. Johnny Cash, "The Wreck of the Old 97"

Disaster song classic. True story of the speeding mail train that went off the trestle at Danville, Virginia, September 27, 1903. Screaming whistle, dead hand on the throttle, the engineer scalded to death by the steam--grisly details are the core of the genre. This recording is one of those legendary Sun sessions in 1957.

32. Doc Watson, "Tom Dooley"

Execution song classic. True story. Laura Foster was stabbed to death in 1866 in Wilkes County, NC, pregnant with Confederate vet Tom Dula's child (Dula is pronounced Dooley in mountainese cf. Grand Ole Opry). Dula was involved at the same time in a ménage à trois with two of Laura's cousins, one of whom had introduced syphilis into the equation. This threesome slept in a bed in the cabin of one of the girls' husband. A venn diagram might help, friends. "Grayson" was a Tennessee man who helped apprehend Tom. A former North Carolina governor was Tom's defense lawyer, to no avail. "Gentlemen, do you see this hand?" Tom said from the gallows. "I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head."  The whole tragic scandal was followed with glee in the national papers. Doc Watson learned his version of the song from his grandmother.

33. Larkin Poe, "Banks of Allatoona"

Blues-rock sister act from Georgia. Very now but their songwriting nonetheless bows to the Poe in that bandname. This tune could be a soundtrack for Rectify.

34. Cassandra Wilson, "Sign of the Judgment"

A haunting rendition of one of the old slave-culture ring shouts, source point of call-and-response in American music. Zora Neale Hurston and Alan Lomax recorded ring shouts in the Georgia Sea Islands in the 1930s. The apocalyptic lyric is half Ezekiel's vision of chariot angels and half fugitive-slave experience.

35. Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Snake Farm"

Snake farms, gator pits, reptile houses--all are by definition Southern Gothic. This song is on the comic-grotesque side of things.

36. Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley P.T.A."

Another score for Southern Gothic's laughtrack.  Brandy Clark's "Big Day in a Small Town" is a recent song in the same key. What's really under there when you lift the lid on Mayberry? Something more like those towns in a Eudora Welty story?

37. Son House, "John the Revelator"

Apocalyptic gospel blues by the original tambourine man, Anonymous. There's a great Blind Willie Johnson version of this song in Harry Smith's anthology of the old weird America. And there's a killer resonator and drum version by Government Mule. But my personal favorite is this one, Son House doing it a cappella. Fall, crucifixion, resurrection, end-times--covers the whole Book. Who's that writing? House asks and asks, the tension ratcheting up all the while inside the unspoken companion question: How does this whole thing end?

38. The Country Gentlemen, "House of the Rising Sun"

Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs, and Jerry Douglas all cut eyeteeth with this legendary bluegrass band. As for that soul-ruining house, it started its life in song as a whorehouse in long-ago England then made the Atlantic crossing into Appalachian balladry as a New Orleans bordello.

39. Louis Armstrong, "St. James Infirmary"

Satchmo made the song famous in 1928. Appalachian versions known earlier probably have DNA from an 18th-century London hospital for venereal disease. The turns of the narrative from verse to verse are all kinds of strange.

40. Bob Dylan, "Blind Willie McTell"

Bootleg tape with Mark Knopfler on guitar. The music is "St. James Infirmary," which Dylan footnotes after his fashion in the last verse. The lyric is a Nobelwinner's sojourn into Southern Gothic. McTell was the Georgia bluesman who among other fine things wrote "Statesboro Blues" of Allman Brothers fame.

41. Porter Wagoner, "The Cold Hard Facts of Life"

Three chords and the truth? This is the kind of song that made me cringe at all things Nashville back in the day--the bland melody, the straitjacketed musicianship, the here we go again another cheating song. I still don't much like it but, brethren and sistren, this is one pitch-black item when you look a little closer, made all the pitch-blacker by the incongruity between the lyric and the countrypolitan package. What's cold hard true is that the new cold hard truthteller is a blasphemous sadist. He's still so much enjoying the screams and frantic faces that he invites the Lord to do the same. "Who taught who the cold hard facts"? Maybe God just learned something about one of the terrors of His creation. One other thing. The guy says he bought pink champagne but then he drinks a "fifth"--and champagne doesn't come in fifths. And all the while a murder-capable knife is apparently materializing in his hand. Which facts are the facts? I may be straining the soup too thin, but it's amusing to imagine a Poe-esque delusional narrator.

42. Jason Isbell, "Yvette"

"It's a family affair." Yvette's violation is about to end. There's a boy outside in the dark with a rifle and a scope. From Southeastern (2013).

43. Reba McEntire, "Fancy"

Another story-song gem by Bobbie Gentry. Reba made it her signature. Both versions are stellar, Gentry's production notable for the atmospheric drum work, Reba's for the bluesy acoustic guitar drive. The mystery of the "arming" scene comes off almost like Fancy receiving superpowers--"It was RED!" Then the mother's desperation becomes the core of the narrative and Gentry's evocation of it is a clinic in syncing melodic rhythm and vernacular accuracy: "Your Pa's runned off and I'm real sick and the baby's gonna starve to death." Even the fairytalish plot-turn has a killer line: "I might've been born just plain white trash but Fancy was my name." In its way the song knows all about the longstanding class prejudice against Southern white poverty too. (See Nancy Isenberg's eye-opening book for the four centuries of context.) Gentry, by the way, was raised by her grandparents in a house without electricity. Her grandfather loved possum stew and used to give Bobbie the tails for toys. A milk cow was traded to a neighbor for a parlor piano for the gifted girl.

44. The Handsome Family, "Your Great Journey"

This is the musical counterpart of Southern storymaking by the likes of Barry Hannah or Kevin Wilson or Karen Russell. The Great Speckled Bird is gone with the PoMo wind. A capital W weird re-do of country gospel. Dark, funny, and dark.

45. Drive-By Truckers, "Sinkhole"

Bankerman, do NOT turn this character's bailout down. He'll serve you sweet tea and banana pudding then throw you in a sinkhole. Patterson Hood's ragged phlegmy one-take voice is the badge of authenticity and no subject is off limits for the DBTs. The focus is murderous rage here; it's incest, feuds, glue-sniffing, plane crashes, George Wallace, mass killings, and "the duality of the Southern thing" elsewhere. All backed by three guitars with amps at 11.

46. Phil Madeira, "The Ghost of Johnny Cash"

Julius Caesar was elevated to deity status in the Roman Empire. The Southern Empire has a JC too. Also an HW (see "Midnight in Montgomery" and "The Ride"). And of course EP ("Black Velvet"--"a new religion that'll bring you to your knees"--plus Mojo Nixon's "Elvis Is Everywhere" for starters, not to mention Crying Night of the annual Graceland Vigil). The fringes of the idolatry are full-on Southern Gothic.

47. Steve Earle, "Copperhead Road"

A three-generation story song, moonshine to marijuana. Defiance as old as Stirling Bridge.

48. Brook Benton, "Rainy Night in Georgia"

Makes the list for sheer atmospherics. "I feel like it's raining all over the world" is the Southern Gothic part of the lyric. Otherwise it's the melody and texture that carry the genre feel. This is the radio-hit version from 1969 with the legendary soul-guitarist Cornell Dupree backing South Carolinian Benton. Song written by Tony Joe White.

49. Jean Ritchie, "Barbary Allen"

Imagine it's 1930 and 8-year-old Jean Ritchie is walking the woods of Eastern Kentucky floating these ancient melancholy notes over the valley. The song is the story of two self-willed deaths. Sweet William of love.  Cold Barbary of guilt. And now they're "burr-ied" where nature can heal what the human heart could not. Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley's "Whiskey Lullaby" is a 21st-century take on the same plot.

50. Nina Simone, "Strange Fruit"

The lyric of the most wrenching Southern Gothic song was written in 1937 by a schoolteacher in New York, Abel Meeropol. By setting the horror against the backdrop of sweet Southern magnolias and gallantry, he extracts maximum irony and revulsion. The most famous version of the song is the one by Billie Holiday, who made it a devastating set-closer with the room all in darkness save for a single spotlight on her face. The version here by Nina Simone was recorded live in 1965 in the midst of Simone's most intense Civil Rights activism. North Carolina preacher's daughter--b. Eunice Waymon--who changed her name to sing "the devil's music" and become one of the great jazz and blues singers of her time. Accompanied only by her own restrained piano, she delivers this powerful song straight up.