I was reading an article about Dolly Parton’s heart-tugging 1971 hit “Coat of Many Colors” today, and it referenced a 2005 survey done by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to identify the 100 greatest songs of the American South. I had to see that list, of course, and finally found it on an old Prince fan site. “Coat of Many Colors” came in at #10, while Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” topped the list. That “winner” is an epic, important, amazing, historic song, for sure, though it kind of stings to think that lynching turns up as the subject of the most notable song from/about the region that spawned me and my kin for generations and generations. (And, yeah, for many of those generations, my ancestors trafficked in human misery as slave-owners, so maybe “Strange Fruit” is the right song for such a list, hmmm, and alas).
But that point of musical and historic darkness didn’t stop me from thinking about my own most meaningful Songs of the South, the ones that speak to my own experiences and understandings of the region over the past half-century, in all of its weirdness, implicit and explicit. My songs may not be as important or topical or well-known as the ones on the Journal-Constitution‘s list, but they do take me home when I hear them, or at least make me want some boiled peanuts and okra and country ham while they’re spinning. Here’s a baker’s dozen worth of the ones that resonate most strongly with me, for one reason or another, most of those reasons not anchored in explainable logic.
For those readers from the region, which of your favorites did that old newspaper and I miss?
“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by The Sanford-Townsend Band
“Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips
“Heartbreaker” by Nantucket
“Satan’s River” by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner
“Moving to Florida” by Butthole Surfers
“The City of New Orleans” by Arlo Guthrie
“Driver 8” by R.E.M.
“Creek Bank” by Mose Allison
“Breakfast Song” by Minister Cleo Clariet
“I Love” by Tom T. Hall
“I’ll Take You There” by The Staples Singers
“Down On The Farm” by Little Feat
“What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” by Washington Phillips