Monday, December 19, 2016

Mickey Newbury's Impromptu Synthesis ("An American Trilogy")

Before this weekend, I had never heard of Mickey Newbury, although I was familiar with his work.

So let's peek at Mickey Newbury's biography. He was born in Houston in 1940, spent some time in the Air Force, and eventually devoted himself to singing and songwriting. After some years, he achieved success in the latter.

1966 was the year the music industry noticed Mickey Newbury. Don Gibson had a Top Ten Country hit with Newbury’s Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings, while Tom Jones scored a world hit with the same song. In 1968, Mickey saw huge success; three number one songs and one number five – across four different charts; Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) on the Pop/Rock chart by the First Edition, SweetMemories on Easy Listening by Andy Williams, Time is a Thief on the R&B chart by Solomon Burke, and Here Comes the Rain Baby on the Country chart by Eddy Arnold. This feat has not been repeated.

But Newbury began to achieve some success as a singer also.

Mickey released three albums that raised the bar on Music Row. Produced at Cinderella Studios outside of Nashville, and utilizing Nashville’s best musicians, Newbury’s trilogy of albums - Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help The Child are often referred to as masterpieces.

But that's not the only trilogy connected with Newbury. The second of these albums, Frisco Mabel Joy, begins with a song that Newbury threw together in a single night (PDF).

Imagine merging Civil War era songs of the North, South and African-American slaves into one unified movement. On a starry evening in May of 1970 while appearing on stage at the Bitter End West, Newbury did just that. The impromptu arrangement just came together on that magical night and in one moment of brilliant inspiration.

We'll talk more about that night a little later.

While the arrangement was impromptu, the three songs that were chosen were (intentionally or unintentionally) deeply meaningful. Take the first song in the trilogy, "Dixie." Often considered the anthem of the Confederacy, many people are not aware that the song was composed by a Yankee, in New York City. And the song, at least originally, didn't have much to do with Jefferson Davis or his government.

It was Saturday night in 1859, when Dan Emmett was a member of Bryant's Minstrels in New York. Bryant came to Emmett and said: "Dan, can't you get us up a walk-around? I want something new and lively for Monday night." At that date all minstrel shows used to wind up with a "walk-around." The demand for them was constant, and Emmett was the composer of all the "walk-arounds" of Bryant's band. Emmett of course went to work, but he had done so much in that line that nothing at first satisfactory to him presented itself. At last he hit upon the first two bars, and any composer can tell how good a start that is in the manufacture of a tune. By Sunday afternoon he had the words, commencing: "I wish I was in Dixie." This colloquial expression was not, as most people suppose, a Southern phrase, but first appeared among the circus people of the North. In early fall, when nipping frosts would overtake the tented wanderers, the boys would think of the genial warmth of that section for which they were heading, and the common expression would be, "Well, I wish I was down in Dixie."

Which brings us to the second song, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," written by another New Yorker, Julia Ward Howe. However, when she wrote the words to the song, she literally was in Dixie.

In 1861 ... she made her first trip to Washington, where her husband became interested in the work of the Sanitary Commission. During the visit the party was invited to a military review in the Virginia camps. On the way back she and the others in the carriage sang "John Brown's Body" to the applause of the soldiers by the roadside.... That night the inspiration came; she wrote the best known of her poems and one of the finest products of the whole Civil War period.

So we've heard from the South (via a Northerner), and the North (via someone in the South). Have we left anyone out? I guess so, because Newbury felt the need to throw a 1960s folk song into the medley. But folk songs, including this one - "All My Trials" - have their origins:

This spiritual-lullaby probably originated in the antebellum South, from where it was transported to the West Indies. It appears to have died out in this country, only to be discovered in the Bahamas.

Oh, yeah - the SLAVES. I guess slave lives matter also.

They certainly mattered to the folk artists and others of the 1960s. The folkies would sing slave spirituals, and they'd sing the occasional Southern-themed song like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." But "Dixie" itself was, in a word, verboten.

Until Mickey Newbury appeared at the Bitter End West.

[W]hen Mickey announced his intention to play ["Dixie"] in the dressing room just before he was to take the stage club owner Paul Colby went white with fear.

“Mickey, you can’t do that,” Colby protested. “They’ll tear this club apart.” Colby’s new venture, Bitter End West, a Los Angeles branch of his venerable New York folk club, had not been open a week and Mickey had been granted the privilege of playing its opening weekend.

“Well, get a shovel,” came Mickey’s reply, “cos I’m fixing to do it.”

Rather than introduce “Dixie” by name, Mickey preceded his performance with a short overture that he knew would play well to the audience of liberal Californians, industry folk and fellow artists.

“Just this last week,” he began, “there was a song banned. I just can not understand why people think a song can be damaging. Anybody that loves truth and loves music would have no argument with ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ regardless of what Bob Dylan’s politics or personality was like.”

That's when Newbury started playing "Dixie," and then tacked the other two songs on for good measure.

Of course, Mickey Newbury's version isn't the one we remember - we remember Elvis, in the jumpsuit, with the huge band and the horns and everything. But here's how Mickey does it - in this instance, just him and a violinist.

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