Songs of the South
By Julia ReedIn January, I attended a sixtieth birthday bash at the House of Blues in New Orleans, and since the birthday boy happened to be a billionaire, the entertainment was especially stellar. My buddy Harry Shearer, a very funny man (and the voice of about half the cast of The Simpsons), emceed the proceedings, which kicked off with a version of “Happy Birthday” by his wife, the Welsh chanteuse Judith Owen, that made Marilyn Monroe’s seem wholesome. Dr. John cut loose with “Right Place Wrong Time,” and Chrissie Hynde, looking and sounding at least as hot as she did when she first broke through with the Pretenders, did a set that included “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and “Back on the Chain Gang.” Gregg Allman was up next with “Statesboro Blues,” “One Way Out,” and “Melissa,” and the great Joe Walsh (who sang an especially ironic “Life’s Been Good”) closed the show with a rousing set that rocked the house. Or at least it should have.
Before I go any further, I should confess that I have never actually met my host. I was a guest of a guest, and a very lucky one at that, so I am trying to be very careful not to cast aspersions. But it was…weird. No one seemed to take much joy in the proceedings, or if they did it was seriously internalized. Though the party was held in what is essentially a big bar, the audience seemed airlifted in from Carnegie Hall. I mean, I learned to make out with the Allman Brothers on the stereo; there’s no way to listen to “Melissa” without the hair on the back of your neck standing up. I first heard Joe Walsh when I was ten and he was in the James Gang. Until he joined the Eagles, no one in that band could have pulled off that central guitar riff in “Life in the Fast Lane,” which he also played that night. There was some serious history—and not just my own—on that stage.
In contrast to the rest of the group, my friend and I spent the evening jooking around like maniacs—or, indeed, like normal people listening to a kick-ass lineup of some of the greatest and most storied musicians in the world. And we weren’t just the only ones moving, we were the only ones on our feet—except, of course, the musicians, most of whom were the oldest people in the room. Greg Allman is sixty-five and has a new liver; Dr. John and Joe Walsh have put enough bad stuff in their bodies over the years to kill a herd of water buffalo. But all three of them exhibited far more energy than the people they were playing for. But then, almost nobody in the audience, which included Bill Gates, was from the South. Apparently, folks in other regions do not spend the bulk of their youths in cars and bars learning about life and love and lust to the beat of a constant sound track.
Which leads me to the definition of Southern music. You could make the case that most music is Southern since the South gave the world jazz, blues, rock and roll, country, and the songs of Johnny Mercer. But I think you can also define music as Southern by the way you listen to it. In the car, of course, with the AC blasting and the windows rolled down, while banging out the beat on the steering wheel. Or in a club, while dancing the shag or the funky chicken or the gator or trying to do James Brown’s splits. It was the Godfather who said, “The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.” My friend Humphreys McGee does an indescribable dance during the instrumental break in Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog” that is such an intense expression of the good stuff in Humphreys’s soul he only does it every five years or so, lest he have a heart attack. When André Leon Talley saw Humphreys “walk the dog” at my parents’ house once, he pronounced it a “piece of Appalachian folk art” and said he ought to be in the Smithsonian. Humphreys himself says simply that the song allows “an opportunity to abandon all inhibitions and release my body to my id.”
The world would definitely be a better (or at least a more exciting) place if we all tried that every once in a while, but for starters you’d have to get up out of your seat. When I was eleven, I came home from school to find my mother dancing through the house while “American Pie” blared from our brand-new quadraphonic speakers. She was so into it and so oblivious of my presence that I was in awe and maybe even a tiny bit afraid, and I didn’t tell her I’d seen her until years afterward. My mother is a great, great dancer. I am not, but that has not kept me from dancing on bars and tables and in my kitchen by myself late at night. Mostly, though, I listen to a lot of music, and below I’ve created an entirely arbitrary Southern Playlist. If it were remotely comprehensive it would include additional acts ranging from Irma Thomas to the Avett Brothers, but I’ll get to them. Fortunately, I have a bit of time before I start planning my own sixtieth birthday concert (which will likely be broadcast via iPod).
via Garden & Gun