Thursday, April 11, 2024

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Tales of Tobacco Road

I was born in a dump / Mama died and my daddy go drunk...

These are the first words of a song that became one of the most covered tunes of the 1960s, though the covers have gone well beyond. "Tobacco Road" is the story of poverty, sentimentality and a young man's determination to better his circumstances. Or maybe "sentimentality" shouldn't be part of that description, as in the last verse, the singer declares his desire to "blow it up and start all over again."

It sounds like some ancient blues song, something John or Alan Lomax might have picked up from some half-drunk sharecropper or mean-eyed Angola Prison inmate.

But, no, it was written by John D. Loudermilk, a country and pop songwriter from Durham, N.C. He wrote it and was the first to record it 1959 (and released in 1960).

Loudermilk, in a 1988 interview in American Songwriter, spoke of the origins of what probably is his best-known song:

I got the idea for writing that song from a road in our town that was called Tobacco Road because it was where they rolled the hogsheads full of Tobacco down to the river to be loaded onto barges. Along that road were a lot of real tough, seedy-type people, and your folks would have just died if they thought you ever went down there.

He didn't mention that "Tobacco Road"  previously had been used as a title of a 1941 movie directed by John Ford, as well as a 1933 Broadway play, both of which were based on a 1932 novel of the same name by Erskine Caldwell. 

But that's neither here nor there. The movie, play and novel largely have been forgotten, while the song is a classic. It's been recorded by everyone from Edgar Winter to David Lee Roth; from Hank Williams, Jr. to The Jefferson Airplane ... and lots of folks in between.

Here's that original 1960 version by Loudermilk:

But Loudermilk's version failed to become a hit. It wasn't until the 1964 British Invasion, when a one-hit-wonder band called The Nashville Teens recorded it. And yes, their one hit was indeed wondrous:

And soon after this, the song became a garage-rock standard. One of my favorites was by The Blues Magoos.

Even before The Nashville Teens, Lou Rawls gave "Tobacco Road" some soul gravitas: 

Eric Burdon performed the song with The Animals. But a few years later he did a more interesting version with War:

Had you told me that "Tobacco Road" was written especially for Bobbie Gentry, I probably would have believed you. It's just her kind of tune:

Junior Wells took it to Chicago in 1990:

And in 2007, Southern Culture on the Skids returned the song to its rightful North Carolina home:

For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook

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