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21 December 2007 @ 10:30 am

Nowhere is it written why some people can get away with doing certain things and other people can’t…. And I’m not talking about extreme cases like why Dick Cheney and George Bush can commit mass-murder and not be strung up and gutted like fish, when if you or I committed similar heinous criminal acts with such depraved indifference to human life, the justice served on us would be swift and it would be severe.  That has to do with being wealthy and having politicians & the justice system in your pocket. No, I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about how the public is willing to accept behavior from one person but not from another.


Case in point: After Sam Cooke left the Soul Stirrers to pursue a solo career in secular music, he was met with fierce hostility from the Black gospel community. So much so that when he reunited with them a few years later, after he became a successful pop singer, he was booed so vigorously by members of the crowd that he left the stage in tears (or so I’ve heard). The same fate was met by the Staple Singers for the same reason. Yet Aretha Franklin, who also began in gospel, and also decided to perform secular music, never received any condemnation for her actions. She has been able to jump back and forth between gospel and secular music her entire life and never get jeered or incur wrath from the audience. Why?


Another case: Rock n’ roll was reviled when it first started to take hold in the mid-fifties. Self-righteous politicians and community leaders shrieked that the music was designed to “bring the white man down to the level of the negro”. Frank Sinatra said the music was “sung by cretinous goons”. Yet, Red Foley, who hosted The Ozark Jubilee TV show in the mid-fifties (a decidedly white, family-oriented program), could perform kick-ass, undiluted, rock-a-billy tunes like ‘Crazy Little Guitar Man’ and no one would raise an eyebrow. Just because he was a middle-aged, white man who had hits during WWII, this guy still put out pure, unadulterated, rock n roll. Yet, if some punk named Johnny Sideburns (not a real person) sang the exact same song, with the exact same guitar licks as Speedy Haworth (good luck!) it would have been seen as vulgar! Why?

Lenny Bruce once made an interesting observation about how people can find a sexual rendezvous beautifully romantic as long as Liszt’s Liebestraum is playing, champagne is being served, and a soft autumn breeze rolls in across the chantilly lace. BUT, a one night stand with a character named ‘Tract Home Chippy’ who ploughs into a woman and ejaculates prematurely is utterly disgusting and debased - even though the story line is exactly the same. His point was that writers shouldn’t suffer ostracization simply because they lack a flair for poetic language. Or in Lenny’s case, he shouldn’t be punished for pointing out the hypocrisy inherent in such views. It’s only words, he would say. Of course, he lost that battle. By 1966 he couldn’t even get a booking because of his choice of language and what he decided to comment on. But he made a good point.

Here’s how I see it. People will not only tolerate, but will embrace, any subject matter, regardless of how harsh it is, provided it’s handled with exceptional skill.

A perfect example of this is a song that I believe is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing ever. If someone told you they had a song that dealt with abortion and suicide, you’re likely reaction would be, “Not interested”. How could it not be heavy-handed? It certainly wouldn’t be a favorite song, right? Yet, the #1 song of 1967, a song beloved by people of all ages and stripes, dealt with exactly those issues. But it did it in such a way that it was irresistible to the masses and NO ONE was offended. NO ONE.


The song was ‘Ode to Billy Joe’, written and performed by a 23-year-old girl from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, named Roberta Lee Streeter (aka: Bobbie Gentry). Written from the point of view of a family discussion over dinner, the topic of conversation turns to the mother saying she had heard news that a young boy familiar to everyone at the table, named Billy Joe MacAllister, had jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. And it’s mentioned that someone who looked a lot like the song’s narrator was seen recently with Billy Joe “throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge”. The unique approach to expressing such a dark subject matter, in such an irresistibly engrossing way, should be a lesson to all songwriters, regardless of genre, in how to write a song. In how to put across whatever you want to say provided you find the right vehicle to do it. In this case, the vehicle was a family discussion over dinner. Regardless of when ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ was released it would have been accepted – even 20-30 years earlier – because of the deftness with which it was executed. Bobbie Gentry created a masterpiece of writing. And, in my opinion, she provided a perfect example of the greatest achievement a writer can accomplish. Not to make what interests people appealing, but to make what they find uninteresting, or even repellent, irresistible. 


At least that’s how I see things..




Current Music: Imelda May - Love Tattoo