Friday Night Forgotten Oldie: The ultimate example of Americana

Mickey Newbury was considered one of the best and most influential songwriters of his time, the late 60’s and early 70’s. 1968 was a monumental year as Newbury garnered three number one songs and a number five on four different musical charts:

1) Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) on the Pop/Rock chart by the First Edition (#5)

2) Sweet Memories on the Easy Listening chart by Andy Williams (#1)

3) Time is a Thief on the R&B chart by Solomon Burke (#1)

4) Here Comes the Rain Baby on the Country chart by Eddy Arnold (#1)

No one’s done it ever since. A possibly even bigger feat, though, was still ahead.

From an essay on Newbury’s own website:

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 get more details from Australian blogger Geoffrey McDonnell who writes about that night backstage at the Bitter End West in Los Angeles.

It was a time of frequent newspaper headlines about whites in newly integrated Southern schools insisting on Dixie as the school fight song, and blacks protesting because to them it was an anthem of white supremacy.

Newbury was annoyed because he saw nothing in the song itself that should make it the exclusive property of one-time segregationists, and on a whim he announced that he would sing it that night just to prove a point. The Bitter End’s manager, Paul Colby, was alarmed at the prospect — at first laughing nervously on the off-chance that Newbury was joking. But when he realized that the star of the evening was absolutely serious, he began explaining with rapid-fire urgency that Dixie was not exactly the type of song that a bunch of radicalized young Californians had turned out to hear.

No matter. Newbury was undeterred, and when he got onstage he ran through part of his normal set, and then with a gentle strum of his guitar, he began to sing the words, ”Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton.” But instead of belting them out in the rebel-yell style that everybody was accustomed to, he plucked the notes slowly on his old guitar, and his voice took on a rich, haunting quality that called up a different set of images — visions not of a mean-spirited South, but of a poignant South, a land caught in the grips of tragedy and suffering for 150 years.

There was power in the transformation, and it grew even stronger as Newbury shifted in midnote to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and then to an antebellum gospel song called All My Trials. Before the impromptu trilogy was completed, it had become one of the most supercharged events in the history of the Bitter End West.

“An American Trilogy” has been called “an indelible, essential work of the American songbook,” and “a great slice of Americana” that “bonds minority, Southern and Northern issues into a common lament.”

Brian Hinton wrote it has become “the ultimate example of Americana. It somehow evokes the birth of modern America.”

Newbury died in 2002. He was 62.

A remarkable 530 different artists or groups have recorded “An American Trilogy,” but none more famous than Elvis who made it a staple of his live concerts. Elvis’ rendition is stirring and emotional to say the least and his fans know it very well.

“Elvis on Tour” is a Golden Globe Award-winning American musical-documentary motion picture released by MGM in 1972. It was the thirty-third and final motion picture to star Elvis Presley before his death in 1977.

The force. It’s there. Prepare to be blown away.

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