Song of the Week – “Southern Man” (Merry Clayton)
Jul 2013 14

On Friday night, I saw Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about backup singers who have appeared on hundreds of recordings from the 1950s to the present.

But it was about so much more than backup singing — it was about egoism, spirituality, and race in American culture and the glory and anguish of pursuing your dreams in the face of seemingly (and sometimes, truly) unbeatable odds.

It was a magnificent film.  You should see it.

Featured prominently in Twenty Feet From Stardom was Merry Clayton, who you’ve heard singing on many, many records, but is most famous for the female lead on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”  She also sang backgrounds with everyone from Ray Charles to Lynyrd Skynyrd, with whom she provided vocals to “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Given the spirit of the times, Clayton was … apprehensive about singing in praise of a state that was the site of some of the greatest atrocities of the Civil Rights era.  She and the other black vocalists (who can be heard wailing “boo, boo, boo” after the song’s mention of racist Alabama governor George Wallace) approach the vocals with vitriol.  “We got your Sweet Home Alabama right here,” Clayton says in the film.

So when Clayton recorded her eponymous third solo record, she decided to cover the song that Skynyrd was responding to with “Sweet Home Alabama”: Neil Young’s “Southern Man.”  And did she ever.

“Southern Man” (Merry Clayton)
From the album Merry Clayton, released 1971
Words and Music by Neil Young

Neil Young’s original has a fury and outrage suiting a foreigner who comes to the American south and sees incomprehensible hatred and prejudice as the law of the land.  But Clayton’s version, as sung by a black woman and performed by an all-black band, lives it.  It’s not being delivered by an observer anymore, but a victim no longer willing to be trampled on.  When Clayton sings “Southern pain is gonna come at last,” it’s less an observation than a threat.  It is violent.  It is plain stinkin’ mad.  And every time she wails “how long, how long?” you feel the pain of someone who has watched people treated as “less than” for an inexcusable amount of time.

It’s not just the vocals: the whole band is on board, coming from the same place.  The conga groove.  The tight, fluid bass.  The hefty, wooden sound of the drums.  The gospel-inspired piano/organ combination.  Even the call-and-response vocals that come in after 1:30 have their roots in the church that Clayton grew up in, and in African-American culture.  Certainly Neil Young loves this music — so much of the music that inspired the rock musicians of the ’60s and ’70s has black roots —  but this group of musicians owns it.

When Clayton sings, “I heard screaming” at 1:04 and 2:14, the organ and the harmonica RIGHT there with her.  This is raw and visceral playing .  And the intensity only builds as the song goes on, each instrument weaving its line around the others, Clayton’s lead vocals and the backup choir building to a fever pitch.  And in less than three and a half minutes, it’s over.  But this is a record that stays with you after it’s done playing.

A song is so much more than the words and the music.  A performance gives — and takes — and changes — meaning.

But there is an alteration to the original lyrics that is easy to miss, but crucial to hear: 45 seconds in, Clayton sings Young’s line “I saw cotton and I saw black” as “I saw cotton and I saw man.”  That one word suddenly becomes about more than racial prejudice, the line becomes about affirming the humanity of a group of people who have been endlessly dehumanized in the place they live.  Sit with that for a minute (but keep bopping your head if you want; the band’s deeply soulful performance earns it).

Well, time for me to find the rest of this record.  In the meantime, please take in some of the most affecting three minutes and eighteen seconds of popular music I’ve ever heard.

1 Comment

  1. regina says:

    i agree i love the movie and this song it touched my soul

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