“Mickey Newbury is a poet” – Johnny Cash
Mickey Newbury’s most famous song, his biggest hit, is An American Trilogy. A song that pairs a southern song written by a northerner with a slave spiritual imported from the Caribbean. Actually it combines three songs that was not supposed to work together, it interlace “Dixie”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and “All My Trials”. It is quite ironic that the song Mickey Newbury is best-known for is the only one he didn’t write, the medley that was adopted by Elvis as a centrepiece of his Vegas-era shows.
In 1970 the political climate in USA was extremely tense. Nixon, Vietnam, Cambodia, demonstrations against the war , Business Week Magazine wrote: “This is a dangerous situation…it threatens the whole social structure of the nation…”
White students in integrated southern schools insisted on using Dixie as a school-fight song, while black students protested, as they saw it as an anthem for white supremacy. Dixie was even banned in some states in the south.
Mickey Newbury decided to sing it as a statement against censorship. The arrangers advised him strongly against it, but Newbury told them to get the riot squad in.
Joan Baez, Odetta, Barbara Streisand, Mama Cass and Kris Kristofferson were in the audience.
“…the great and the good of Hollywood who had gathered on Thanksgiving weekend 1970 to see and hear this modes fellow from The Lone Star state make his West Coast Debut and were stunned into silence as they witnessed Mickey Newbury give the performance of his life.
It seemed as if the song was not just coming from inside him but as if he was outside himself and inside the song. The sound pushed out in waves. Calming, resolute, cleansing. The atmosphere in the club seemed to be frozen in slow motion, moving with the illusion of stillness. The entire audience rapt in the moment, as if trapped in amber, attention fixed upon the solitary figure on stage illuminated by a soft curtain of light, with just his guitar for accompaniment.
And that illusion was broken only by a tear that rolled down the cheek of a great gospel singer sitting in the audience. ” (liner notes: An American Trilogy 4 disc set)
This is fine version two years later, from the British Tv-show The Old Grey Whistle Test:
…Musically, however, it sounds overly serious and antiquated, almost quaint– more an artifact from the period than a durable piece of music.
And yet, “An American Trilogy” reveals Newbury’s complex approach to songwriting and album sequencing: Every word or line or stanza or song complements the others and shades their meanings, contributing crucially to the whole.
“Originally I intended to do just Dixie. It had the connotation of being strictly a Southern song that was associated with racism…I thought it was unfair so…in the middle of the show I started to do Dixie” – Mickey Newbury
Everybody held their breath…
“I was sitting next to Odetta, and I have to admit I turned a little green. What happened the next seven or eight minutes was magic.” – Susan (Mick’s wife)
The way Newbury presented Dixie, was not as a battle anthem, but as the slow, intense tune that we know today. He brought out its beauty and significance by slowing it down. He in fact had gotten the idea after hearing Barbara Streisand slowing down the song Happy Days Are Here Again and thereby infusing the song with the meaning and impact that was “hidden” in the song.
Here is another fine rendition, probably from the 80s:
Only when he had started singing Dixie he decided to add Battle Hymn of The Republic and conclude the medley with All my Trials.
“Dixie just continued on, you know…the other two songs just happened to find their way in the song…and it wound up being a trilogy.” – Mickey Newbury
Newbury started like this:
“Just this last week there was a song banned. I just can not understand why people think a song could be damaging. Anybody who loves music and loves truth would have no argument with Blowing In The Wind regardless of what Bob Dylan’s politics or personality was like”
He proceeded to talk about the dangers of censorship and the injustice of banning free speech before he started to sing.
Streisand tried to get her new boyfriend Kris Kristofferson to go with her to another place, but Kristofferson was in the club to see and support a friend. A friend who had helped him to start his own career as well as being an important influence on his songwriting.
“There was an energy in that room. I felt the whole audience being pushed away from me. I could feel this energy, just like a wave of wind. Just pushing them back to the wall. And I just kept on singing.” – Mickey Newbury
He saw Odetta from the stage, he saw how her eyes swelled with tears. He was so torn up by this sight of such an influential figure being so moved by his singing, that he didn’t manage to stop. He instinctively eased into the refrain of Battle Hymn To The Republic . This Northern answer to Dixie wa s strangely fitting the well of emotions and he sung out all his sorrow, Glory, glory Hallelujah!
Even after this tremendous emotional outpour he couldn’t stop, he continued into a song he had only heard two times before, a lullaby turned plantation spiritual, All my trials. It fit so well! It was a quiet resolution to the two opposing songs that had come before it.
Afterwards you could hear a pin drop…there was absolute stillness.
Then Mama Cass broke the silence by jumping up and shouting her approval, at her lead the rest of the audience erupted in an applause that went on forever.
“They stood and screamed like you would not believe. It was the most electrifying performance of my life” – Mickey Newbury
All the built up rage, the frustration and the controversy that Dixie embodied had been broken down by Mickey Newbury’s majestic performance.
That was the night An American Trilogy was born!
Book: Mickey Newbury, Crystal & Stone by Joe Ziemer
Liner notes: An American Trilogy (4 disc set)