“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:
Continue reading The Best Songs: An American Trilogy – Mickey Newbury