Lord have mercy on that boy from down in the boondocks. Like others, he endures the hardships that come with being from the poor side of town. The first verse of Joe South’s “Down in the Boondocks” provides a look at the boy’s life. He captures the yearning of one who has to look up from a very low place.
Every night I watch the lights from the house up on the hill
I love a little girl that lives up there and I guess I always will
But I don’t dare knock on her door
‘Cause her daddy is my boss man
So I just have to be content
Just to see her whenever I can
This 1965 top ten hit for Billy Joe Royal pulls in the listener. The lively tune has a taut message that most people can relate to. The boy longs to overcome the class boundaries that hold him back. That starts with finding a way out of the boondocks. The boy will work and slave for every dime.
You can’t help but applaud the determination of the boy who’ll walk away from his old life, holding his head up like a king. Give Royal credit; as the song moves along, his vocals reveal a boy up to the task.
Years later Joe South recorded his own version of “Down in the Boondocks.” South and his band proffer an intriguing rendition that sounds as if it will slide into jam mode. However the song is wrapped up in less than 3 minutes. South’s innovative guitar playing creates interest but it’s his vocal that’s front and center. His voice is up to the words. His poor boy has gravitas. One gathers his girlfriend’s daddy will be working for him someday.
On his 1980 album, Borderline, Ry Cooder infuses a soulful Caribbean flair to “Down in the Boondocks.” It’s a natural for Cooder given that class consciousness has often been a theme in the material he’s recorded over a career that spans six decades. Cooder pulls for justice, so we know he’s pulling for that boy in the boondocks.
Perhaps the best recording of the song is a ’71 live offering by New Riders of the Purple Sage. All the right elements fell into place that night at the Fillmore West. With Jerry Garcia sitting in on pedal steel guitar, NRPS kicks on a tune that was long one of their concert favorites. It’s a perfect fit for the influential country-rock group. When John Dawson sings, “I don’t fit in her society,” he seems absolutely sure of it. Yet that doesn’t stop him and the band from sounding determined to move out of that old shack. Their “Down In The Boondocks” is zesty; they render a worthy treatment.
Society regards the poor, those in the boondocks or in set-aside housing, in various ways. The feelings run the gamut from pity to scorn. In real life, down-on-their-luck stories are accepted by some. Others embrace broad generalizations. But with a song, film or novel, most people identify with a character emerging from the underclass to do well and hopefully do good. It brings to mind George Bailey’s “garlic eaters” versus Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Just find someone who’ll defend Potter.
In the novel Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns gave us Will Tweedy, 14 years old and learning about the world in rural Northeast Georgia at the turn of the last century. Growing up in the small town of Cold Sassy, Will came from a family who wanted for him a richer life than they had experienced. But no matter how much it made Will’s flesh tingle, the richer life would not be had if he was seen kising a girl from the close-by Mill Town. The people there may have been good workers but Cold Sassy folk viewed them as lintheads.
Once when Will felt pity for Lightfoot, a Mill Town girl, he pulled her close to him. He held her tight and kissed her. It made him feverish, as it did Lightfoot, although she kept saying “no.” Caught in the act by a local busybody, Will faced the music at home for fraternizing so intensely with one beneath him. Poor Lightfoot was chastised by the busybody and sent running back to Mill Town. That was it for Will and Lightfoot. But readers are enticed by the urgency the two felt for each other. Forbidden fruit is a tasty offering. Readers pulled for Will and Lightfoot, but to no avail. Barely in her mid-teens, she married within her class, perhaps feeling it was all predestined. Although she came to Will’s mind often, he had to accept the attitudes toward those on the poor side of town.
It’s 1966 and “Poor Side Of Town” was a song Johnny Rivers had been working on for six months. He received some help from his producer, Lou Adler, and the song was soon ready for release. Rivers had shown great strength as an interpretive singer since he arrived on the pop scene in the spring of ’64. Now it was time to try something new. His “go-go” sound took him to the upper reaches of the charts but his talent allowed him to step outside the comfort zone. He chose a softer and more thoughtful approach. It worked. “Poor Side Of Town” was successful; it went all the way to number one. Rivers not only created a new sound for himself; he, just as Joe South did, presented weighty subjects Top 40 radio listeners might contemplate.
Unlike the daughter of the boss man in “Down In The Boondocks,” the girl in “Poor Side Of Town” is not from the privileged class. She enters it to be with the rich guy who would eventually put her down. Rivers’ protagonist notes that she was just a “play thing” to the rich guy she was seeing, but there’s no bitterness. He’s not about settling scores. She heard him say he couldn’t make it without her. He let her know she was the greatest thing he’d ever found. He’d forgive her. After all, it was hard to find nice things on the poor side of town.
Rivers continued to improvise, creating a new variation on blue-eyed soul with renditions of “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “The Tracks Of My Tears.” He offered perspective with a vibrant sizzle on “Summer Rain,” a song calling to mind the optimism felt in Summer ’67. In a long and impressive career, “Summer Rain” is one of his finest works.
Johnny Rivers is not only a gifted singer and musician; he’s a hard worker. As he established himself in the pop music field, one could sense his determination to do well and do good. Heading to Los Angeles from Baton Rouge, Rivers made his hard work pay off. He found himself side by side with the biggest acts of the day, even select Liverpudlians. One has to appreciate his success. It’s like the greatest hopes of the boys down in the boondocks, there on the poor side of town, coming true.