All Joe South Wanted Was To Go Back Home

The first sounds heard in Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” are subtle but striking guitar notes. The guitar in the song may have as much presence as Aretha’s voice; no small feat. The guitar player? Joe South. Brought in by producer Jerry Wexler to provide a “Pop Staples” mood, South, a respected songwriter, producer and session player, set a haunting tone as Aretha sang about that love demon that would not let her go.

“Chain of Fools” was a huge hit in 1968, a remarkable year for Aretha Franklin. It was also a big year for Joe South. His recording of his own “Games People Play” climbed the charts, peaking at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also won a Grammy.  Joe South was out of the shadows and likely to remain in the spotlight. The Dylan comparisons abounded. There was surely more greatness ahead. What would the young Atlantan come up with next?

The next year South gathered a handful of new originals for his third album,Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home.  The title track was the first of what would be three hits on the album. “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” tells the story of a young man who yearns to return to the small town of his childhood days. He goes to the Greyhound station, buys a one-way fare and tells himself that “Good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise,” he’ll be there the next day. The young man is happy to be going back home.

But as with many who leave their homes to return years later, the young man is saddened by what he sees in his hometown.  Much had changed since he was last there. A six lane highway has been constructed by the creek where he “went skinny dipping as a child.” Also there was “a drive-in-show where the meadow used to grow and the strawberries used to grow wild.”  The indignities upon the land pile up.  A drag strip down by the riverside where his Grandma’s cow used to graze. The young man sees an era has passed and the one that’s replaced it is artificial and dormant.  South sings, “Now the grass don’t grow and the river don’t flow like it did in my childhood days.”

The song’s wistful chorus is sung just after the story-setting introduction. As it’s repeated throughout the song, the very same words take on different meanings. In the beginning, the words “All God’s children get weary when they roam” convey a sense of straying far from the values one learned early in life.  At the song’s end, the words indicate a weariness with what the world offers.

Although slightly over-produced, South’s recording is lovely.  His vocal delivery is informed by the young man’s hopes and discoveries.  His guitar playing is crisp.  “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home” would be recorded by others as well, including Brook Benton, Bobby Bare, Ferlin Husky and most poignantly by former Byrd Gene Clark and Carla Olson on their wonderful 1987 album, So Rebellious A Lover.

One writer reported South wrote the song because he wanted people to remember life as he did from his own childhood. Born in Atlanta, South experienced a far less noisy and crowded town back in the forties and fifties than we can imagine now. The rural scenes he describes may have been in today’s not-so-rural areas such as Gwinnett County and the northern reaches of Fulton County. Many Atlantans remember when those places had large expanses of farmland.

In our lives today, 40 years since Joe South wrote of wanting to go home, we may find acquiring such small patches of paradise like he described very expensive. Each time a Wal-Mart builds its even bigger store, surrounded by endless seas of asphalt, the patch of paradise is farther up the road.  Paradise is not so accessible and it’s more costly to spend time there, never mind owning a piece of it.

As children, my siblings and I rode to the mountain counties in North Georgia. On the way our parents would sadly point to a shopping center built on land near where the river flowed.  To materialistic kids, their laments seemed silly.  After all, the shopping center had toys, candy, comic books and board games. But the shopping center’s appeal would not last. Memories of sitting on the porch with your grandmother as she shelled peas would.  You’d also remember standing outside the post office on a Sunday morning with your grandfather and his friend when the church bells rang.  The grandfather would remark to his friend that he ought to be in church himself, if only for the grandson’s benefit. Such memories come to life when thinking about Joe South’s song. What home was. What home turned out to be. Don’t it make you want to go home?

Slash, Burn, Pave and Sizzle… The meadow, the strawberries growing, the creek, the river and the cows grazing are of a time and place familiar to Metro Atlanta contemporaries of Joe South. Into the ’70s it was only a 15-20 minute ride from the city to pastoral settings. In the years ahead, the metro area continued to expand fifty miles and more beyond the old boundaries. People in the mountain communities lamented “Atlanta pushing north.” A developer sensing an opportunity, buys parcels of land, does away with the natural setting and creates more heat islands. As people most anywhere say, “well, that’s progress.”

On September 7, 2009, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported such “progress” was slowing.  Growth in the exurban counties well north of Atlanta has slowed to a crawl. The Great  Recession’s impact was slow to let up;  the plug was pulled on planned housing and retail developments. In a region with insatiable developers, nature actually got a break, a temporary one at least. Residents and visitors to those areas can, for awhile longer, to paraphrase the words of Van Morrison, take in the quietness and sink into restful slumber in silence. It sure beats a trip to a local heat island.

Encroachment on the Song … While “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” is mainly about  encroachment on the land, there was also a strange sort of encroachment on the song itself. It happened October 7, 1970 on of all places: ABC ‘s The Johnny Cash Show. Then and there Joe South and his song were violated, likely by network  design. After his introduction, South gingerly plays the opening guitar licks to his melancholy song and begins a fine vocal performance. Then on the chorus, South is joined by Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and George Lindsey. That’s right, George Lindsey the comedian known to the world as Goober Pyle of Mayberry, dressed in character.

South and his trio of back-up vocalists get through the chorus decently enough, but it’s eyeball rolling time with the second verse.  Johnny and June each sing a line; then Lindsey, woefully flat, gets his turn. From there, all four join in as they bring the song to a close.  Apparently, it was not a well rehearsed performance. June, a great and singular vocalist, forgot the words, singing ” a drive-in meadow where the strawberries grow and all kinds of things are growing wild.” Johnny chuckles at his wife’s miscue while Lindsey as Goober delivers his part. South didn’t seem the featured attraction in what should have been his great moment of national exposure.

On his show, Johnny Cash made great efforts to give R&B, Rock, and Folk artists a forum and, most importantly, respect. Bob Dylan, The Staple Singers, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell were among the guests on his show. What happened with Joe South’s appearance is a mystery. Perhaps it was thought the rural flavor Johnny, June and “Goober” projected would solidify the song’s message of home and things that last. If so, their intentions fell short. Cash did come through 20 years later, though, giving South recognition in a song he wrote entitled “Songs That Made A Difference.” Those, after all, were the kind of songs that Joe South wrote.