Monday, June 2, 2014

“The greatest city in Alabam’”: Songs about Birmingham

            If the discussion turns to popular songs about American cities, Birmingham, Alabama, probably doesn’t come to mind first. Instead, classics like “New York, New York,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” might be the ones people name. Yet cities all over the world have their own songs—“Tijuana Jail” by the Kingston Trio, anyone? Or maybe “La Rumba de Barcelona” by Manu Chao or “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head? And our city is no exception.
            One of the earliest such songs is the 1916 “If Ever I Get Back to Birmingham (To the Girl Who Waits for Me)” by composers James Alexander Brennan and O.E. Story.  Both men were from Boston and may never have been south of the Mason-Dixon Line, much less to Birmingham. Songwriters of this era often incorporated images and scenes of a romantic, pastoral, yet mysterious and exotic South that never really existed. Two 1918 songs by Brennan were “When It's Cotton Pickin' Time In Tennessee” and “When The Steamboats On The Swanee Whistle Rag-time.”

Cover of sheet music for "If I Ever Get Back to Birmingham" (1916)

            The lyrics of the song describe the singer’s sadness and longing at his distance from his “girl” and his lack of money for the $19.60 fare to reach her. The only image specific to Birmingham is that of the railroad that will take him there if he could buy a ticket. He does declare that “I will settle down in Alabam’” if he  gets to the city. The piece was intended for a vocalist with piano accompaniment.
            Over the next two decades many Birmingham songs made their way into popular culture. “Birmingham Jail” has the music of traditional American folk song “Down in the Valley” and lyrics by a guitar player named Jimmie Tarlton. He claimed to have written them while actually in the jail on a moonshine charge. “Write me a letter, send it by mail,” the singer tells his Bessie, “Send it in care of Birmingham Jail.”
            In November 1927 Tarlton and Tom Darby recorded the song in Atlanta for Columbia Records; over 200,000 copies were quickly sold. The pair produced two follow-up songs with less success, “Birmingham Jail No. 2” and “New Birmingham Jail.” The original version has been recorded by numerous artists such as Eddy Arnold, Peggy Lee, Slim Whitman, Lead Belly, and as recently as 1993 by Jerry Garcia.
            Another song close to local culture is “Mining Camp Blues”, recorded in February 1925 by Trixie Smith and Her Down Home Syncopators for Paramount Records. Smith, who had attended Selma University, personalized her lyrics and referred to her father “Diggin’ and a haulin’, haulin’ that Birmingham coal.” Like so many blues, this one sings of death: “It was late one evening. I was standing at that mine./ Foreman said my daddy had gone down for his last, last time.” Smith herself is “nearly dying, from these mining camp blues.”
            The tradition of local artists writing about their city continued in “Birmingham Boys,” recorded in 1926 by the Birmingham Jubilee Singers. In this case the lyrics by Charles Bridge announce a much more upbeat attitude and the pride as “Birmingham boys we” who have moved from the country to the bustling city.
            This fervent connection to Birmingham continues today. On her 2006 CD My Glass Eye city native Beth Thornley’s “Birmingham” has a litany of city details meaningful to her because “it’s in the blood and in the mud/ down in Birmingham.”
            Other songs from the 1920s include Duke Ellington’s “Birmingham Breakdown” (1926) and Charlie Johnson’s “Birmingham Black Bottom” (1927). The great Ethel Waters performed “Birmingham Bertha” in the 1929 film musical On with the Show.
            Western movie star and singer Gene Autry is not usually associated with Birmingham or even the South, but early in his career in November 1931 he recorded “Birmingham Daddy.” Autry sings as a man whose “baby turned me down” and he’s leaving town to find a new “mama.” “If love was liquor, and I could drink/” he declares, “I’d be drunk all the time, I’d go back in town, to Birmingham.”
            “Birmingham Bounce” by Sid “Hardrock” Gunter and his band is sometimes cited as the first rock and roll song. The piece was recorded in the city in 1950 and became an area hit later covered by the likes of Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey and others.

Cover for the music for "Birmingham Bounce" by Hardrock Gunter


            Several country songs about our city have appeared in recent decades. In her 1973 “Birmingham Mistake”, Sammi Smith sings about a child abandoned in the city. The previous year Lester Flatt released “Backin’ to Birmingham” that tells the story of a truck driver whose rig’s forward gear doesn’t work, so he has to drive the load in reverse all the way from Chicago.
            Two versions of “Paint Me a Birmingham” by Tracy Lawrence and Ken Mellens came out in 2003. The narrator asks an artist to paint his memories of the plans he had made with a past love. Two years later Cledus T. Judd made fun of the song with his recording “Bake Me A Country Ham.”
            Many other well-known artists have written about Birmingham, some in recent years. There is bandleader Louis Jordan’s “Fat Sam from Birmingham”, John Hiatt’s “Train to Birmingham”, Ani DiFranco’s “Hello Birmingham”, John Mellencamp’s “When Jesus Left Birmingham” and Randy Newman’s “Birmingham” (“The greatest city in Alabam’”).
            Two famous city natives have written well-known material about their hometown. Avant garde jazz great Sun Ra released The Magic City album in 1966; the title piece is a 27-minute improvisation by his orchestra. Sun Ra’s cover art invokes the demolished Terminal Station and it’s Magic City sign.

Sun Ra performing at The Nick in August 1988. Photo by Craig Legg

 In a completely different style is Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” in which she declares, “I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham/ If I thought I could see, I could see your face.” 
Emmylou Harris performing in San Francisco, 2005
Source: Wikipedia

            As you might expect, several significant songs about the city reflect the turmoil of the 1960s. Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday” has been recorded by Joan Baez. Similar songs include Harry Belafonte and R.B. Greaves’ “Birmingham, Alabama”, Phil Ochs’ “Talking Birmingham Jam” and John Lee Hooker’s angry “Birmingham Blues.”
            Another large category includes songs by well-known artists that mention the city. Groups and individuals ranging from Lynard Skynard and the Rolling Stones to Chuck Berry, Tom Waits (two songs!), Talking Heads, Sheryl Crow, Bob Seger, Little Richard and Tori Amos have given shout-outs to Birmingham. All in all, the universe of songs about the city is none too shabby.
            Perhaps the single most familiar tune about Birmingham is “Tuxedo Junction.” Written by native Erskine Hawkins and named after the streetcar junction in the Ensley neighborhood, the song was recorded by his orchestra in 1939, sold a million copies and reached the #7 position on the pop charts. The following year Glen Miller and his orchestra covered the song, rode it to #1 and made it a big band jazz standard. The vocal group Manhattan Transfer also had success with it in a 1975 recording; I enjoyed their live version a few years ago at a concert at UAB's Alys Stephens Center. Hawkins felt the music invoked the thriving entertainment scene around that junction in Ensley during the 1930s..
            I have included a generous selection of Birmingham songs here, but even more have been written and performed by artists local and national. The site has a helpful “List of Songs about Birmingham” that will give you more leads. Local author Burgin Mathews covers many in depth in his 2011 booklet, Thirty Birmingham Songs: A Guide. Happy listening!

YouTube & other videos

“Birmingham” by Randy Newman, covers by Taylor Hicks and others

“Boulder to Birmingham” by EmmyLou Harris—several versions

“Birmingham Bounce” by Hardrock Gunter and covered by others

“Tuxedo Junction” by Erskine Hawkins, covers by Manhattan Transfer, Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller and many others

“Mining Camp Blues” by Trixie Smith & the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra

“Birmingham Bertha” by Ethel Waters
From the 1929 film musical On With the Show

“Birmingham Breakdown” by Duke Ellington
Performed at a 2013 jazz festival in Connecticut by the Wolverine Jazz Band

This post previously appeared at in August 2013.

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