Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Southern Springsteen's 2012 masterpiece of songwriting

I think southern music's poet laureate Kevin Gordon's "Colfax" is one of the best-written songs I've heard in a long, long time: a true songwriting masterpiece. The fact that it's autobiographical, coming from Gordon's experience growing up in northern Louisiana, makes it all the more remarkable. Gordon captures the awkwardness of adolescence; the lust of a long-ago crush; the smells of bus rides; and all of that morphs into the weirdness and shock of seeing the Klu Klux Klan try to scare his African-American teacher at a pep rally. It's absolutely poignant and so vivid.

I'm not the only one to notice the song. The Tennessean's Peter Cooper wrote, "We'll empty your spit-valve for life if you find us anything more stunning than 'Colfax,' [Kevin Gordon's] undeniably superb song that could only have come from one mind, and from one person's experience. It's ostensibly about a kid in the marching band but winds up being about the heart of American darkness and the steel that it takes to move beyond."

Then after such a moment, it segues into a second line gospel song: "Step In Time." The song gains a banjo, a horn section, and gospel singers, imaging the real-life teacher Mr. Minifield's thoughts that day. "Step In Time" has its musical roots in the Civil Rights Movement and it's such a determined ending. Here's a reason why some have compared Gordon to a southern Springsteen.

"I'd tried to write about this experience for years, to more of a '2-beat' hill country blues groove. Only when I straightened it out did it work; I had 90% of those lyrics within an hour."

Music Fog taped Kevin and his band doing a live version of the track which you can view here. Jessie Scott writes, "He is a natural resource, harnessing the energy of rocking and rolling instead of the sedentary life of poetry."

Though I know that we're all super-busy so I usually try to keep my press releases short, it would be a shame to excerpt lyrics in this case. Here are the complete lyrics to "Colfax":

I played trumpet in the band
In 7th grade, blasting out songs
At football games and fall parades
We’d ride the bus
To the small towns like Winfield,
Downsville, and Colfax—
In purple jackets and white slacks
We were the Braves—
We were the Jack Hayes Braves
Named after a dead administrator
And the noble ideal
Of the young Native American male--
School ambassadors
Of popular song and good will
Mr. Minifield
Was our director, skin the color
Of a brown paper sack, he was black
Trying to teach us white kids to play
But confronted every baton-breaking day
By juvenile delinquents, like Danny Amos
Who locked himself into Minifield’s office,
With my Ted Nugent double album;
Playing “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”
Full-blast over the bandroom speakers
And I remember Minifield, just sitting there
Staring out into the air
From the podium, smoking a camel
Looking straight ahead
Imagining himself
Somewhere else, I’d guess
Where he’d be getting paid
More for less B.S.
Tomorrow morning
We’d be marching through
What’s ahead from what’s behind
Just another step in time
Played clarinet
13 going on 35, sexy
In a hard way, like a 1st cigarette,
Bourbon spilled on a bare thigh--
(you could say she was ahead of the game)
She’d barely speak to me
So that 2-hour ride
Felt like an all-day tense erotic dream,
Staring out at the pine trees and red clay,
And the country stores where inevitably
An old dough-faced man would be standing outside--
Staring at us like his life going by
And was that her leg, was that her leg
Just brushing against mine?
Riding on the bus
Sitting next to Valerie Thrash
Between what’s ahead, what’s behind
Just another step in time
The morning was cold
The silver bell of my horn shining back
Convex reflections of faces and hands
And the yellow smear of the bus
While I blew out my spit valve,
Put the wax on my braces--
We were getting ready to play,
Standing in line, moving in formation.
First up, a Stevie Wonder song called Sir Duke,
About Ellington (I didn’t know that then),
Chameleon by Herbie Hancock--
Jungle Boogie by Kool and the Gang,
K.C. and the Sunshine Band—
Get Down Tonight--
That’s when I saw them at the end of the block
Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
In their white dunce caps
And robes with red crosses
Embroidered on
Like gilded leaves on an automatic rifle
Or an image of the suffering Christ
Airbrushed on the side of a missile
In broad daylight;
Donald Lovelady said
He thought they only came out at night—
Like an apparition,
Blood-real in the silver sun—
Between what’s ahead, what’s behind
Just another step in time
They were handing out tracts
To the Caucasian mothers and daughters
And fathers and sons of Colfax--
Laughing and joking, kneeling down,
Placing a gentle hand on a child’s blonde head
Like santa claus, or the pope
Like this was normal, like this was okay
Another doo-dah day down in dixieland
He didn’t say a word,
Minifield didn’t turn his head--
Just kept marching
Looking straight ahead
Looking straight ahead
Like there was somewhere better
He was going
But this was the only goddamned way to get there
Today, with his baton in the air
Looking straight ahead
Straight ahead . . .

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