Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

Happy humpday and welcome to another installment of Song Musings where I take a closer look at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all. If you’ve been a frequent visitor to my blog or are aware of my music taste otherwise, you probably know John Mellencamp has been one of my favorite artists for many years. As such, it was only a matter of time before I would cover him as part of this weekly recurring feature.

I guess the heartland-straight-rock-turned-roots-artist from Seymour, Indiana doesn’t need much of an introduction. Mellencamp, who at the time still was John Cougar, first entered my radar screen in 1982 with a little ditty about Jack & Diane, his second big hit single in the U.S. and Canada. Strangely, according to Wikipedia, the tune, off his fifth studio album American Fool, didn’t chart in Germany, even though I seem to remember hearing it on my then-favorite mainstream radio station all the time. The first Mellencamp album I bought was Scarecrow released in August 1985.

By the time Big Daddy appeared in 1989, Mellencamp had started his transition from straight heartland to more roots and Americana-oriented rock. He had begun to take that direction on his 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee, which remains among my favorite Mellencamp albums to this day. While I continue to dig his earlier straight rock sound, I’ve come to prefer his roots-focused music. I also like how his vocals have become much rougher over the decades.

This brings me to my song pick for this week: Big Daddy of Them All, from the aforementioned Big Daddy, Mellencamp’s 10th studio album – the last released as John Cougar Mellencamp. He hated the Cougar name, which had been given to him by his former manager Tony DeFries who insisted “Mellencamp” was too hard to market and pretty much imposed the awkward stage name Johnny Cougar on him.

Big Daddy of Them All did not become one of the album’s four singles. Like all except one track, it was penned by Mellencamp. While overall Big Daddy didn’t match the chart and sales success of its predecessor The Lonesome Jubilee, it still did pretty well, becoming Mellencamp’s first album to top the Australian charts, climbing to no. 3 and no. 7 in Canada and the U.S., respectively, and charting in various European countries. Eventually, Big Daddy reached 2X Platinum status in Canada and Platinum certification in the U.S. and Australia.

Here’s a live version of the tune from 2005, captured during Mellencamp’s Words and Music Tour.

Following are some additional tidbits on Big Daddy of Them All from Songfacts:

“Big Daddy Of Them All” was inspired by Burl Ives’ portrayal of Big Daddy in the 1958 movie version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Mellencamp said in the liner notes for the On The Rural Route 7609 box set: “This song was more or less a postcard to myself, saying, ‘You think Burl Ives wasn’t so nice? Guess what, John.'”

This song is one of the more personal in Mellencamp’s canon. By his own admission, he could be bossy and dismissive, and outright hostile to the media. Still, he was one of the most successful recording artists of the ’80s, earning money, fame, and adulation. Just one problem: None of those things were important to him.

In this song, he draws a parallel to the Big Daddy character in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy was rich, philandering, and cantankerous, which did him no good when he reached the end of his life. Mellencamp was still in his 30s, but he could see where his life was headed. At the time, his second marriage was crumbling down.

This is the lead track on Mellencamp’s Big Daddy album, and the song that provided the title. It has a very rootsy feel, with a prominent violin (by Lisa Germano) and accordion (by John Cascella). This kind of instrumentation is prominent throughout the Big Daddy album.

It’s worth noting that Paul Newman stars in the 1958 adaptation of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which inspired this song. He plays Brick, Big Daddy’s son. Paul Newman movies also made their way into Mellencamp’s songs “Paper In Fire,” which cribs a line from Hud, and “Rain On The Scarecrow,” which borrows from dialogue in Cool Hand Luke.

This song was a milestone for Mellencamp, who had a bit of a revelation. “At one time I thought I had all this stuff figured out, then I realized I didn’t,” he explained. “And I realized, like I said in ‘Big Daddy,’ when you live for yourself it’s hard on everybody. I didn’t realize I was hard to live with. It never dawned on me.”

“You gotta grow up and deal with what’s real,” he added. “Happiness, finding out who you are, and learning how to be a human being is what’s real.” (This interview appears in his VH1 “Coming Of Age” documentary.)

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

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John Mellencamp’s Good Samaritan Tour 2000 Revisited

A new documentary and companion live album celebrate heartland artist’s historic series of free summer concerts across the U.S.

I’ve listened to John Mellencamp since 1982 and Jack & Diane when he was still known as John Cougar and would call myself a fan. But until last Friday, I had not been aware of his Good Samaritan Tour, a series of free, stripped down and unannounced concerts he gave across the U.S. in the summer of 2000. Now the tour is revisited in a documentary that started to stream on the YouTube channel of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on August 27. It also coincided with the release of a companion album, The Good Samaritan Tour 2000.

According to Mellencamp’s website, the documentary is “narrated by Academy® Award winner Matthew McConaughey,” chronicling his “historic tour in 2000 when he performed for free in public parks and common spaces across the country. The film was executive produced by Federal Films, produced by John Mellencamp and Randy Hoffman, directed by Shan Dan Horan, mixed by Andy York and has special contributions by Nora Guthrie.” Nora is the daughter of Woodie Guthrie, one of Mellencamp’s big influences.

As the documentary notes in the beginning, Mellencamp viewed the tour as a way to thank his fans for all their support they had given him throughout the years. The impromptu gigs were performed without official permission from local authorities. “We also want to say this is not a concert,” Mellencamp tells an audience in Chicago. “I’m just playing on the street. So if you can’t hear I’m sorry, but we didn’t bring a big PA system because we didn’t want it to be a concert.”

However, Mellencamp did bring along two young musicians: accordion player Mike Flynn and violinist Merritt Lear. There was also Harry Sandler, Mellencamp’s road manager at the time, who helped organize where the trio would play. There was no road crew. “It was really kind of a hippy thing to do, you know,” Mellencamp notes in the documentary. “It reminded me of what I had seen happen in Washington Square, you know, during the ’60s when, you know, people would play in Washington Square and people would sit around, like it was a folk thing.”

John Mellencamp - Official Website :: News Articles
From left: Merritt Lear, Mike Flynn, John Mellencamp and Harry Sandler

“I had my little accordion, Merritt had a fiddle, John had his two acoustic guitars,” Flynn recalls in the film. “It was really raw and stripped down is to say the least.” Adds Lear: “My whole involvement with this tour started with a completely cold phone call…Mike and I had dated, broken up, and he put me up for the tour, coz they needed a violin player at the last second…They needed someone and he said , ‘call Merritt, she’ll be psyched to do it…And they called me and they said, ‘would you like to go on a summer tour with John Mellencamp? We’re leaving soon. I was shocked and then I quit my job and we were off and running.”

“The idea for the tour came to light and was a vague notion on what Woodie Guthrie had done when he would go and play in the fields for the workers in California,” Mellencamp explains. For the most part, the free performances featured songs he liked, not tunes he had written. While the free gigs were very well received by the public and the crowds grew larger at each appearance, the authorities in Detroit were less than pleased when they learned about Mellencamp’s concert there. Harry Sandler was even told they would get arrested if they played there. While many cops showed up at the concert, fortunately, everything stayed peaceful and nobody was arrested. The documentary can be watched here. Time for some music!

Let’s kick it off with In My Time of Dying, a traditional gospel tune that has been recorded by numerous artists. Blind Willie Johnson’s recording from December 1927 is the first known published version.

Here’s Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, which first appeared on his eighth studio album John Wesley Harding from December 1967. The most famous version of the song was recorded around the same time by Jimi Hendrix for Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience released in October 1968.

Next up: Street Fighting Man, The Rolling Stones’ classic that first appeared as a U.S. single in August 1968, ahead of the Beggars Banquet album from December of the same year.

Let’s do two more: Here’s Cut Across Shorty, which was first popularized by Eddie Cochran in March 1960 as a rock & roll style tune. It’s been covered by various other artists including Rod Stewart, Faces and, obviously, John Mellencamp.

The last track I’d like to highlight is a Mellencamp original: Pink Houses, which he recorded for his seventh studio album Uh-Huh that appeared under his transitional artist name John Cougar Mellencamp in October 1983. In this take, Merritt Lear got to sing the first verse.

I really dig John Mellencamp’s transition from his early straight heartland rock years to an artist who embraces a more stripped back roots and Americana sound. As such, the prominence of the accordion and the fiddle on these Good Samaritan song renditions are right up my alley.

Here’s the full track list of the album:

1.     Small Town
2.     Oklahoma Hills
3.     In My Time Of Dying
4.     Captain Bobby Stout
5.     Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)
6.     All Along The Watchtower
7.     The Spider And The Fly
8.     Early Bird Café
9.     Hey Gyp
10.   Street Fighting Man
11.   Cut Across Shortly
12.   Pink Houses

While cynics might dismiss the Good Samaritan Tour as a PR stunt, John Mellencamp doesn’t strike me as the kind of artist who would that. Sure, I guess he didn’t mind the buzz his free summer tour generated. But Mellencamp, one of the co-founders of Farm Aid, is a person who supports social causes, so I buy that his primary motivation for the free concerts was to give back to his fans.

Sources: Wikipedia; John Mellencamp website; YouTube