How I Got to Memphis

Tom T. Hall, American Storyteller

From the very beginning, a song might tell a story — and such was the case for millennia, right up to the point where the song became binary, a non-specific commodity, just more digital content to fill up your iPod. A proud product of the earlier period, Tom T. Hall, the American music country performer of the 1970s, was known as the Storyteller. And Tom T. Hall, the Storyteller, told stories.

His tale about the small-minded judgments made by the dreary suburban middle-class upended by the sexual revolution of the 1960s might have come from the typewriter of John Updike, except that it didn’t; it was a Tom T. Hall song sung by Jeannie C. Riley. “Harper Valley PTA” sold six million copies. His song about workingmen digging a grave and speculating about the life of the fellow they were about to inter recalled the very best journalism of Jimmy Breslin, when he wrote of the gravediggers employed for the Jack Kennedy funeral. That song, “Ballad of Forty Dollars,” sung and recorded by Hall, will stick in your mind for a lifetime, in the manner of the greatest art.

The music scene in the seventies gave us gods and legends, rebel poets by the busload, a couple of angry prophets, far too many rodeo clowns and cowboy-manqués to enumerate, a gang of biker-artistes, a Rhodes scholar named Kristofferson, five Statler Brothers, and an auto-didact genius or possibly two — but only one Storyteller.

Tom T. was unprepossessing, in extremis: that beefy, soft-spoken man in J.C. Penney denim, whose open grin you might remember from the ballgame or barbecue. His was the face you’d see in any booth in every truckstop, spinning yarns over a plate of hash-browns, while his coffee cools. He wrote about exactly this kind of everyday American scene, typical folks killing time, trying their level best to get along and get by, against all odds. If you didn’t know that Tom T.’s daddy was a preacher, you probably would have guessed.

He was pushing 40 and gray-haired, an army vet and an ex-DJ by the time he hit it big. His body of work from his heyday, which includes 11 number-one hits, contains much crap. One of his best-remembered songs is the infuriating “I Love,” which is a drawled list of his uninteresting enthusiasms. Tom T. was an important part of the soundtrack of the Jimmy Carter presidency, but when the Man from Plains was hurled out of the Oval Office in 1980, it was generally agreed that we didn’t want to be reminded of him, or the foul era he represented, ever again. Tom T. briefly hosted a syndicated TV show in 1980, but every time the audience saw him, they’d think of Jimmy Carter and change the channel.

The stories live on, though.

I was surprised when an end-of-century poll of British radio listeners declared Tom T.’s “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine” to be the UK’s second favorite song of all time. The tune is not especially well-known, even in North America, and you pretty much never hear it played any more. It is an odd slice-o’-life from the Tom T. barroom canon, where an Atlanta businessman stuck in Miami obtains an unsolicited, affecting life-lesson from the stranger sweeping the floor. Tom T. establishes a commonplace narrative device to set the stage in his opening stanza, the laconic conversational gambit:

“‘How old do you think I am?’ he said.
“I said, well, I didn’t know.
“He said, ‘I turned 65 about 11 months ago.'”

That’s the old nonchalant exposition technique, a sophisticated lyrical manoeuvre you don’t usually encounter in country music.

As the story slowly unfolds, you detect the mounting impatience of this detached businessman, who seeks to allay his anomie by “pouring blended whiskey down.” The traveller assumes an expected defensive stance against the unwanted intrusion of a social inferior, however dignified the janitor’s stately bearing as an “old, gray, black gentleman.” The businessman listens with initial condescension, as the janitor describes his lifetime of disappointments with love and friendship, but the old fellow then reveals that there is redemption in the “Old dogs [who] care about you, even when you make mistakes.” Shaking his head, he mutters: “God bless little children while they’re still too young to hate.”

The old party’s homespun philosophical ramblings strike the narrator, who is by this point two or three sheets to the wind, as something nearly profound.  But he remains too constrained by class division to fully connect with the barroom Spinoza, and settles for surreptitiously scribbling down the found wisdom: “When he moved away I found my pen and copied down that line,/’Bout old dogs, and children, and watermelon wine.”

That is slowly revealed magic realism worthy of Saroyan, or the blue-collar period of Philip K. Dick. That’s a helping-and-a-half of yarn-spinning in a simple two-minute recording.

What it is not, is Tom T.’s best song. That distinction will go to the always-astonishing ‘How I Got To Memphis,’ which remains my favorite popular music song.

The point of view and sensibility in ‘Memphis’ is distinct from ‘Watermelon Wine,’ with the complacent aloofness of the travelling salesman replaced by the unravelling dignity of the Memphis narrator. In the song’s opening lines, the singer attempts to rationalize his increasingly out-of-control desperation: ‘If you love somebody enough,/You’ll follow wherever they go./That’s how I got to Memphis,/That’s how I got to Memphis.’

He may be speaking of Memphis, the progressive regional medical and educational centre that boasts 1,205,204 residents, or he might be talking about Memphis-the-easy-metaphor. Both are heavily referenced in song and story. The city, at the very tipping point where the Middle West slips into the  swampy South, is the famed gateway to the Delta, adopted home to the musical king who built Graceland. Then, in the title of Johnny Dowd’s haunting CD, there is the ‘Wrong Side of Memphis,’ a locale of riverside shootings and nightly death by the muddy waters. You get the feeling, listening to Tom T.’s words, that his character is talking about the Memphis that might as well be named ‘Palookaville’ or ‘Straightjacketopolis.’

He’s not seeking confirmation of his theories about how passion can draw you to the very point of madness. He’s there, Jack. Even worse, he is fully aware of where he is, unlike the protagonists of other country ditties, who seek directions to San Antone or Phoenix, Arizona. That’s the poor devil’s current state, in a nutshell. Alone and seeking the lover who abandoned him without a word or a cause, he clings to the memory that ‘She’d get mad and say she was going back to Memphis.’ To conclude his harrowing tale, he repeats exactly eight times, “That’s how I got to Memphis,” after politely thanking the listener for enduring the misery of a broken stranger. And, then, as the listener, you’re left to wonder what exactly this anxious man was babbling about.

There are jails-a-plenty in and around Memphis, and many songs to acknowledge that fact, Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” being but one. Is that what he means? Did he kill his woman because she threatened to leave him? One way or another,  this is 150 seconds of listening to a condemned man softly testifying to his terror, in language anyone can understand.

While I would consider Tom T.’s version of this number to be his best work, dozens of artists have offered their own versions. Bobby Bare does a credible job, as does Rosanne Cash. Bill Haley and the Comets waxed a plausible rendition, way late in their careers of rockin’-around-the-clock, just prior to Haley’s death. Solomon Burke performs a torrid soul version, as you might imagine. The Acadian singer Roch Voisine turned the song into a zydeco lament, sung in French and English, transferring the narrator’s loss of a woman to a people’s loss of their land. No matter how you pace and phrase it, this is a story about place and displacement. Particularly, it is a simple tale about losing your space, and your grace, and realizing that you’re always going to be at odds in an uncaring world. Kurt Vonnegut described a dog’s primeval panic, after he looks down and finds himself standing atop a mirror. The story told in “How I Got to Memphis” is the musical equivalent of that image. You need to hear it, again and again. \”[Click here to listen to \’How I Got to Memphis\’ by Tom T. Hall]\”


3 thoughts on “How I Got to Memphis

  1. Great Blog. My vote is for “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine”. After having read your insightful piece, I now know why I’ve always loved that song. By the way, the old man “turned 65 about 11 months ago”. I turn 65 tomorrow. Guess that makes me an old man. That’s fine with me. Old age is a privilege denied to many. I am very thankful for my time on this planet.

    1. Too much is made of chronology, and I’m (mostly) certain the historian in my household will agree. I think Tom T.’s narrator was revealing his own shallowness, in the importance he attaches to the philosopher’s age — although I think the narrator intends to associate the number 65 with a kind of earned wisdom. Screw that. As Red Green says, “Remember, you may have to grow old, but you don’t have to mature.”

  2. Speaking of DJs, Peter Wolf was one too, in Boston. I’ll bet you know lots of others. (The backbeat on How I Got to Memphis reminds me of A World Without Love, by Peter & Gordon.)

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