A new monthly column from Jeb Loy Nichols.
Last Bus From Tupelo
They should teach this song in school.
Ring the bell, get the students in, call roll, plug in the record player and learn. Drop the needle and let Frankie Newsome tell it like it was. They say history is written by the victor; this song proves them wrong. We all, in a million different ways, write history.
The first time I heard this song was on a cassette tape. It was a collection of deep soul tunes, songs of outrage and tragedy; Eddie Giles’ Losing Boy, Jarvis Jackson’s Something I Never Had, Geater Davis’ Your Heart Is So Cold, Bobby Bland’s I’m Too Far Gone (To Turn Around); a roll call of southern regret and misfortune. Frankie Newsome’s Last Train To Tupelo was the last song on side one. I wore that tape out pressing rewind; it thrilled and chilled me then as it still does.
A brutal history of a sharecropper’s son, it deals quickly and bleakly with the new slavery of the South. “Fresh in my mind is that wretched farm…” A new, insidious form of economic slavery that kept farm workers trapped in a cycle of dependency. Children too were used; “…the boss would come and turn the classes out and say hey ya’ll go pick my cotton. I spent my youth just like a slave…” The only option is escape, and the only available help comes from those who could least afford it: family. “From the snuff box, and the money sack, they put my dreams together…”
It’s a story worthy of William Faulkner or Horace McCoy; escape, flight, arrival in Chicago, the realization that the promised land of the North is a sham, that here too oppression and economic servitude are endemic; “now I owe my soul to that used car dealer, to the gas lights and phone deal wheeler, got my first letter bout some kind of income tax, still ain’t got time to relax…”
I’m listening to it now, playing as it was originally issued, on a seven inch single. A simple blue label with grey lettering, it’s the only release on Sagport Records I’ve ever seen. Written by Sago and Porter (hence Sagport) and arranged, conducted and produced by Jim Porter. The time listed, 4:34, is at least thirty seconds shorter than the real time, in a bid to get airplay. These small releases always seem full of a restrained optimism; perhaps this record, this time, would be a hit. This might be The One. Sago and Porter certainly spent some money, they invested in a string section, the band is tight, Frankie Newsome is in immaculate form, the whole thing, in every way, is a success. Except, of course, financially. It was released and was forgotten about, as so much music is, as so much history is.
American born mid Wales resident Jeb Loy Nichols is an artist and musician who has worked with everyone from Adrian Sherwood to Rob Ryan. His forthcoming LP, The Jeb Loy Nichols Special, is a masterclass in country soul and acoustic roots. A special edition version is on upfront sale from the Rough Trade shops before general release in March.