Grandma's on the front porch
with a Bible in her hand
Sometimes I hear her singing, "Take me
to the promised land."
-- John Mellencamp, "Rain on the Scarecrow"
So many musicians try to say so much about love. So few succeed.
Some give lip service to the breadth and depth of love's ocean. Most never do more than frolic on the sunny beaches of infatuation. When people are still young and beautiful, it's easy to toss around claims like "I will always love you." The proof of real love comes only after weathering time and storms. That's not so easy to express in a three minute pop song. Yet somehow, John Mellencamp managed to distill decades of love and tenderness down into just a few simple guitar chords.
The year was 1985. The celebrated prosperity of the 1980s was in full swing, but it failed to reach many of the farming communities in the American midwest. After working the same land for generations, many families were losing their farms to banks, which had become eager to foreclose in the newly fashionable greed for short-term profits.
Into all this, Mellencamp released an album called Scarecrow. Its first track, "Rain on the Scarecrow," is an angry protest about the ongoing farm crisis. At its heart is the farmers' love for their land and their way of life. The depth of these roots can be heard in the second track, "Grandma's Theme," even though it is only 55 seconds long.
Part of the love so clearly expressed here comes from the fact that the rock star stands back, out of the spotlight. At this time he was still carrying the stage name of "John Cougar" which one of his early managers had stuck on him without asking. Scarecrow was only the second album he recorded after adding his real family name back onto his stage name. He used its second track to give center stage to his grandmother, Laura Mellencamp. The only voice heard on this track is hers.
The lyrics she sang for this recording were from her own memory, from a song that first became popular in the previous century, and had been passed down as a lullaby she sang to her grandchildren. The part that makes it into this track is the first few lines from "In the Baggage Coach Ahead," a song released in the form of sheet music back in 1896. The words in her memory were only slightly altered by the passage of time. Here is what she sang:
Was a dark stormy night, as the train rattled on
All the passengers had gone to bed
Except a young man with a baby in his arms
Sat there with a bowed-down head
The innocent one began crying just then
As though its poor heart would break
One angry man said, "Make that child stop its noise
For it's keeping all of us awake."
Many of the sound qualities of very old recordings can be heard in the first part of this track. There is some hissing and popping, as if the recording medium is well worn. The sound volume for the accompanying guitar chords is low, giving an effect of distance, and making it sound slightly tinny. The vocal style of Laura Mellencamp's singing is not professional or polished. She delivers the lyrics with a straightforward simplicity I find appealing, but which is probably a bit of a shock for many listeners accustomed to the slick studio production values of most modern recorded music.
The words she sings are only the introduction to Gussie L. Davis' original song. The choice to end this song there has a certain symbolic resonance with the subjects of the songs on the rest of the Scarecrow album, but it's also possible it was ended early just to avoid overtaxing the patience of less mature rock and roll fans. Whatever the reasons for it, the first part of this track takes up less than 40 seconds before it fades, and the second part of the track begins.
In the second part the sound quality is clear, well-rounded, and warm, as John Mellencamp gives a brief guitar solo rendered in the same style as the music that accompanied his grandmother's voice. He spends only about 15 seconds on this. It does not come across as an effort to "upstage" her performance in any way.
In those few seconds, in those few brief notes, he conveys an overwhelming sense of love and gratitude, and the whole reason for the existence of this track becomes clear.
Without speaking or singing even one word in his own voice, simply by choosing to preserve his grandmother's voice on his record, he achieves a greater statement about love than anything found in hundreds of standard popular recordings put together.
It is my understanding that including the lyrics in this review falls within the definition of fair use. Also, the words may now be in the public domain, as they are drawn from a song originally published in 1896.
Sources for lyrics and other info: