Joe South would like to make one of his songs disappear. That isn’t uncommon. Usually the best songwriters have one, two or a few they’d rather not claim. But in Joe South’s case, it’s one of his best, “These Are Not My People.”
Nearly 35 years after writing the song, South explained, “When I hear it back it sounds like a guy disavowing his presence from the human race. Which I was, I guess, because I was a real unhappy soul and that’s what came from it.” Joe South worked wonders with unhappiness.
Written and recorded in the late ’60s, “These Are Not My People” was one of many insightful, straight-to-the-point songs South delivered in short order. As with “Games People Play,” “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” and “Rose Garden,” “These Are Not My People” was sort of a secular sermon. In this song, the sermon was more personally directed. South’s words hit hard at the friend being addressed. The words probably violate the “judge not, lest ye be judged” directive. Still, it’s a great song.
In the song, a friend is being called on the carpet over a lifestyle out of control. The era in which the song takes place adds color to what South describes. The friend had been sent to the finest schools, given “a credit card in your good name” and drawn to the people of the night where all discretion was set aside. The images conveyed recall the party scenes Warren Beatty’s character was part of in “Shampoo.” Yes, it does sound very tempting. South’s lyrics indicate as much, declaring “whether right or wrong, I’d still tag along behind.”
Near the end of the song, South’s observer has seen enough and lets fly at his friend:
‘Cause when you fall down from your cloud
And you’re just another face in the crowd
They’re going to throw you away like last week’s magazine
It’s been a gas but I’m gonna have to pass.
The observer emphatically states in the chorus that “these are not my people” and implies they are not his friend’s people either. He’ s giving sound advice on escaping that scene. But his friend may be in too deep and wish to indulge awhile longer.
The sad fury in South’s words is especially understandable if the friend is also a love interest. He has time, energy and emotions on the line. In putting an end to the relationship with his friend/lover, invectives are hurled, not such a rare thing by that time in popular music, but far beyond the sneering cries of jilted lovers commonly heard in songs prior to the mid-sixties.
Bob Dylan, who South played guitar for on the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, broke new ground for disdainful charges on “Positively 4th Street,” opening with the line, “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend.” Obviously, reconciliation isn’t in the works here. Released as a single in September ’65, “Positively 4th Street” is, according to critic Tim Riley, “the most mean-spirited onslaught to hit the top ten since Elvis sang ‘Hound Dog.'”
In early ’66 the Rolling Stones opened their new single,”19th Nervous Breakdown,” by dismissively addressing a spoiled young woman with the words, “You’re the kind of person you meet at certain dismal dull affairs.” No empathy there. South’s observer, despite his conclusions, does feel for his friend/lover, but she’s at a place he wants no part of. It’s simply time to move on, leaving the frustration and despair behind.
Originally included on South’s ’68 Introspect album, his version of “These Are Not My People” is a mid-tempo offering. It features a solid vocal performance by South but the production doesn’t mirror the song’s attitude. One wishes South had let loose on the guitar, gracing the music with the same passion he brought to the lyrics.
Johnny Rivers released his own version in ’69. As expected, Rivers’ vocals were solid and spirited. The recording rocks with fine guitar and piano work, but the horn arrangements and back-up vocals are intrusive. The Rivers version got some airplay but was not a hit, peaking at 55. Even with the production flaws, it should have found a larger audience.
One wishes R.E.M. would record “These Are Not My People.” It has the kind of melody the band has long taken to. There’s the perspective offered in the song. It’s a perfect fit. R.E.M. could really make it rock. It would be worth it just to hear Michael Stipe cry out, “It’s been a gas but I’m gonna have to pass.”
This article continues The Southern Song Of The Day Series.