Joe SouthLord have mercy on that boy from down in the boondocks. Like others, he endures the hardships that come with being from the poor side of town. The first verse of Joe South’s “Down In The Boondocks” provides a look at the boy’s life. He captures the yearning and despair of one who’s forever looking up from a very low place.

Every night I watch the lights from the house up on the hill
I love a little girl that lives up there and I guess I always will
But I don’t dare knock on her door
‘Cause her daddy is my boss man
So I just have to be content
Just to see her whenever I can

Billy Joe Royal - Down In The BoondocksThis 1965 top ten hit for Billy Joe Royal reveals the boy’s plight. The lively tune is a keeper but  Royal’s vocals mar the recording. As he sings about the boy, his voice is, well, too boyish. The words nonetheless convey a boy’s determination to overcome class boundaries: finding a way up from the boondocks. The boy will work and slave for every dime.

You can’t help but applaud the boldness of the boy who’ll walk away from his old life, holding his head up like a king.

Years later Joe South recorded his own version of “Down In The Boondocks.” South and his band proffer an intriguing rendition that sounds as if it will slide into jam mode. However the song is wrapped up in less than 3 minutes. South’s innovative guitar playing creates interest but it’s his vocal that’s front and center. His voice is up to the words. His poor boy has gravitas. One gathers his girlfriend’s daddy will be working for him someday.

New Riders Of The Purple SagePerhaps the best recording of the song is a ’71 live offering by New Riders Of The Purple Sage. All the right elements fell into place that night at the Fillmore West. With Jerry Garcia sitting in on pedal steel guitar, NRPS kicks on a tune that was long one of their concert favorites. It’s a perfect fit for the influential country-rock group. When John Dawson sings, “I don’t fit in her society,” he seems absolutely sure of it. Yet that doesn’t stop him and the band from sounding determined to move out of that old shack. Their “Down In The Boondocks” is zesty; they render a worthy treatment.

Society regards the poor, those in the boondocks or in set-aside housing, in various ways. The feelings run the gamut from pity to scorn. In real life, down-on-their-luck stories are accepted by some. Others embrace broad generalizations. But with a song, film or novel, most people  identify with a character emerging from the underclass to do well and hopefully do good. It brings to mind George Bailey’s “garlic eaters” versus Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Just find someone who’ll defend Potter.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann BurnsIn the novel Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns gave us Will Tweedy, 14 years old and learning about the world in rural Northeast Georgia at the turn of the last century. Growing up in the small town of Cold Sassy, Will came from a family who wanted for him a richer life than they had experienced. But no matter how much it made Will’s flesh tingle, the richer life would not be had if he was seen kising a girl from the close-by Mill Town. The people there may have been good workers but Cold Sassy folk viewed them as lintheads.

Once when Will felt pity for Lightfoot, a Mill Town girl, he pulled her close to him. He held her tight and kissed her. It made him feverish, as it did Lightfoot, although she kept saying “no.” Caught in the act by a local busybody, Will faced the music at home for fraternizing so intensely with one beneath him. Poor Lightfoot was chastised by the busybody and sent running back to Mill Town. That was it for Will and Lightfoot. But readers are enticed by the urgency the two felt for each other. Forbidden fruit is a tasty offering. Readers pulled for Will and Lightfoot, but to no avail. Barely in her mid-teens, she married within her class, perhaps feeling it was all predestined. Although she came to Will’s mind often, he had to accept the attitudes toward those on the poor side of town.

Johnny Rivers Poor Side Of TownIt’s 1966 and “Poor Side Of Town” was a song Johnny Rivers had been working on for six months. He received some help from his producer, Lou Adler, and the song was soon ready for release. Rivers had shown great strength as an interpretive singer since he arrived on the pop scene in Spring  ’64. Now it was time to try something new. His “go-go” sound took him to the upper reaches of the charts but his talent allowed him to step outside the comfort zone. He chose a softer and more thoughtful approach. It worked.  “Poor Side Of  Town” was successful; it went all the way to number one. Rivers not only created a new sound for himself; he, just as Joe South did, presented weighty subjects  Top 40 radio listeners might contemplate.

Unlike the daughter of the boss man in “Down In The Boondocks,” the girl in “Poor Side Of Town” is not from the privileged class. She enters it to be with the rich guy who would eventually put her down. Rivers’ protagonist notes that she was just a “play thing” to the rich guy she was seeing, but there’s no bitterness. He’s not about settling scores. She heard him say he couldn’t make it without her. He let her know she was the greatest thing  he’d ever found. He’d forgive her. After all, it was hard to find nice things on the poor side of town.

Rivers continued to improvise, creating a new variation on blue-eyed soul with renditions of “Baby I Need Your Loving” and “The Tracks Of My Tears.” He offered perspective with sizzle on “Summer Rain,” a song calling  to mind the optimism felt in Summer ’67. In a long and impressive career, “Summer Rain” is one of his finest works.

Johnny Rivers is not only a gifted singer and musician; he’s a hard worker. As he established himself in the pop music field, one could sense his determination to do well and do good. Heading to Los Angeles from Baton Rouge, Rivers made his hard work pay off. He found himself side by side with the biggest acts of the day, even select Liverpudlians. One has to appreciate his success. It’s like the greatest hopes of the boys down in the boondocks, there on the poor side of town, coming true.

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.

  1. As a rumination on society and the poor, I suppose writer Jeff Cochran gets it right, but he’s way off base as a music critic when he writes this about the most well known version of the Joe South composition “Down In The Boondocks”: “The lively tune is a keeper but {Billy Joe} Royal’s vocals mar the recording. As he sings about the boy, his voice is, well, too boyish.”

    That’s absurd. I love Joe South, and all his music, and Billy Joe Royal’s talent falls short of South’s, certainly. But Royal’s vocals don’t “mar” that song at all. Indeed, Royal’s vocals ARE that song, the HIT recording of that song, the version of that song that stands the test of time. Such revisionism is for the birds.

    Joe would be the first to agree that criticizing Royal’s vocal on that song isn’t merely wrong, it’s downright boorish.

  2. I felt the need to echo Jackson’s misgivings regarding the author’s low esteem for Billy Joe Royal’s voice on the DEFINITIVE version of “Down In The Boondocks”… the youthful, earnest tone of the vocal rubs against the lyric in a way that evokes a first awareness of life’s inequities and divides. A perfect fit: great vocal, great song, great production.

    Joe South is an amazing talent, as is Johnny Rivers (esp. his 60’s work). The New Riders were carpetbagging hippies who seemed to think their purpose was to rescue songs they must’ve felt were gauche or needing the Counterculture Seal Of Approval (TM) prior to digestion by the hordes of slumming trustafarians. L-A-M-E.

  3. I seem to remember when Rivers started to hang out with the Play Boy crowd he and his roots begain to wither and eventually die.

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