I’ve always loved Otis Redding, but in the way you might love your childhood kitchen without having paid attention to the details for long-term memory. Then, recently, something about “(Sittin’ on) The Dock on the Bay” went through me like a bolt seeking a ground.
We all know the song. Its familiarity makes it seem a little weightless – the background sounds of soft waves and seagulls, the sunny whistled tune at the end. In the Redding canon, it was not one of his soul-scrubbing hits like “Try a Little Tenderness” or “I’ve Been Loving Your Too Long (To Stop Now).” It felt like a Mayberry ditty by comparison. In fact, Redding had written only a few of the first lines while sitting on a rented houseboat in the old squatters’ enclave across the ay in Sausalito. He was in the area for a concert at the Filmore in June 1967.
“Sittin’ in the morning sun,” he wrote, and so it begins. “I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes.” His guitar player, Steve Cropper, helped him finish writing the song before they recorded it at Stax Records in Memphis that December. It seems vaguely autobiographical – Redding grew up in Macon, Ga. – but those touches apparently came from Cropper’s knowledge of Redding’s story.
The song lopes along in the morning sun, with classic Stax horns, Booker T. on piano, and Cropper doing easy guitar filigree. Nice chords, from G up to B, and those sweet chromatic descending chords down to A, and later, down to E, all major chords.
What snapped my inner attention was the way his voice catches on the word “home.” “I left my home in Georgia/ Headed for the ‘Frisco Bay.”
I left my home in Georgia too. Not much of a blues saga about it: College, jobs, marriage, all good, and always connected to Georgia by family, airlines and interstates. I returned in the 90s to help start a magazine, and to work for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, career moves on paper. But there’s an inner story, a music like Otis Redding’s songs, when you’re a Georgia boy like me. I’m not anything like a character in a Flannery O’Connor story or in the Homeric history of African Americans in the Deep South from the Great Migration down to the Civil Rights movement. Or the movement from the black church, to R&B, to the creative Beatles-era mashup that Redding was part of in 1967 at the Filmore. But I have absorbed that literature, that history, and that music. And it speaks to me in a strangely intimate way as I get older.
O’Conner’s last short story, “Judgement Day,” was a re-write of one of her earliest short stories. An old religious white man from Georgia is living with his daughter in New York City in a dreary apartment, and writes to his black friend back in Georgia, that it ain’t “no kind of place.” All he wants is to be carried back home in pine box, ready for Judgment Day back in Georgia. O’Connor died in 1964 in Milledgeville, Ga.
As a child, Redding had moved from a small town in South Georgia to Macon, and by 1967 was flying around the country on tour. This movement up and out mapped the history that had carried millions of black Southerners to Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Boston and so on, out of the hell of terroristic lynching-land to the land of the American dream.
But what was that dream becoming, in 1967, at “the Edge of the World,” as the Georgia-raised New Journalist for Look magazine, George Leonard, called the San Francisco scene, LSD and Esalan Institute that he embraced? There’s a certain ambivalence to this end of the dream and quest, the drop into the Pacific Ocean.
“The Dock of Bay,” as I pay attention to the lyrics, seems to express the dark ambivalence, the end of something that had kept us going all this time – for centuries, really.
I’ve got nothing to live for/Nothin’s going to come my way. . .wastin’ time.
Looks like nothin’s gonna change. Everything seems to stay the same. . .
Sittin’ here resting my bones/And this loneliness won’t leave me alone.
Three days after Redding recorded this, on Dec. 10, 1967, his Beechcraft twin-engine, carrying him and his band on tour, stopped working and plunged into a cold lake in Wisconsin. Redding and four band members died in the icy waters. He was only 26 years old.
The killings and turmoil of 1968 were just around the corner.
Image Credit: Photo of Otis Redding from the ad for his single "Try a Little Tenderness" via Wikipedia.org is in the public domain because it was published in a collective work (such as a periodical issue) in the United States between 1925 and 1977 and without a copyright notice specific to the advertisement.