David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 338: Al Green (Take Me To The River)

March 29, 2024

My son's birthday is today and for a couple of weeks, I have been struggling to find a song for this day. I had already used pretty much all the artists we mutually loved, so I had been leaning toward songs about sons. The most obvious two, since they had to be by artists I have yet to cover, were Cat Stevens "Father And Son" and Harry Chapin's "Cats In The Cradle." While both are pretty good songs about father/son relationships, neither seemed to apply to us. We have never had the butting-heads kind of relationship Stevens describes, and while I sometimes wish I had devoted more time and attention to Lincoln growing up, I knew we were nowhere near the distance captured in Chapin's hit.

What I most admire about my son is his fierce devotion to what he believes, even if I sometimes wished he believed in more. (Or, as Aimee Mann/Til Tuesday has sung, "believed you were lucky/and worth the wait.") This has been most apparent in his seeking out of religion since he became an adult, a journey not helped at all by his agnostic father. Even though he has become an active member of a local church the last two years, I was still pleasantly surprised when he told us a week ago that he planned to get baptized on his birthday, which happened to also be Good Friday, meaning today.

As soon as he told me this, "Take Me To The River," in all its forms, worked its way into my head, not to be easily replaced. I can hear the original Al Green, the Talking Heads' version that made it famous for anyone raised on punk/new wave, the Levon Helm version, the Foghat version, and eventually the Annie Lennox version. Green's, the Heads', and Lennox's versions capture the greatest range for the song, so much so that when Lorde, in 2024, decides to cover the Talking Heads' version of "Take Me To The River," it is so clearly replicating their slower version that admitting to "covering the cover" and not the original doesn't quite seem so sacrilegious as it sounds. All these splits from an original, sometimes with minor difference, sometimes major differences? Does that sound familiar? Are we finding the musical equivalent of a Protestant Reformation? The Heads and Lennox mirror the fervent Protestants splitting from Roman Catholicism, with Helm and Foghat making less clear why they had to reinvent the song. So many versions, so many sects. I am pretty sure I have a friend right now who can't believe I have just, in so many words, dissed the Foghat version. He may be doing his Henry VIII impersonation as I type.

Let me get back to the river, though. I am not enough of a religious expert to know which faiths do the spritz-on-the-forehead version of baptism, and which ones do the full immersion in the water, but the later appeals more to me, representing the drama I would expect of a ritual, especially with an adult baptism. As of this writing (early in the day), Lincoln believes he will be baptized in the river (not sure if they are going to drive to the St. Joe River, which isn't that close), or if some creek near his church will represent "the river."

I will acquiesce that it will be "the river," if for no other reason to return to this Al Green classic. With Green's voice sounding like a revivalist preacher, I can visualize Lincoln dipped in the river, preacher with arms raised to Heaven, that scream punctuating the air. Let's hope there's no snake-handling. When you come from West Virginia, you are a little more leery of these kind of small-town churches like the one my son attends.

More importantly, if I was going to take to a faith system, it would have to be one with paradox, which accepts the grey that is life. "Take Me To The River," regardless of version, exemplifies that through the central contradiction to the song: the washing me down, cleansing of soul, and putting of feet on the ground in the chorus, versus the incredibly secular (do I dare pun, sexular) verses: a woman stealing money and cigarettes, putting our hero through more changes than a Waring blender (sorry for the brief mash-up with Warren Zevon), and a sweet sixteen that we can't regret.

According to Green, he came up with that chorus, while his songwriting partner, guitarist Teenie Hodges, wrote the verses. Makes you wonder how they got along while not on the stage, Hodges trying to slip Green into the strip clubs, Green straining to pull Hodges to the pews. "Take Me To The River" was written before Al Green became the Reverend Al Green, so maybe he eventually wrestled his demon (Teenie or not) to the ground.

I could have waited until after the ceremony to write this and be much more accurate about what happened, but that would be no fun. Let me live in the moment of an ideal, of a vision, before reality has me questioning and nailing theses to the doors.

Al Green. "Take Me To The River." Al Green Explores Your Mind. Hi Records, 1974. Link here.

Day 337: The Swan Silvertones "Trouble In My Way"

Day 339: Lindsey Buckingham "Wrong"

See complete list here.