Click for larger view
|Figure 1 |
In anticipation of his first royalty check for "My Tears Spoiled My Aim," John Shelton Reed splurged for new duds. Photograph courtesy DixiePix.
Like many country songs, I suspect, "My Tears Spoiled My Aim" grew out of a title—in this case, one that came to me in a blinding flash of unsought revelation. Once that was in place, the rest of the lyrics flowed like—well, like whatever flows easily. I'm pretty sure that at the time I had not heard Johnny Cash's version of "Kate," where the singer tells his murdered, cheating wife, from prison, "As sure as your name's Kate / You put me here," but the scene and the self-pitying sentiment are obviously much the same—although Cash's narrator shot straighter than mine.
I was pleased with what I'd written, and proudly sent the lyrics off to a friend at Vanderbilt, a scholar with connections in the country-music business, asking him if he didn't agree that it was a natural-born hit, and including the address to which my checks should be sent. Imagine my dismay when he wrote back to say that my song was "too cerebral" for Nashville. It's hard to hit a lower blow than that.
Discouraged, I put the song away—although I cribbed the title for an essay on violence in country music and subsequently for a collection of essays including that one. Waste not, want not, has always been my motto. A delightful result of publishing that essay is that I heard from Andrew Hudgins, a fine southern poet who now teaches at Ohio State, who had written in a splendid poem, "Reflections on Cold Harbor":
Elijah Cobb said that as he fired
into the massive surging of their line
he started crying. Tears blurred his aim.
But he did not withhold his fire.
There were so many running men
that every shot hit something blue,
even a shot fired blind through tears.
From time to time during the 1990s I dusted off the lyrics and tried to set them to music, but I labor under the disadvantage that every tune I've ever written sounds like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" I was pleased one day in 1998 when Franklin Golden, one of my former students at Chapel Hill, came by and said he was recording a CD to give to his friends and relations for a Christmas present and wanted to put my song on it. I not only gave him the lyrics but fast-talked my way into the recording session: My line is, "It's just so embarrassing, Franklin." (Anyone who really, really cares can find this CD with the Daniel W. Patterson and Beverly Bush Patterson Papers, Collection Number 20026, in the Manuscripts [End Page 133] Department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library. It's "Franklin Golden and Friends," CD-4683.)
Franklin's setting for my words was catchy—it didn't sound like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"—and I was grateful for it, but in truth I thought it was a little too cheerful for the subject matter. In any case, his limited-edition CD was really limited-edition, so I continued to hope for something more commercial.
A couple of years ago I thrust my lyrics on my friend, the multi-talented singer/ composer/guitar-mandolin-and-banjo-player Tommy Edwards, who promptly showed off by sending me back a tape of not just one tune but three: country, bluegrass, and rockabilly. Each was a gem, and none sounded like WTCBU. What he put on his album is the bluegrass version, and it's my favorite—until I listen to one of the others.
I should add that Tommy also tweaked...