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Poor Boy's on the Line
Sinking my teeth into the symbolic meat on the bones of Johnnie Allan's swamp-pop promised land
Two minutes and four seconds of balls-out, cajun-dipped rock and roll that jet-propels you from Virginia to California with the ferocity of 10,000 roaring lions.
What kind of crazy sonofabitch would cover one of Chuck Berry’s greatest songs and trade out Chuck’s guitar solos for accordion solos?!
Jonnie Allan. That’s who, goddamnit.
Who’s Johnnie Allan, you ask? Yeah, I didn’t know who he was, either. I found him when I bought a 2003 version of UNCUT magazine - one of those expensive, thick-stock music magazines that enticed purchases with a free CD stuck to the front cover. Those dinosaurs still roam the earth, but that free CD is long gone extinct.
Before blogs, truly usable websites, and shareable playlists became things, I bought a lot of these magazines. I bought them for the articles and the CD compilations. I had skyscraper stacks of these magazines all over my apartments. I hardly ever went back to read them, but the OCD collector in me didn’t want to throw my friends in the trash callously, and I never knew when I might want to reference them for some crazy reason (I never did). But then came the internet and a digital music library, and my mags hit the bin.
The CD compilations were always compelling. They were created as a compliment to the cover story. I loved looking at the track list. There were always a few songs I didn’t know. Buried treasure or fool’s gold? I wanted to find out.
I still love that feeling of discovering new songs. Did you know Friday is the day the music industry releases new music? Of course, you did. You’re reading this. You’re a serious music fan. It used to be Tuesdays, but they changed it to Fridays a decade ago. It makes sense. The eagle flies on Friday.1 Let the good times roll. Drop the coins right into the slot. Three plays for a buck2.
I’m still crazy for new music release Fridays. Right now, as I write this, it’s Friday. Apple Music, Spotify, and Qobuz all have algo-driven playlists tuned to the sounds you want to hear. I also use MusicHarbor - an excellent app for tracking new and upcoming releases. You can add future releases to your calendar so you don’t miss any albums you are excited about, god forbid.
The first thing I do when I wake up on Fridays, is to check all of my music apps. I roll out of bed, open my apps and skim the playlists looking for new turn-ons. You get it. You do the same, right? You’re with me. Yes, of course, you are. It’s who we are. It’s what we do. It’s how we roll. Eternal.
Let’s get back to Johnnie, eh? He deserves his due.
It's 2003, and I'm at a Barnes & Noble in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, on a Friday afternoon after work. We (my wife and I) were living there at the time. I often went to Barnes & Noble straight after work to roam the music section3. I was still buying CDs then, mainly because the Jeep I drove had a CD player, and I loved having new tunes to blast out of my stereo on Fridays as I went around with the top off (the Jeep's, not mine).
That day at Barnes & Noble, I bought the latest UNCUT magazine. The cover story was about U2’s Joshua Tree album. I’m not a big U2 fan. I bought it for the 12-page special on Gram Parsons.
That said, the CD complication did look interesting. It claimed to be full of music that inspired U2’s Joshua Tree album. There were a lot of roots and dust on that playlist, right up my musical alley. I bought the magazine and the double CD Gram Parsons Anthology. I intended to pop Gram in the CD player when I jumped in the Steel Horse. I changed my mind. I figured I’d give the UNCUT complication a spin first. Why not. Time to go exploring.
The CD player slowly sucked it into its maw, and I drove The Steel Horse off the lot. As I pulled into traffic, the first song erupted from The Horse’s speakers.
Ten-Thousand roaring lions.
This song has been riding shotgun with me for twenty years since that moment. I added it to CD mixes and playlist many times. I shared it with people that needed to hear it. I used it for an adrenaline rush when duty called. And now, dear readers, I share it with you. Buckle up and blast off.
Cover songs come and go. Some transcend the original version and make us forget it ever existed.
We could go on and on with a list of transcendent cover songs. I believe Johnny Allan’s eclipses Chuck’s original. It’s a take on Chuck’s, but the immediacy of the music and how that draws on Chuck’s personal story is what I feel makes this one all gas and no breaks.
Let’s touch on the music before we go spelunking on the message.
The other reason this song moves at breakneck speed is that there is no chorus or bridge to slow it down. Right from the get-go, it starts moving and never stops until it does. This version feels like it will fly off the rails at any moment - speed wobbles and all hell breaking loose.
The mix on Johnnie’s version is either brilliant or botched. The piano, drums, and bass go from 0-60 in a nanosecond to start the song. They’re all over each other, more muddled than the mint and sugar in the world’s most expertly crafted Cuba Libre.
Johnnie’s voice is the star. His voice is way up, front and center, in the mix. The rhythm pulses, heaves, and chugs heartedly, but Johnnie’s voice is all styling and smooth handling on all the hairpin turns.
I love his phrasing. Listen to how he says “Al Acartee” like it was the name of one of his old buddies back home. I love how he drags out the eaaasy in the lyric, “Swing low chariot, come down easy.” It’s subtle but significant. Set ‘er down easy, pilot. I don’t want to die in a fiery crash before I can set foot in the promised land. And, oh, his voice's sweet sound of satisfaction and confidence when the Poor Boy calls back home. “I made it. I told you so.”
🎵 I left my home in Norfolk Virginia
California on my mind
I Straddled that Greyhound,
and rolled in into Raleigh and all across Carolina
Stopped in Charlotte and bypassed Rock Hill
And we never was a minute late
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown
Rollin' out of Georgia state
We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way 'cross Alabam
And that 'hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham 🎵
Chuck’s story in “Promised Land” tells the tale of the cross-country travels of the “Poor Boy” from his home in Virginia to California, looking to make it big. Chuck also sprinkles in a few messages about the South, including references to several cities, including Rock Hill, South Carolina, where the Freedom Riders stopped in May 1961 as they rode buses through the South protesting Jim Crow segregation.
In his 2022 biography, Chuck Berry: An American Life, RJ Smith tells the tale of one highly complex human. I can’t recommend this book enough. He talks about Chuck’s veiled messages about the Freedom Riders in “Promised Land.” He also talks about how Chuck wanted to break away from the issues by going west, not to run from them, but to run to success to show people what a black man in America was capable of.
You can’t always find out why someone chose a particular song to cover. Let me tell you, there aren’t a lot of old interviews with Johnnie to comb through for answers why he chose “Promised Land.”
He wasn’t a household name, and he didn’t have anything close to resembling a hit or even another great cover song. Comparatively speaking, his career was modest. I’m not judging. Nor am I trying to paint him as a one-hit wonder or has been. He is a Louisiana legend revered in his circles—a bonafide swap-pop master. I’m talking about him forty-nine years after he put this cover song out, so he did something right.
Allow me the creative license to project a bit.
I like to think Johnnie chose this song because of its symbolism. Sure, it was a great Chuck song, and people have always covered great Chuck songs to juice their careers, but this one has some symbolic meat on its bones.
At the root of Chuck’s original story is a kid from a meager background and backwoods rural upbringing that goes west to make it big. Sound familiar? It sounds a lot like the highly romanticized American Pioneer story.
Go west, young man! There’s gold in them thar hills! Hop off the bus onto Hollywood Boulevard and let the klieg lights bathe over you. You’ve got what it takes to be a star!
The promise of opportunity has pulled a lot of people west. Call them pioneers, opportunists, or failed seekers, but don’t call them unambitious.
These romantic notions of “pioneering” and “making it big” are the fable of America. I’m not saying that in a derogatory or politicized way. Yes, America - one person’s land of opportunity and another’s land of oppression. I’m not debating that or sweeping it under anything. I’m talking about the romantic notions of going west to find opportunity.
🎵 Right away, I bought me a through train ticket
Ridin' cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flier out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans
Somebody help me get out of Louisiana
Just help me get to Houston town
There are people there who care a little 'bout me
And they won't let the poor boy down 🎵
It’s what Americans pride themselves on and why people have aspired to come to America. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
It’s what Chuck was describing. I made it to the other side, and I’m going to call back home and tell them it exists. I’m a man on the move!
This is Johnnie's story, too. A Louisiana kid inspired by music, seeking the big time and trying to find a hit that will take him there. He's looking to where the sun sets for his star to rise. Get on that 'hound4 and ride. California bound, baby.
He made music in the '50s and '60s and toured Europe many times. He put out seven albums over twenty years and wrote two books on the southern swamp musical culture. Ultimately he became a principal and worked in education for twenty years. And now some fifty-one-year-old guy from New Hampshire is writing about him on the internet because he's been playing the closest thing Johnnie's ever had to a hit for thirty years straight.
A damn good run by anyone's standards. Well done, Poor Boy.
The Poor Boy story is my story, too. No, California’s never called me the way it did Chuck, Johnnie, and every other prospector. I went West but didn’t stop in the Golden State. I kept on going West straight to Sydney, Australia. I’m not going to talk about my time in Sydney yet. I start spinning that yarn in the following playlist entry, Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.”
A few songs in the Their Music is My Life Playlist speak to the idea of “life journeys.” After growing up in a small New Hampshire town, I knew that when I graduated from college, it was time for me to take off and make my own way. I wrote about this in detail in the entry titled “In Order to Grow, You’ve Got to Go.” After bouncing around New England, getting married in the Dominican Republic, and moving from Boston to Ft. Lauderdale, I thought this Poor Boy was ready to call back home and tell them I made it. I had no idea that I had just barely started my travels.
🎵 Sure as you're born, they bought me a silk suit
Put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the promised land 🎵
In September of 2003, when I bought that magazine, we were two years away from our move to Sydney. I'll fast forward to February 2005 when we landed in Sydney.5 We stayed at a temporary apartment in the middle of what they call the CBD (central business district). We got into our place and unpacked some things until we decided we were too hungry to continue. I said I would go to the store to find something for us to eat. Honestly, I wasn't that hungry. I just wanted to go out and explore.
I went to the corner grocery store. I remember looking at all the shelves and inside the cooler doors. Everything - the brands, the styles of foods, the labels - seemed vaguely familiar like I was staring at goods from a similar but alternate universe. I had been in Australia for just a few hours. I was jetlagged. I was tired. But I was happy. I walked up and down the aisles laughing to myself. What the hell was I doing in Sydney, Australia!?!
I bought a few things to eat and a six-pack of what became my fave rave Aussie beer, Cooper’s Sparking Ale, and brought it all back to my wife. She was sleeping a deep sleep when I got back. I put the goods away, popped the top off a beer, and sat in a chair by the window. I put my feet up on the sill, leaned back, looked out, took a sip, and sighed through the smile on my face.
After a few beers, I remembered we told our parents we’d call them when we landed. This is 2005: no iPhones, Facetime, or Wi-Fi-enabled text messages. Using Skype (yes, skype) was our only video-call option, and the piss-poor wi-fi didn’t help. I had a long-distance calling card - time to use the trusty phone.
I pulled the phone over to the window and popped another beer. I picked up the receiver and started to dial. I paused, put the receiver back down, shook my head, and laughed. As I reached down to pick it up off the cradle again, I thought of Johnnie Allan.
🎵Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin'
Poor boy's on the line 🎵
This is the tracklist of the CD from the UNCUT Magazine
Johnnie Allan - The Promised Land 2:06
Hank Williams - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry 2:46
Elvis Presley - Maybellene 1:58
Blind Willie McTell - Lay Some Flowers on My Grave 3:23
Mose Allison - Parchman Farm 3:18
Billie Holiday - Stormy Weather 3:43
Woody Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land 2:17
Patsy Cline - Walkin' After Midnight 2:33
Robert Johnson - If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day 2:35
Jimmie Rodgers - In the Jailhouse Now 3:19
Big Bill Broonzy - How You Want It Done 2:52
BB King - When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer 2:54
Tommy McLain - Sweet Dreams 3:21
Big Joe Williams - Don't You Leave Me Here 2:39
The Staple Singers - When Will We Be Paid 2:39
Ramblin' Jack Elliott - Grand Coulee Dam 2:24
Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys - Goodbye Old Pal 2:24
William Bell - Born Under a Bad Sign 3:14
The Rhythm Wreckers - Blue Yodel No 2 (My Loving Gal Lucille) 2:47
Jesse Fuller - San Francisco Bay Blues 3:03
The Nite Owls - Memphis Blues 2:36
John Lee Hooker - Crawling King Snake 3:00
Bill Landford & The Landfordaires - Run for a Long Time 2:35
Molly O'Day & The Cumberland Mountain Folks - Heaven's Radio
Late in his career, Elvis covered “Promised Land” in his live shows. It became a staple. It’s the first version of this song I've ever heard. The King was the Ultimate Poor Boy. This version is hot, too. But this is Elvis. He had the best of the best backing him: Ronnie Tutt on Drums, James Burton on guitar, and Norbert Putnam. All legends. Johnnie had studio cats and an accordion.
In T-Bone Walker’s famous blue song “Stormy Monday,” a lyric goes, “The eagle flies on Friday. Saturday, I go out to play.” The eagle is the eagle on a dollar bill - Friday is payday.
I’m talking about a jukebox here, people. One’s that play 45 records. You remember those?
Ft. Lauderdale had shitty music stores, Barnes & Noble was still thriving then, and music was a big retail push for them.
Chuck throws out the lyric in the song, “The hound broke down.” He’s referring to a Greyhound bus.
We were spent when we landed in Sydney and made it to customs. It was a 22-hour journey. There were at least a couple dozen lines to choose to stand in. We picked one and waited our turn. When we got to the booth, the Aussie looked at my passport. He said, “Oh, you were born in New Hampshire. I’ve been to New Hampshire. Have you ever been to Keene?” That’s where I was born. I just started laughing. My wife looked at me in disbelief and shook her head. This kind of shit always happens to me.
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