Ballad of the Undertown

A few years back, when I was living out on 89 acres in middle-of-nowhere Ohio, I decided that I needed to write a series of songs that clung together in the same way as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. As is the case with any venture of that magnitude, some of ’em worked, and some of ’em didn’t. The point was to capture the essence of that population 8,900 small town that was 12 miles down the state route, where 20 years prior I’d gone to elementary and junior high schools, riding the school bus for over an hour each way through endless fields on concrete, then blacktop, then stone-tar, then gravel and finally dirt roads. My cousins still lived there; so did a lot of people I knew. Many had moved away, but much later in their development than I did. Most that moved away never came back, leaving their parents and grandparents (and their way of life, too) to die in that backwoods place (home of the National Coon Dog Field Trials, BTW). Some things had changed, but a lot was very much the same. When we moved from Ohio to California, that part of Ohio was dying. When I moved back, you could still feel that lingering death in the air, and like any long-time sufferer will tell you, there are parts of the daily pain that you just have to put up with, and others you block out entirely. I had traveled many miles before I returned back to the family farm; along the way, maybe I learned a few things. And maybe some of them were worth learning.

BTW, if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, you can sing along to this one, kinda. It has the same verse structure and rhyme pattern as (Just Like) Tom Thumb’s Blues from Highway 61 Revisited.

If you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Easter time, too /
And your gravity fails and negativity won’t pull you through /
Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue /
They got some hungry women there that’ll sure make a mess out of you

There’s also a bit of Tom T. Hall’s The Ballad of Forty Dollars in there, too:

The man who preached the funeral said it really was a simple way to die /
He laid down to rest one afternoon and never opened up his eyes /
They hired me and Fred and Joe to dig the grave and carry up some chairs /
It took us seven hours and I guess we must have drunk a case of beer

Or maybe Willie Nelson’s Me and Paul:

Almost busted in Laredo, but for reasons that I’d rather not disclose /
But if you’re staying in a motel there, and leave, don’t leave nothing in your clothes

Now, Councilman Zeb Davis says that tourists are the way to save this town
Never mind the unemployment and the high school where the scores are going down
And the factories that close, that’s an element we just don’t need around
‘Cause misfortune is attractive when you pass her by but don’t take in the sound

Now, the Holy Rollin’ Baptist preacher says the choice is Heaven or to Hell
Never mind those that ignore the call, they’re lost and so we’ll bid them fare thee well
And the north side is place where all the comfortable Christians care to dwell
So don’t mind the local greasers and the factory boys and focus on the sell

Now, the cemetery’s full of conflict’s heroes and the town’s claim to its pride
Never mind that’s it’s still killing and there’s never proof that God is on your side
And the trick is not to have to walk when you can find a bandwagon to ride
‘Cause the further you are from the ground the better off you’ll be when He decides

Now, the local boys are drinking and the local girls are plastering their hair
Never mind the ozone layer, when you’re looking good and everyone will stare
And the trick is to forget there’s no one watching who can take you anywhere
‘Cause the ride to love is free, but the return trip’s where they charge you double fare

Now, the smiling politician says his mandate is new jobs for everyone
Never mind that it takes three or four apiece to take the place of one good one
And the skills you need to get ahead are never taught to any farmer’s son
‘Cause the city boys have learned a briefcase works a whole lot cleaner than a gun

Now, the trains roll by the station for there’s never anybody coming home
Never mind the old folks dying or the brother sitting waiting by the phone
And the high school sweetheart pining ’cause you promised that she’d never be alone
‘Cause the world outside is promising to show you things you never have been shown

Now, the board of education puts its trust in the community of saints
Never mind the harsh reminders that the golden dream could use a coat of paint
And the faded football heroes selling cars without a murmur of complaint
‘Cause there ought to be a better way, but everyone believes that there just ain’t.

Now, when Councilman Zeb Davis swears that tourists will revive our village square
Never mind the unemployment in the ’70’s that left the cupboards bare
And the looks from all the local boys that tell you there’s nobody living there
‘Cause this kind of spirit only comes out with a lot of fasting and some prayer.

1998

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