Songs I Love: ‘Hey Old Lady and Bert’s Song’

The other day, probably in response to Ken Burns’ new miniseries Vietnam War, I saw a discussion online about pop songs that should never be used again in service of soundtracking the events of US involvement in southeast Asia in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. You could guess the ones overused; Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’, Jefferson Airplanes ‘Volunteers’, Grand Funk Railroad’s ‘Closer to Home’, the Doors ‘Break On Through’ or ‘The End’ etc, all good songs to be sure, but all heavily overused in pop culture on the topic (I’d even seen a few people calling the Stooges ‘Search and Destroy’ overused what with its opening line concerning a ‘heart full of napalm’). So then the conversation turned to what to use instead? It’d need to be anthemic, or at least righteously angry on the topic at hand (and made in the era in question), and catchy enough to prompt something akin to familiarity on first listen. I started to drift around to many options, it was the first real era of mainstream searing electric guitar.

How about the Hampton Grease Band’s most straightforward rocker, ‘Hey Old Lady and Bert’s Song’?  I’m not sure you can just do a straight needle drop as the ones mentioned above are usually done. The opening doesn’t feature an iconic riff and rather opens with the band entry at varying points going from zero to sixty in about 3 seconds with Bruce Hampton sounding hoarse from the get go. But if the song was used intelligently—I know, it’s a leap to assume this since the exercise is specifically about the unoriginal recycling of sound track ideas from others—then the last minute or so could be quite moving, as the band is in full fitness screaming “who’s gonna live and die, you gotta be hiiiiiigh/who’s gonna feel the pain when he’s there and the time has come”.

The song gets me in the mood for such a reading because the first several verses are about the downtrodden, the poor with little use other than to ‘“keep the street clean, while living up in Appalacheeee” which takes us into ‘Fortunate Son’ territory, before revealing a rather bleak outcome for such people in this world described. Plus, it’s rendered with tremendous excitement—the Hampton Grease Band play with just as much thrilling guitar interplay as the Allman Brothers (who they shared a stage with, and came from the same Atlanta scene) or later Television, but their is an oddity here that makes you believe philosophically they’re more in line with Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart or the literary work of off-beat Southern scribe Harry Crews. Perhaps the odd surrealism of the war—where people on both sides died at alarming rates while drug use ran rampant to take many murderous minds off the hellish events—could be better matched with such a song use.

Or, you just create a bunch of new Hampton Grease Band fans, lord knows the world needs more of ‘em.

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