A Ghost Story

Emmylou Harris was born on April 2, 1947 and she is an American singer-songwriter and musician.  She has released many chart-topping albums and singles over the course of her career, and has won 12 Grammys and numerous other awards.  Harris has a powerful voice which she uses to carry her songs that are often full of vivid imagery, and there is an ache in her voice that can break your heart and she sings with an inner glow of conviction.  She dropped out of college in North Carolina to start performing folk and country music in Greenwich Village clubs and coffeehouses and waitressing at Gerde’s Folk City.  Harris became friends with Jerry Jeff Walker, David Bromberg, and Paul Siebel and she met songwriter Tom Slocum, whom she married in 1969.  Harris released her first album Gliding Bird in 1970, only to see it disappear with the bankruptcy of her record label Jubilee.  The marriage failed that same year, and Harris moved back to her parents’ farm outside Washington, D.C., with her infant daughter, Hallie.

While performing with a trio in D.C. area bars that included Gerry Mule and Tom Guidera, Harris met Chris Hillman and several members of the maverick country-rock band the Flying Burrito Brothers, who almost asked Harris to join the group, but instead he decided to recommend her to to their ex-bandleader, Gram Parsons who became her mentor.  Parsons had just begun his solo career, and needed a female vocalist to sing harmony on his debut solo effort, GP (1972).  She went on tour with Parsons and his backup act, the Fallen Angels, and returned to the studio with him in 1973 to record his acclaimed follow-up album, Grievous Angel.  Tragically, in September 1973, Parsons died in a California hotel room from a heart attack brought on by drug and alcohol abuse.

After his death, she met Canadian record producer and guitarist Brian Ahern in Los Angeles, where Harris recorded and released her solo major label debut, Pieces of the Sky, in 1975.  Emmylou Harris got married to Ahern and they stayed together for seven years and he produced 11 albums for her.  Several other albums followed, such as Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town (1978) and Blue Kentucky Girl.  In 1979, Emmylou Harris and Levon Helm sang a duet ‘One More Shot’, on songwriter Paul Kennerley’s concept album The Legend of Jesse James.  After leaving Brian Ahern, she and her children moved back to Nashville.  In 1985, Harris came into her own as a songwriter, reinvented her sound by mixing several genres in her autobiographical album, The Ballad of Sally Rose. In 1987, she enjoyed a major critical and commercial success with Trio, a collaboration with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is an American country rock band, that has existed in various forms since its founding in Long Beach, California in 1966.  The original members included John McEuen, Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden and Bob Carpenter.  In 1970, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band scored one of their biggest hits, with the Jerry Jeff Walker song ‘Mr. Bojangles’, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010.  They moved to Colorado, and the group’s membership has had at least a dozen changes over the years, including a period from 1976 to 1981 when the band performed and recorded as the Dirt Band.  Their 1972 groundbreaking ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ album was inducted into the U.S. Library of Congress as well as the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 1990, they released a blue grass album Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. II, which is hailed internationally for uniting old and new singers, such as Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Randy Scruggs, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, the Carter Family, Bruce Hornsby, John Denver, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, Levon Helm, Michael Martin Murphy, John Hiatt, Jerry Douglas, Roy Husky Jr., Mark O’Connor, Paulette Carlson, John Prine and Emmylou Harris. Circle II went gold in the US and Canada, and won 3 Grammy’s and the CMA Album of the Year.  Steve Martin’s 1978 novelty song ‘King Tut’, features members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Harris knew singer/songwriter musician and producer Paul Kennerley, from his 1980 concept album, The Legend of Jesse James and she worked with him on The Ballad of Sally Rose, employing the pseudonym Harris often used when she was on tour with her group The Hot Band, which she assembled to tour behind her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky.  Two members of the group, James Burton and Glen D. Hardin, were also part of Elvis Presley’s touring lineup.  Harris’ road manager would say that she was “Sally Rose”, and that’s also the name she used to check into hotels.  The fake band was dubbed ‘Sally Rose and the Rosebuds’, and for some of The Hot Band’s early shows, they would be introduced for their first set as the Rosebuds.  This album hit No. 8 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and it got Harris nominated for a Grammy.

Harris began to form a narrative around her Sally Rose character, which was based on incidents from her real life.  In the story, Sally is an innocent, unsophisticated young woman who meets an accomplished musician who takes her under his wing and they get married.  Her career takes off and his stagnates which causes their relationship to sour.  Sally leaves him, but decides to return.  She is too late though, as he dies in a car accident before she can get there.  Though a commercial failure, the record proved pivotal in Harris’ continued evolution as an artist and she and Kennerley wed shortly after concluding their tour.  Angel Band, a subtle acoustic collection of traditional country spirituals, followed, although the record was not issued until 1987.

Paul Kennerley was born in 1948 in England, and in 1976, while he was living in London and working in advertising he also ran a small pub-rock booking agency and managed an English pub rock group called the Winkies.  In London he first heard country music, the song ‘Let’s All Help the Cowboys Sing the Blues’ by Waylon Jennings.  He was drawn to country music, so he quit his job in advertising and started to develop his talents as a songwriter.  In 1983, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee and he got married to Emmylou Harris in 1985 and they stayed married till 1993.  Kennerley collaborated with Harris on her albums Thirteen and Bluebird, and Emmylou Harris recorded ten songs that were written by Kennerley including, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Diamond in My Crown’, ‘Heartbreak Hill’, ‘Heaven Only Knows’, ‘In My Dreams’, ‘Rhythm Guitar’, ‘The Ballad of Sally Rose’, ‘Timberline’, ‘Woman Walk the Line’ and ‘Mary Danced With Soldiers’.  Paul Kennerley also wrote songs that were recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Kenny Rogers, The Judds, Levon Helm, The Everly Brothers and others.

His knowledge of American history was apparent on White Mansions, a concept album about the Civil War, atmospherically produced by Glyn Johns and featuring Waylon and his wife, Jessi Colter.  This was followed by The Legend Of Jesse James, which included Levon Helm and Johnny Cash as Jesse and Frank James, respectively, as well as Emmylou Harris and Albert Lee.  The album was coincidentally released at the same time as The Long Riders, a film about the James brothers.  In this 1980 movie James Keach played Jesse James, Stacy Keach played Frank James, David Carradine played Cole Younger, Keith Carradine played Jim Younger, Robert Carradine played Bob Younger, Dennis Quaid played Ed Miller and Randy Quaid played Clell Miller.  One song, ‘The Death Of Me’, was later recorded by Emmylou Harris with the lyric altered to ‘Born To Run’.  Kennerley’s marriage to Harris ended, but both he and Albert Lee have been the most successful Brits in country music, and both have found success through Emmylou Harris.

‘Mary Danced With Soldiers’ was sung by Emmylou Harris on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. II.  The song says, “She stepped a light quadrille”, which is a square dance performed typically by four couples and containing five figures, each of which is a complete dance in itself.  Since this dance was fashionable in late 18th- and 19th-century Europe and its colonies, that tells me that this song probably takes place after the Civil War.  Mary is single, possibly a widow or she never married, but she has a child.  She works in a mill during the day and at night, she kisses her child and then goes out to dance with these soldiers who I think are actually ghosts.  Mary is most likely a Southern girl, because the song says that she fell in love with a rebel boy who was shot and killed in the war.  The next verse is hard to interpret, “They came around to the tavern in town that night And with silent cries Mary never tried to fight They cut her hair and left her body torn Her spirit slipped away before the dawn”, but certainly things turned out badly for Mary this night, leaving everyone wondering why Mary needed to die.  Mary always carried her shawl that she got from the rebel boy and this shawl connects her past life, her current life and goes with her into death, still keeping away the chill.

She’d slip away each day with the dimming light
And with the sweetest smile she’d kiss the child goodnight
At the mill she’d work her fingers till they were raw
For the sake of her son and the daddy he never saw

Mary danced with soldiers
She stepped a light quadrille
Shawl across her shoulders
To keep away the chill, to keep away the chill

It was a rebel boy who brought her joy they say
Though the years had passed the memories stood fast each day
Before a bullet crushed the life of their romance
He gave her a shawl and a parasol from France

Mary danced with soldiers
She stepped a light quadrille
Shawl across her shoulders
To keep away the chill, to keep away the chill

They came around to the tavern in town that night
And with silent cries Mary never tried to fight
They cut her hair and left her body torn
Her spirit slipped away before the dawn

Mary danced with soldiers
But now her body’s still
Shawl across her shoulders
To keep away the chill

Mary danced with soldiers
She stepped a light quadrille
Shawl across her shoulders
To keep away the chill, to keep away the chill

Written for FOWC with Fandango – Carry, for Ragtag Community – Recommend and for Word of the Day Challenge Prompt – Conviction.

7 thoughts on “A Ghost Story

  1. This melody sounds very similar to Delta Dawn, and the story, though different, is similar. I agree that Emmylou has that aching twang to her voice when she wants to use it, but I’ve never been a great fan of hers. Where she shines for me is when she’s doing harmonies. I see you are continuing on your “Mary theme” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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