Behind the song: “Down South” by Tom Petty
From his third solo album “Highway Companion”, this is his second Southern masterpiece, and unlike all of his other songs
Of all his songs, there were few that he spoke with as much love and pride as “Down South”. The other contestants were “Southern Accents” his first Southern masterpiece, “Insider”, “Wake Up Time” and “Angel Dream”, all songs he felt really excited for as soon as he got them. completed. All the songs he knew came from another place, which he couldn’t always reach. The kind of songs that, as he said, “made me want to start over – to come home and write another song.”
“Down South,” even while writing, was a conscious sequel, or follow-up, to “Southern Accents”. However, it’s not as dark or sacred as “Southern Accents,” which sounds like Tom’s “Let It Be”, while “Down South” is closer to “Penny Lane”.
Yet the song is still tempered by opposing forces. Tom was drawn to the darkness and mystery there, all the frightening aspects of the South, unknown and invisible forces forever contrasting with normal life. He delivers to Tom the perpetual shock of the topical and the timeless – the mystic and the mundane that distinguished the South. Like the procession of ghosts through the ruins – “the spirits cross the dead field” – just like “the mosquitoes hit the windshield”.
There is no attempt to dig up old sins or secrets to bring them to light. Quite the contrary: “All documents remain sealed. In the first verse, he contacts his father’s mistress in the hope of silencing her forever. “I will redeem his forgiveness,” he sings, and “pay every witness.” Its mission is not to uncover the past but to ensure that it remains buried forever.
Always very sensitive to the balance of the elements of a song, it has undergone serious revisions. He didn’t want his songs to be too heavy; they should be “light – but not light”. “Down South” is exactly that. It is not at all light. But not too heavy either.
That’s why he completely ditched the original chorus and wrote a new, simpler one. This breaks the conventional rule of anchoring the chorus around the title. Instead, he crafted a poignantly tender chorus around a humble request and promise with sweetly simple words – both musically and lyrically – that are essentially Tom.
So if I come to your door
Let me sleep on your floor
i will give you all i have
And a little more
– of the “South-South”
it was Traveling companion, his third and last solo album, there in the home studio of his house in Malibu at the same time we worked together on our interview book, Conversations with Tom Petty. Just as it was when we first met, on the eve of the release of Wild flowers, he was really excited about the new songs he was writing and recording then. We almost always met in the studio, and Tom was always excited when he had a new song to play, including “Down South”.
The first one he played to me was “Turn This Car Around” which always brings me back to that sunny moment and its joy. That one and “Down South” still represent the entire album to me, and that essential, joyful season of sharing Tom’s past – filled with a lot of things that weren’t happy – and his present joy, and the best. of all time – the excitement for the new album, the book, and especially her new life with her dream angel, Dana.
He loved the production and sound presence of the song created by Jeff Lynne, who also played bass, and produced the entire album. contrary to Full moon fever, however, which they created very quickly at Jeff’s, this one was made at Tom’s. And unlike Fever and the Wilburys and George Harrison’s albums Cloud, this one does not carry Lynne’s sound signature. It’s more funky and more open.
Tom also adored Mike Campbell’s great guitar figure on a D major chord in first position with his cool Magnatone tremolo, which is repeated throughout the song.
The song was started at home, but completed while on vacation with Dana in Mexico. On a cheerful hammock in the sun with the beautiful Spanish guitar that the hotel bought him, he finished this song, and also started and finished another for the album “Around The Roses”.
Here is the man himself in conversation from our book on the origins of his second Southern masterpiece, “Down South”.
TOM PETIT: I wrote two different choruses for this song. The other was pretty good too, but it was too long. It’s a wordy song. And then it struck me that the chorus has to be more or less a turnaround, instead of going into this big and long story. And that brought me to the other chorus, which is so much better. But I had a bit of reluctance on this song, because I knew I was on something, but until it was perfect, I didn’t want to try to record it. Around the middle of the album, I got the chorus, and I was really excited.
PAUL ZOLLO: The other chorus has different lyrics and music?
Yes, there were different words and music. I think he was saying the same thing, basically, but in different words. So I found a way to get it in quickly, and that’s therefore much better. “If I come to your door, let me sleep on your floor.” . . “It made a much better image.
[The South], it’s a very romantic place, but it’s also a scary place. You would think that a lot of ghosts still linger there. I had written about the South years ago. And I asked myself, “What would I write now?” Now that I’ve been gone for so long?
Then I thought about what to do if I came back? What would my impressions be? And then it came quite easily. I wrote all the lyrics before writing the music. It’s the only one from this album that I did that way. I wrote all the lyrics. And I think while I was writing them I heard the tune in my head.
And then it was just a matter of picking up the guitar and figuring out which chords were underneath. It took me a little while to get a melody, but I got one. Because it’s very wordy. But I think every word counts. So once I got the chorus, I was really happy. [Laughs] I’m still happy with this song.
Jeff did Phone an excellent record of this song. And Mike played it so well.
There is a nice recurring riff that holds up.
Yeah, it’s Mike with his Magnatone amp. There’s a wobble on the amp that makes a tremolo, but something even weirder than that. That’s how we made the record. He had that killer sound, and we just based the record on that.
There are fine words about confronting the ghosts of the past. “Sell the family’s gravestones / drag a bag of dry bones. . . “
“Make good all my loan arrears.” . . “” Experiencing Yankee winters. . . “What they’re doing there.
I think my favorite line is: “Spirits cross dead fields / mosquitoes hit windshields / all documents remain sealed.” . . “That’s when I got really excited.
I love “… impressing all women / pretending to be Samuel Clemens / wearing suction cups and white sheets.”
It’s funny, I played there, and there are people who did not know who Samuel Clemens was! It scared me. [Laughs] Younger people. But he’s one of my great heroes. So, yes, it was a bit of luck, to have these beautiful lines.
I have rarely wrote something I felt so good about. It’s up there in my Top Ten things I’ve ever done. And that’s great. It really makes me feel good. It makes me want to keep doing this.
It’s interesting that you wrote all the words first. Did you have any other lyrics that you didn’t use?
Yes. I wrote a lot. And I edited it down. I had a tear there. I have just started to write and write.
There are good rhymes in it.
It’s a good feeling, when everything rhymes. Although I wasn’t really concerned with rhymes when I was writing it. It worked, so what I did was take the most important verses and use them. But I had more than I wasn’t using. I am a wealth of information on this subject. Because I grew up there, and once I figured out what it would be like if I went back, all started to gush. [Laughs]
I like this song a lot. I think it’s up there with everything I wrote. I hope people see it that way. I was so happy to have this chorus.
It’s telling to me that even when you’re on vacation, you want a guitar, and you want to write.
It’s better than TV. [Laughs] It was a wonderful vacation that I had. I had a hammock in front of the door and I was lying in the hammock with my guitar.