- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
When we hear certain songs, we may wonder what the event was that inspired a songsmith to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Sometimes, though, what we learn about that inspiration is so painful that we may find ourselves reaching for the Kleenex.
Songwriter Alex Harvey explained that “Delta Dawn” was about his mother, a Mississippi Delta-born hairdresser in Harvey’s hometown of Brownsville, Tennessee.
At 41, she had given herself over to drink when a man who had promised her the world disappeared from her own, leaving her to stumble along Brownsville streets, suitcase in hand, looking for a “mansion in the sky.”
When Harvey was 15 years old, he played in a band.
“We had just won a contest, and we were going to be on a TV show in Jackson, Tennessee,” he recalled. “My mother said she wanted to go. I told her that I thought she would embarrass me. She drank and sometimes would do things that would make me feel ashamed, so I asked her not to go that night.”
When Harvey returned home later from the TV taping, his world crumbled when he learned that his mother had died in a car wreck after running her vehicle into a tree.
Harvey suspected that her death wasn’t an accident but had been a suicide. Devastated, he turned deep inside his music as the only form of therapy that brought him any solace.
Several years later, Harvey was at a fellow songwriter’s house. It was late, and everyone there had fallen asleep except Harvey, who had stayed up to noodle on his guitar. That’s when he experienced a life-altering vision:
“I looked up, and I felt as if my mother was in the room. I saw her very clearly. She was in a rocking chair, and she was laughing.”
Instantly, two song-lyric lines wafted into Harvey’s consciousness:
She’s 41 and her daddy still calls her “Baby”
All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy
He woke his friend and fellow songwriter Larry Collins and breathlessly poured out his story. Together, the two composed “Delta Dawn” in 20 minutes.
Harvey recorded the song first, followed by Tanya Tucker, Bette Midler, and Australian-born Helen Reddy, with Reddy’s version catching the rocket ride to the peak of the Billboard chart and becoming her second No. 1 single after “I Am Woman.”
Much of the success of “Delta Dawn” resulted from a combination of Reddy’s muscular vocals and that of the uplifting gospel background, dynamic and thunderous and sounding straight out of a Southern tent-revival meeting.
“Delta Dawn” brought Alex Harvey blessed relief from the guilt that had shrouded him concerning his mother’s demise.
“I really believe that my mother came into the room that night, not to scare me, but to tell me that it’s OK, that she made her choices in life, and it had nothing to do with me. I always felt like that song was a gift to my mother — and an apology to her.”
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.