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Records Revisited: Townes Van Zandt “Delta Momma Blues”

“FFV” by Townes Van Zandt

Wreck of the C & O

Records Revisited:
Delta Momma Blues by Townes Van Zandt
Fat Possum Records, 180 Gram Vinyl
By Courtney Sudbrink, Editor

Townes Van Zandt’s 1971 effort, Delta Momma Blues opens up with the traditional, “FFV,” better known as the “Wreck of the C & O,” previously made popular by the Carter Family. Van Zandt’s interpretation of the song finds many of the original verses cut out. But, he proves that with arrangement, the constant strumming of slow bass notes, the essence of the song can be captured with fewer words, the story no less complete. The mass and power of the train and the desperate attempt to make time is captured in the tempo. It’s haunting. He’s captured a tale I’d heard growing up, that I never could understand. The attraction and embrace of danger.

My grandfather was an engineer. At the age of seven, his father was killed by a train. A few years later, his mother was killed by a train, in an effort to save a little girl’s life. Her bicycle was caught on the tracks. The engine sped near. The little girl was saved. My great grandmother lost her life. My grandfather was an orphan on account of the railroad.

Still, he had an odd love affair with trains. The power, the beauty. Maybe it helped him overcome the tragedy in his life. I never saw darkness from him. I only saw love and humor, elements Van Zandt too maintained on occasion.

As a child, my Grandpa took me for rides on the South Buffalo Railroad. He’d put me in the engineer’s seat with a train hat on, convincing me I was really driving the train. I wasn’t. He bought me model trains, we played with them. He had drawings of trains hanging all over his office, he loved them that much. But it wasn’t until I was a little older, that I’d find out trains murdered his family. He had the ability to turn the bad into good. Maybe it was a way of control.

Van Zandt’s version of “FFV,” captures the emotions I think my grandfather must have felt. I never got a chance to ask him about the sadness he experienced, but, this song captures the split second it takes to make a wrong decision that can shatter someone’s life and all they know.  The engineer wants to die with his train. As Van Zandt tells the story, the struggle to stay alive and come to terms with self-imposed death is as powerful as Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in reflection and circumstance. But it’s more peaceful. It’s death by way of acceptance.

Murdered upon a railroad, and laid in a lonesome grave
His face was covered up with blood, his eyes they could not see
And the very last words that ever he spoke were, “Nearer my God to Thee” – “FFV”

My grandfather had always said when he died, he’d be driving a train in heaven. I hope that’s true.

The follow up to this lonesome saga, is the sweet and comforting title track. “Delta Momma Blues,” comes as a much needed relief from serious emotion.  It is here Van Zandt captures the innocence of childhood, something trivial to maintain in life. Though Van Zandt’s songs are often dark and reveal personal turmoil, here he acts as a point of inspiration and comfort. He’s written a mature lullaby, in the way Woody Guthrie did with Songs for Mother and Child to Grow On. The song eases the pain endured from listening to “FFV.” Townes emerges hopeful out of the darkness. He reveals his gentle side.

But darkness is always runs rampant in Van Zandt’s work. It was what he knew best. But like with his life, there are existential highs and lows on this album. Delta Momma Blues hits the extremes in emotion. “Tower Song,” “Rake,” and “Nothin'” are some of his most prolific songs.  They are forlorn. But as he sings in Tower Song, there is greater pain in keeping up a wall, than there is bleeding honest hurt.

As a complete work, Delta Momma Blues unintentionally captures the spirit of Van Zandt’s manic depression, a condition many great artists have endured in order to bring beauty into the world. An illness that caused him tremendous suffering, explains his abilities. His genius.

Van Zandt was an honest songwriter and an honest performer.  Whether  he was singing about himself or a character he came up with, his voice never lacked authenticity. He was a poet. He was also as much a master of prose as any great novelist.

Lenny Bruce once said that “Satire is tragedy plus time.” Van Zandt understood that sentiment.  He had a keen ability to find humor in the solemn. One of his greatest executions of dark wit is with the tongue-in-cheek, “Turnstyled, Junkpiled.” Sounding like a slow wagon ride through the plains of Texas, somehow this song seems to capture Bruce’s philosophy on life, one that Townes seemed to have shared. As well, it conveys Van Zandt’s few and far between, inner triumph over the demons he faced.

“Turnstyled Junkpiled” by Townes Van Zandt from Delta Momma Blues

I’ve been turnstyled, junkpiled, railroaded too. I’ve been laid low, but don’t you know, I’m still in love with you. I’ve been took down many a road, if anybody says I ain’t, well they lie. Cause I ain’t got no plans, ‘cept to be your man, I’m gonna love you til I die.  “Turnstyled, Junkpiled”

Van Zandt isn’t asking for sympathy. He lets it be known that he’s gone through a lot, as unbelievable as it may seen. At the other side, all he wants is to experience closeness, comfort, love and understanding.  The things he gave through song. That he hints at with his slight grin on the album cover.  Though he may not have lived to find some of those things with any sense of completeness, his work speaks for itself.  Delta Momma Blues, one of the greatest examples. Hopefully in death, he has found peace, as his songs continue to touch the lives of those like him.

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