This is an installment of the “One Song” series, where I talk to songwriters about just one song. The Overmountain Men are playing a house show with Common Chord Concerts on September 14th. I talked to the Overmountain Men’s singer and songwriter David Childers at his home about the song “George Wallace,” from his 2006 album with the Modern Don Juans, “Jailhouse Religion.” It was interesting to me that he chose a song from a seven year old album, but even more interesting when he told me that he never performs this song live anymore.
David has written several songs about historical figures. Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton and Rembrandt are a few whose lives he has explored in song. I ask him why he chose to write a song about George Wallace, the Alabama governor who is remembered for his resistance to desegregation, and in particular for blocking African-American students from entering school.
He explains that the song came from his feelings about racism.
He says, “Well, just growing up with it. It was sort of cathartic. To me, George Wallace was like the last gasp of the old school racism. When writing it at that time I was naïve to think that maybe we were going to reach a post-racial point in our society. But I wrote that song ten, twelve years ago. I just thought we were a better society than I really think we are right now.”
In the chorus, there’s a lyric: “George Wallace knew that’s how it had to be.” David found that when he performed the song, the lyric was often misinterpreted. “The way it had to be” refers to what Wallace had to do in order to get elected, but listeners inferred that David himself felt that segregation was the way “it had to be.” This is what led to him dropping the song from his live performances.
He recalls, “These people gave me a t-shirt that had George Wallace’s picture on it. And it had ‘That’s The Way it Ought To Be.’ And I’m thinking ‘No, no, no. You missed the point.’ Then up in New York City people walked out on us playing because they thought…as soon as they heard that words ‘George Wallace’ they’re like ‘Oh my, he’s a racist.’ But you know, you talk about writing about history, some people get it, some people don’t.”
In the song, David writes about hearing Wallace give a speech in 1968 in the building that, after many name changes, is now called “Bojangles Coliseum.”
I heard him in Charlotte in ’68.
I hated his guts but his speech was great.
David was a teenager at the time, and although his politics didn’t align with Wallace’s, he went because it was exciting that a presidential candidate was speaking in Charlotte.
“He was running for president against Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon and he came to speak. And I’d seen John Kennedy speak in that same building eight years earlier. My brother Max and I went and we wore…we were guys who would wear a suit and a tie when we went out. Ties and button down collars and sport coats and real short hair. So we kind of fit in. And I saw some people from around here who knew me. I was a loudmouth about my beliefs and they were like ‘What are you doing in here?’ They were very suspicious.
“But it was an amazing thing. Faron Young (the country singer) was playing. It was something going on. You know, I went to a peace march in Washington a few months later. I didn’t really have any feelings one way or another. I sort of supported the war in Vietnam because it was my country. It (the peace march) was a party going on. Same thing going to see Wallace. It’s like ‘George Wallace is going to speak.’ I went to see Eugene McCarthy speak that same year. I even sort of worked the streets for him. That was kind of a magic year, ’68. Terrible in many ways. I was having a pretty good time. I was about seventeen.”
In the song, David tries to describe the complexities of Wallace, and not paint him as a one-dimensional character. He doesn’t demonize him and he doesn’t excuse him. Perhaps it’s that subtlety, his unwillingness to simplify Wallace for the song, that made it difficult for listeners to know what to make of it.
“When you read about George Wallace he wasn’t really that racist for that time and place but he played it because that’s how you got elected. He became that. He was willing to play that role and put on the mantle of racist champion like so many southern politicians before him. And it was an easy way to win.
“I think he did change. I read that. That he repented what he’d done. He knew it wasn’t right. I also read or heard about when he was a judge, he was a state judge in Alabama. This was from African-American attorneys, they say that he was just a really good judge. And this was back in the old days. He wouldn’t put up with any kind of condescension. They were treated just as equal to anybody in that room. They were lawyers. They had done the work and earned the license. He treated them like you ought to be treated, with respect.”
I’m curious about why, of all his songs, he chose to talk about this one with me. Most of the songwriters I talk to want to discuss a song from a current album, a popular song. But David wanted to talk to about a song that he wrote a decade ago, that has been widely misunderstood, and that he doesn’t even perform anymore. Why this song, today?
“Even now I see racism making a big comeback,” he says. “You know, in our state, in the south, nationally, it’s disturbing. I guess that’s what brought it back into my consciousness.”
When he wrote the song he was more optimistic about race relations than he is now.
“Very much more optimistic. I didn’t realize how deep…it’s like when Obama got elected it just ripped a big scab off this racist thing. Boils and infections in our society that I thought were healed up or were healing up. Rumors, lies I hear, things I see on television, I read in certain press… And these people, they don’t worry about facts, they just make up whatever narrative would suit them.”
In the studio recording, elements of the music help to set the song in the time and place of the 60’s in the south.
Studio recording of “George Wallace”
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“I will say this. I don’t much listen to my own stuff but that recording that Mark Lynch produced, he did a really good job. He brought in a chorus, a male chorus, that sings the backup, and Randy Saxon played Dixie in that part, and then Mark got me to imitate Wallace. There were some lines I had remembered him saying. Cause the guy was fiery. He was like a little…they spoke of him like a little bantam rooster.
“But God, man, those people could hate. They still do. They hate so hard.”