Sunday, 26 July 2015

In The Ghetto - The first take

The 1960's were awash with protest songs from artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and whilst protest songs exist from both before and after the 60's it is with that decade that they are probably associated with most. The Civil Rights Movement and The Vietnam War are the two subjects most covered by the protest song in that period.
It took until the closing minutes of 'Singer Presents Elvis', or the 'NBC 68 comeback Special' if you prefer, for Elvis Presley to present any sort of material that in any way resembled a 'protest' song. 'If I Can Dream' was written by Walter Earl Brown at the behest of the program's producer Steve Binder after a conversation over Elvis' dismay at the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Elvis and Binder had been looking for a song to replace 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' as the show's closing number and Elvis chose to try it despite Colonel Parker's objections. The song with Elvis' raw emotion and it's iconic status as the show's finale remains one of Elvis' most famous recordings. How much of a protest song it actually is is open to each individuals interpretation.
The same can perhaps be said of the Mac Davis compositon 'In The Ghetto' which also became one of the most famous of Elvis' recordings. At first perhaps slightly reluctant to record the song he eventually did and the result was a masterpiece.
Recorded in American Sound Studios on 21 January 1969 it tells the story of poverty in 60's Chicago and the difficulty in escaping that predicament.
This first take, the master was take 23, is almost a completely different song from the master in that it has almost the bare minimum of accompaniment. The song starts with just an accoustic guitar and then Elvis' vocal almost at a whisper and so it continues with just drums and organ for company.
Apart from a slight error with the lyrics and phrasing at the two minute this could almost have passed as an alternate master a folk version if you like and this could possibly have placed it squarely in the 'protest' bracket.
Here are the words of the song's composer Mac Davis on the song's inception and how it was originallly titled 'The Vicious Circle' :
'I never really dreamed of pitching that song to Elvis. I had been working on In the Ghetto for several years. I grew up playing with a little boy in Lubbock, Texas, whose family lived in a dirt street ghetto. His dad and my dad worked in construction together. So that little boy and I sort of grew up together. I never understood why his family had to live where they lived while my family lived where we lived. Of course back in those days, the word 'ghetto' hadn't come along yet. But I always wanted to write a song about that situation and title it 'The Vicious Circle.
I thought that if you were born in that place and that situation, then you grow up there and one day you die there, and another kid is born there that kind of replaces you. And later I started thinking about the ghetto as a title for the song. In the meantime, Freddy Weller had showed me a guitar lick he had been playing. I liked the lick and went home one night and used that guitar lick and wrote that song'. 'I didn't write the song for anyone in particular, but later while I was working on an album in Memphis, Chips Moman called me and said Elvis was recording and asked me if I had any songs for him. So I sent him a tape with 19 songs on it and Elvis recorded the first three songs on the tape, In the Ghetto, Don't Cry Daddy and another song they never released titled Poor Man's Gold. A lot of people have asked me about Elvis talking to me about In the Ghetto. I don't think we ever had a conversation about that song ... either before or after he recorded it'.

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