Tuesday, May 20, 2008
After Olivia Newton-John scored her first American hit with Bob Dylan's "If Not for You," which reached Number Twenty-Five in 1971, as we were discussing the other day, she followed that up with a step into pure country: the old Appalachian murder ballad "Banks of the Ohio." "Banks" has been around since the nineteenth century, although it was most notably recorded by the Carter Family and then in 1936 by a pair of brothers named Earl and Bill Bolick, who recorded as the Blue Sky Boys.
In his 2006 book The Shape of Things to Come, Greil Marcus goes on and on about this Blue Sky Boys record, and indeed it is one of the most desolate and otherworldly songs released during the Depression. The story is basically that a ne'er-do-well takes his girlie down to the titular banks, where he asks to marry her. When she declines, a knife is produced and used in swift order.
"There's no scream in the performance; instead of a sense of violence there's a sense of rectitude," wrote Marcus. "The stunned, almost catatonic reading the Bolicks give the song, singing in the killer's first person, makes the nineteenth-century ballad seem no more traditional than the investigations Agee and Evans were conducting in Alabama two months after the Bolicks cut the song at their first recording session—and far more modern, even modernist, than the country surrealism of the Frankie and Johnny or Jesse James paintings Thomas Hart Benton was making in Missouri at the same time."
So, you can see, this is a perfect vehicle for Miss I Honestly Love You. The surprise is not that the record stiffed in the U.S., where it topped out at a pathetic Number Ninety-Four on the pop charts, but that it actually went to the Top Ten in both of Miss Newton-John's homelands, England (where she was born and where she started her career) and Australia (where she was raised and where she lives now). That's what apparently led to the attached TV appearance. I don't know what's more alarming about it: The fact that a bunch of teenagers are clapping along to a draggy, horrific murder ballad or Olivia's brunet locks. It's a long way to "Make a Move on Me":