Other people’s songs: Take a message to Mary

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In this series Aaron selects the music, and Tony responds with his thoughts, which as you will see below, sometimes can meander somewhat.

Aaron: Take a Message to Mary was written by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant and first released by The Everly Brothers in 1959.

Tony:  I’ve always found this a most curious song.  The lyrics are desperately sad and tragic, and yet the music (at least in the Everly Brothers version) is really bouncy and quite jolly.  Maybe most people just don’t feel that contradiction, or maybe it is there to express the contradiction between what happened to the singer, and the message he wants to send to his loved one.  But whatever the reason it feels like a contradiction to me.

I suppose it is also part of the tradition of songs about going to jail not because one is thoroughly evil or nasty, but because one, sort of, falls into the criminal way of life – as if these things happen by accident.  It’s not his fault, he’s a frontier lad.  I’m poor, they are rich, that’s not fair.

The fact that he is in prison for a stagecoach robbery takes us back to the days of Westerns, the genre of movie where fifty people can be killed in a shoot out on screen, and then everything is ok again… until the next episode.  Bring on the Lone Ranger.

Aaron: Dylan’s version came from the 1970s album, Self Portrait

Tony:  Bob puts a lot more into the vocals than the Everlys to my mind.  While they rely on the harmonies, as they always did, this is Bob using his full vocal range.  Indeed if one ever wants to counter the old argument that Bob can’t sing, here’s a perfect example to show what nonsense that is.

In fact I’m so taken by his singing that I don’t really care about the lyrics any more.  Indeed, pedantic musician that I am in my old age, I am more offended by the musical modulation (jerking the key up by a semitone or tone) at the end which rounds the piece off.  I’d be surprised if Bob wrote that – it’s just weird and unnecessary.    But apart from that, Bob turns it into a really nice song, showing his vocal range to a decent arrangement.

Incidentally, the couple who wrote the song also wrote (sometimes together sometimes just Boudleaux)  “All I Have to Do Is Dream” (credited solely to Boudleaux but I had my doubts), “Bye Bye Love”,  “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Love Hurts”,  Clearly they and the Everlys got on rather well.

Indeed their story is one of the classic tales of struggling artists who finally made the big time.  They lived in a mobile home, churning out songs day and night until they had a hit with a Little Jimmy Dickens song “Country Boy”.   After that it all turned out all right.

(In fact the song “Country Boy” which turned the Bryants into mega-star composers really is unbelievable from a 2023 point of view.  I don’t want to interrupt the flow of Aaron’s choices of music, but I will add it at the end of the piece in case you are interested).

Aaron: “Take a message” eventually became a favorite of reggae artists, with several covering it in the mid-70s. Here is Jackie Brown from 1974

Tony:  Adding the reggae beat takes us even further away from the tragedy of the song.  And maybe that is the point – that life is random and we are not the masters of our destiny.  It’s not a message I care for at all – but then on the other hand maybe I am just reading stuff into the lyrics that are really there.

Aaron: Teddy Thompson son of Richard and Linda Thompson made a habit of including an Everly Brothers cover on each album. Linda is on duet vocal on this one from 2005

Tony: By taking the speed down we finally have a sad song, which I suspect is what Mr and Mrs Bryant had in mind when they wrote it.  Indeed, this is indeed the only version of the song we have heard in which the music and lyrics are properly united.   The singer’s fantasy world that he wants to project to Mary is now faithfully seen as a fantasy, and the emphasis finally is on his tragedy, as epitomised by the singing of the last line.

And so with Aaron’s selection discussed, I want to go back to Little Jimmy Dickens and the first song written by the man who wrote “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and then co-wrote with his wife, “Bye Bye Love”,  “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Love Hurts”.

The question I want to pose is, “How does one write ‘Country Boy’ (below) and then go on to write those Everly hits?”  One suspects that the lady wife had more influence on Mr Bryant’s writing career than she is ever given credit for.  Without her, I am not sure we would ever have had the Everly Brothers as we got to know them.

Previously in this series…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues
  38. Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy
  39. Other People’s Songs: Must be Santa
  40. Other People’s songs: The Christmas Song
  41. Other People’s songs: Corina Corina
  42. Other People’s Songs: Mr Bojangles
  43. Other People’s Songs: It hurts me too

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