Sultry isn’t a word you would use to describe the Northeast where I grew up. No one makes movies about hot and sweaty Connecticut nights. Clifton Chenier may have visited the Catskill mountains, but that’s not what you hear in his music. Those things all belong to the South, all tangled up between myth, legend, and reality.
It’s easy to romanticize the South while living in and around New England. The winters there are frigid, the summers are hot, but the heat never becomes a way of life. It’s an inconvenience, something to be beaten back with pools and air conditioning. Down in the South of fiction the heat is part of the landscape and the culture. All that summer night sweat in Massachusetts is uncomfortable, but for Elvis and Muscle Shoals, it’s pure sex.
The seductive sweltering version of the South was imprinted on my consciousness through movies and TV, but most strongly through one song, Black Velvet by Alannah Myles.
It’s ironic that there’s nothing at all southern about Myles or the song really, other than the sound and subject matter. Myles was born and bred in Toronto, Canada. She’s so Canadian she appeared on The Kids of Degrassi St, the forerunner for Degrassi High. The two guys who wrote the song, Christopher Ward and David Tyson, were both Canadian as well.
The song came out in December of 1989. I remember hearing it on the radio and being enthralled by it. It was different from most everything getting heavy airplay back then. We were still a few years from grunge, and the furthest south most of the music got was Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey. I was a big fan of John Mellencamp, but that wasn’t south, it was the heartland. The closest I really got in my repertoire was Paul Simon’s song ‘That Was Your Mother’, which mentioned Clifton Chenier and was a combo of Cajun Zydeco and Simon’s boomer regret. ‘Black Velvet’ was something different.
I never owned it on tape or CD. In fact I didn’t know who it was until years later in the early Napster days when I went to track it down. For me it was a fleeting radio presence, but something that stuck with me from the moment I first heard it.
The song opens with a descending blues riff followed quickly by slow but steady acoustic bass line. Myles voice is first heard with a knowing ‘Mmmmmm mmmm hmmm’. Once the mood is firmly set she begins to sing. The very first word you hear is ‘Mississippi’. She sings it in such a way to let you know she’s not really talking about a place, but a feeling, ‘Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell.
The next line is ‘Jimmy Rodgers on the Victrola up high’. Rodgers was a blues and folk singer from the early part of the 20th Century. He was known for yodelling of all things. He remained popular and a bit of a cultural touchstone well into the 50’s and 60’s.
The opening lyric gives you the where, the second gives you the when, and the third line ‘Mama’s dancing with baby on her shoulder’ gives you the who of the song. With the intro and those three lines our imagination placed firmly on a run down old house somewhere in the deep South. The air is hot, but the mood is for dancing.
Once all that is established the song opens up and lets in it’s subject, Elvis. The song was written as a tribute to Elvis, and the titular black velvet is a reference to the infamous velvet Elvis paintings.
The song goes on about ‘Black Velvet in that little boy’s smile’ and ‘Black velvet in that slow southern style’. I never knew back then that it was about Elvis. To be perfectly honest I never realized that until I started writing this. Reading the lyrics it’s pretty obvious, so I’m not sure how I never caught that, considering the hundreds of time I’ve heard the song. Sometimes when your first impression of a song is so strongly in one direction, it’s hard to listen to it critically and you miss what the artist’s intent is. Whether that’s good or bad is a whole other argument, but in this case, I missed it completely.
Although I like some southern rock and some country music, the South presented in most of those songs has never interested me. The attempt at sanitizing the brutality of the Antebellum South and the romanticization of the Civil War isn’t my thing, even if I like Johnny Cash and the Band. The South presented by Alannah Myles, however, clicked. This was the place of Southern Gothic, the Swampers, and the previously mentioned Clifton Chenier, King of the Bayou.
In a way the artifice contained in ‘Black Velvet’ is what has always always worked for me. She is singing about an idea of a place that may or may not really exist, but it existed for her when she sang that song and it existed for me when I heard it. We both liked the same fiction. There’s deeper threads about racism and cultural appropriation at work here too, but that’s probably for another piece.
That same artifice is why it took me years to track the song down. Back before you find every song in the universe with a quick YouTube search, there was a lot of singing half remembered lyrics to people in hopes that you might get close enough to trigger their memories. When you have a singing voice like mine it usually ended up being a fool’s errand.
I actually got close to finding it in the middle of the 90s because a woman I briefly dated from Mississippi thought she remembered the song when I asked her about it. She mentioned Alannah Myles, but at the time I couldn’t remember the NAME of the song, so I went out and bought a cd single by Myles in hopes that it was the right one. Well, nothing else Myles has record sounds remotely like ‘Black Velvet’. She was trying to make it sound Southern, but the rest of her music she’s not. Most of her catalogue hovers around Canadian pop and folk. She’s a wonderful singer, but there’s only one track where she’s trying to sound like she was born in Alabama.
Eventually Napster happened and I found the song with some help from my Sister-in-Law, who has helped me track down several songs from half remembered snippets. I put it on a mix back then and have listened to it semi-regularly ever since.
For four minutes and 49 seconds, Myles channels the feeling of hot and sweaty summer nights where there might be a little magic just down an old dusty road. It’s a song made for people like me who live in a place where the humidity is never sexy. Marc Cohn tried to do the same thing with ‘Walking in Memphis’ but didn’t quite hit the nail on the head the way Myles did.
We all want to believe in myths and versions of places that live in our imaginations more than in the waking world. ‘Black Velvet’ has always been the soundtrack for that desire and that fascination, for that deep South where every dark night is filled with bright stars, heat haze, the devil at every crossroad, The Little Friend, True Detective, and the king himself, Elvis.