Jezebel, Humming (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 4)

Arthur Alexander– Sally Sue Brown

In the first Soundtrack Project post below, I mentioned that a few of the songs referenced in Motherless Child aren’t even songs I like. Turns out, that’s surprisingly few.

Depending on who’s singing it, this is one.

The fact that the Bob Dylan version, from his lumbering 1988 Down in the Groove album, manages, at least by 1980s Dylan standards, to be less than hateful doesn’t exactly save it. Those “ah-oohs” in the background are kinda sporty, almost make you think Bob’s actually enjoying the return of Saucy Sally, although he saves most of his sneering, spitting self for lines like “Got what it takes to make you hurt” (as in she does), just so we’re clear that this is still Jezebel, still hellborn and hellbound and hellbent on taking as many poor, helpless Bobs as possible with her.

Arthur Alexander’s original is certainly better, sweeter, if only because he is. Fickle and ruthless as his Sally Sue can be, the wounded yearning (as opposed to lustful sneering) in Arthur’s voice suggests that he really is “glad you’re back, Sally Sue Brown,”, and when he rides out the groove humming, “You ain’t no good/but I love love love you,” he sounds as if he does, or at least as if he’s dreaming of salvation through rather than in spite of or from her.

But it’s still an ugly song.

Which brings us to yet another of those tricky things about writing about pop music, trying to quantify or measure it: the songs themselves only have so much to do with their impact on us. Our feelings about any given track probably have at least as much to do with who we’re with at the moment we first hear it, who we are, what the light’s like, what we’re eating or drinking, the lover we just lost or found, the work and money we have or don’t, the extent to which the grooves and canals that spoke from our ears and skin into our guts and heart are open at just that instant.

And I suspect that Natalie– Motherless Child‘s vulnerable, resilient, defiant heart, a single mom, daughter of a widowed single mom, ejected hard from a youth that was never carefree and only now, 18 months after the birth of her son, dipping a cautious toe back into waters she knows are too deep– hears something completely different.

I think what Natalie hears is Sally Sue Brown’s strut. Her will. I think she’d find these pathetic singing dudes’ fear of Sally–and, by extension or association, of Natalie– almost reassuring. If only because it will keep men aware of her, but also cowering, just distant enough, until she decides she’s ready for them again.

And so she invests a jaunty but misogynist and unremarkable blues with meaning, savagery, intensity, vulnerability, and a sense of validation neither Bob Dylan nor even gentle Arthur Alexander ever intended, and that the song itself doesn’t deserve and can barely sustain.