13: Delta Dawn

13: Delta Dawn

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Delta Dawn

Story by Alex Harvey

Song written by Alex Harvey and Larry Collins

Recorded by Tanya Tucker, Helen Reddy, Bette Midler, and others

For many years, I never really told anyone who this song was about. Some people just thought it was about a crazy woman in Brownsville, Tennessee, where I grew up. But recently, I’ve started sharing the real story behind this song.

When I was fifteen years old, I was in a band. We had just won a contest and we were going to be on a TV show in Jackson, Tennessee. I just knew, by the next day we would be a household word. My mother said she wanted to go. I told her that I thought she would embarrass me. She drank and sometimes would do things that would make me feel ashamed, so I asked her not to go that night.

We went and taped the TV show and headed back to West Tennessee. When we got home, I was wondering where my mother was. Around dusk, a big, old black Buick came up over the hill. A couple of ladies who I knew got out and I asked them where my mother was. They said, “Son, your momma’s gone.”

I said, “What do you mean, she’s gone?”

They said, “Your momma died.”

She had gotten drunk and had run into a tree at a high rate of speed. It looked like a suicide. For the rest of my high school years and into my adulthood, I dealt with the guilt over that event, thinking I had something to do with it. I think that was one of the reasons I started pursuing creative fields. For me, it was a form of therapy. That was the only way I could work it out.

About ten years later, in 1973, I was living in L.A. We had been out partying. We went to the Palomino Club and were listening to Dottie West. I was with a bunch of people, some from Buck Owens’ band, some from Merle Haggard’s band, Glen Campbell’s bass player, and some others. These were some of the friends I hung out with when I wasn’t in acting school or hanging out with actors.

After the show, we all decided to go back to Larry Collins’ house. Larry and I had just written a song together called “Tulsa Turnaround” that was later cut by Sammy Davis, Jr. and then by Three Dog Night. We started passing the guitar around the room until 4:30 in the morning or so. At one point, I looked around the room and everyone else was asleep. I had the guitar in my hand and was just strumming. And I looked up and I felt as if my mother came into the room. I saw her very clearly. She was in a rocking chair and she was laughing.

My mother had come from the Mississippi Delta and she always lived her life as if she had a suitcase in her hand but nowhere to put it down. She was a hairdresser in Brownsville. She was very free-spirited, and folks in a small town don’t always understand people like that. She never really grew up.

The first line that came to me that night was, “She’s forty-one and her daddy still calls her ‘baby.’ All the folks ’round Brownsville say she’s crazy.” Larry woke up and grabbed the guitar and said, “Let me show you how to play that,” and we finished the song. We wrote the song in about 20 minutes, or should I say, the song wrote itself.

I was the first one to record it. I was on Capitol Records at the time. Tracy Nelson sang backup on my record. Bette Midler was a big fan of Tracy’s and she came to hear Tracy sing at the Bottom Line in New York one night. Bette loved it and vowed she was going to cut it one day.

In the meantime, someone took a track of it to Barbra Streisand and she passed on it. Bette put it into her live show and also performed it on The Tonight Show. In the meantime, Helen Reddy heard it and decided to cut it.

Eventually, Bette recorded it and was ready to put it out as a single. But a few days before Bette’s record was due to come out, Helen Reddy’s version came out. So Bette’s promoters told the DJs to push the B side instead, which was a song called “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” And that became one of Bette’s biggest hits.

Tanya Tucker’s version came out later that year. So the same song charted on two different charts by two different artists in the same year and was nominated for a Grammy. It was one of the few times that had ever happened. Since then it’s been cut 78 times.

I really believe that my mother didn’t come into the room that night to scare me, but to tell me “It’s okay,” and that she had made her choices in life and it had nothing to do with me. I always felt like that song was a gift to my mother and an apology to her. It was also a way to say “thank you” to my mother for all she did.

Until that night in L.A., I harbored a lot of guilt over that. I feel like God allowed my mother’s spirit to visit me that night to release me. That night I was finally able to make peace with my mother. Whenever I hear the song on the radio — even today — I feel like my mama is up there saying, “You’re welcome.”

Delta Dawn

Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?

Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?

And did I hear you say he was a-meeting you here today

To take you to his mansion in the sky

She’s forty-one and her daddy still calls her “baby”

All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy

’Cause she walks around town with a suitcase in her hand

Looking for a mysterious dark-haired man

In her younger days they called her Delta Dawn

Prettiest woman you ever laid eyes on

Then a man of low degree stood by her side

And promised her he’d take her for his bride

Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on?

Could it be a faded rose from days gone by

And did I hear you say he was a-meeting you here today

To take you to his mansion in the sky

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