The Persuasions : Willie and Laura Mae Jones
In 1977, The Persuasions released the all a capella album Chirpin', a critical smash that received a rare five star "indispensable" review in the 1979 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and finished #22 in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics poll.
Village Voice critic Greil Marcus was most taken by the group's version of Tony Joe White's "Willie and Laura Mae Jones", first recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1969:
White, a white Southerner, wrote the song as the reminiscence of a poor white fanner thinking back over the friendship he and his family shared with his black neighbors, before hard times forced them all off the land and down separate roads. The song had virtually no plot-line—nothing was wrapped up—and, save for a fewer words about dirt farmers not having “time to worry ’bout another man’s color,” it had no explicit politics. It called up the past, and past friends, and paid tribute. The Persuasions sing the song from the black man’s point of view, and the manner in which they shape that point of view is extremely interesting.
Where Dusty sang (and validly understood) the song as an ordinary story utterly lacking in drama, the Persuasions orchestrate it as a dirge. The mood is somber, even ominous. On first listening, this seems appropriate, because White’s lyric is, among other things, about how friendships are broken up by conditions poor people cannot control. But this is not what the Persuasions are singing about. Within their dominant mood is an almost shocking note of good riddance. The blacks of the Persuasions’ version maintain a crucial distance between themselves and the whites. The most affectionate verse in White’s song has the white and black families making music together; such a subject would seem irresistible to a group as committed to folk music forms (albeit urban folk music forms) as the Persuasions, but they drop the verse entirely. In its place, they add their own. White’s tale of the two families ends when they leave the land; here, the black farmer chances to see the white farmer and his wife 20 years later—standing in line for their welfare checks. There is no emotion in the singer’s voice as he describes this scene, and he doesn’t say hello.
Even more striking than the shifts in lyric and mood is the Persuasions’ arrangement of the second verse, an arrangement that would lose half its force were voices replaced, muted, or adorned by instruments. The singer is describing how, every Saturday, the white family makes a trip into town. They ask the black family if they can get them goods from the store; the blacks decline, but invite the whites to come over later for something to eat. In Dusty’s version it is all very prosaic; in the Persuasions’ it is an explosion. “Do y’all need anything from town?” asks the white farmer, and the response is a hard no, a stark outburst of saddened moans from lead singer Jerry Lawson and wild field-holler screeches from tenor Joe Russell. It is a cacaphony that at first seems out of control and after a time sounds like the black man’s retrospective fantasy of the resentment and rage he would have revealed had he dared. “That was another place, and another time,” runs the last line of Tony Joe White’s chorus; as the Persuasions sing it, it is full of dignity, close to bitter, and empty of regret. I don’t know that I have heard new black music this strong since the days that followed Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.