Song of the Day #60: ‘When Jesus Left Birmingham’ – John Mellencamp

I’m not religious — at all — but it’s hard to ignore the volume of great art inspired by religious works. Take the Bible and its cast of characters… what a wacky bunch! (Though I have a little trouble buying the complete personality shift of ‘God’ between parts one and two.)

This week’s theme focuses on another Biblical figure — Jesus. Today through Friday, the titles of my selections feature the name of the Nazarene carpenter.

Today’s song is the opening track on John Mellencamp’s excellent Human Wheels album. I’ve been a moderate fan of Mellencamp’s as long as he’s been around but he really hit one out of the ballpark with Human Wheels. And that was immediately apparent just a few bars into this song.

It’s a sort of country funk song with whispered vocals (and great background support from a singer whose name I can’t find anywhere on the interwebs) and a revival-tent spoken word middle section. I’ve read it’s a response to the city’s role in the tumultuous civil rights era, though the lyrics certainly don’t make the connection obvious.

More than anything, this song was a signal that “Johnny Cougar” should be respected as a serious musician and it began a strong run for Mellencamp that continues to this day. I love how he gives a knowing wink at the end, reaching back to ‘Jack and Diane,’ one of his first big hits, for the fade-out:

So let it rock, let it roll
Let the Bible Belt come and save my soul…

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #60: ‘When Jesus Left Birmingham’ – John Mellencamp

  1. Dana says:

    I agree that Human Wheels was a wonderful album, certainly among his best. But you do yourself a disservice if you ignore the albums leading up to Wheels, including, American Fool and Scarecrow and my personal favorite, The Lonesome Jubillee. If you don’t have Jubilee in your collection, you should!

    Anyway, this should be an interesting week with the whole “religious” theme. First, we had musical week from a guy who doesn’t like musicals, and now religious week from an atheist. Interesting indeed!

  2. Clay says:

    I like a lot of stuff on those earlier albums (I believe I own Scarecrow and Jubilee) but for me he really put it all together for the first time with Human Wheels.

  3. Amy says:

    I love this song; I love Scarecrow, Pink Houses, Lonesome Jubilee, Jack and Diane. Hell, I love John Cougar Mellencamp. Thank you for reminding me how much I’ve been ignoring him in recent years.

    As for the religious themes (I guess break-up songs will have to wait for another week), I agree that there are some amazingly powerful songs (and books and films and pieces of art) inspired by the Good Book, so it’s good to know religion is good for something. I won’t predict what will be coming next, since I don’t want to upset your apple cart, but I look forward to some great, gospel tinged music this week.

  4. Amy says:

    Oh, and lest we forget, Mellencamp is also a hell of a film critic!

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