The Real Delta Dawn
I believe it’s time that the true story be told about "Delta Dawn." This is a song that was created for my mother, Emily Jeanette, who had passed on.
My mother was the daughter of a share cropper, in Sun Flower County, Mississippi. She was the fourth of seven children. Being from a share cropper family meant that from the moment you became old enough to work you worked. She was a beautiful woman and she worked very hard as a child and as a woman approaching adulthood. She had dreams that one day her shining knight would come, sweep her off of her feet and take her away to a better world.
My father came from a pretty good family in West TN. If you come from a pretty good family, you would probably lie about it and say you came from a really good family in West, TN. He wore a tailor made suit, a starched white shirt, a neck tie tied in a Windsor knot and a pair of Edmond Clap shoes. On his head he wore a Stetson fedora, cocked over to one side with the brim bent down over his right eye; like Spencer Tracy. Even though his job was to drive a panel truck for Rhea wholesale, out of Dyersburg, TN, and called on little country stores, he still dressed well. I heard him say many times, “Son, if you are gonna sell something, you have to look prosperous."
I believe on the day he met my mother, he pulled up in front of a little Mississippi country store, reached down and turned the key off, looked in the rear view mirror at his raven black hair and gave it a swipe with his right hand. He then opened the door, stepped out; grabbing his sample case as he did. He rubbed the toe of his shoes on the back of those tailored made pants until they gleamed. He reached back into his truck to grasp his Stetson fedora and put it on his head, looked in the side mirror and adjusted so that it was perfect; he slammed that door and headed for that store because he knew that he was gonna sell somebody something. As he looked up toward the store, he saw this beautiful girl coming through the screen door with a sack of groceries in her hand. She was probably wearing a dress made out of cotton sacks. As she headed for the steps of the store she looked up and saw him. In her mind, the first thought she had was, “My shining prince has come."
As I remember, they were very happy together except for the fact that she could never seem to please his family. She couldn’t use the right English, was always cleaning up after everybody else and trying to make them love her. But try as she could she became extremely frustrated with the fact that she could not rise to their presumed level. It finally became too much and she chose to leave this world on her own. This is the very woman that I wrote the song “Delta Dawn” about.
The situation on the night that it was composed was exactly as follows. I had been partying with several people, some of Merle Haggard’s and Buck Owens’ band members and Larry Collins. Larry and I were celebrating the composition of a song which we had written that same day; on which he easily did his part. The title of that song is “Tulsa Turnaround." We had all been playing and singing at the Palomino club in Los Angeles and had arrived, after hours, at the home of Larry Collins. Everyone in the room had basically fallen asleep, except for me. As I sat on the couch with my guitar I had a vision of my mother, Emily Jeanette, who was flying around the room in a rocking chair and laughing. I began to remember and be remorseful of the fact that I did not get to tell my mother goodbye, nor had I really shown her how much I loved her. As I began to play the plaintive melody that was to become “Delta Dawn” I was overwhelmed by the feeling of love that I knew she had felt for me. This song was written within twelve minutes. As I said, everyone was asleep; including Larry Collins. As I began to play this song over again, Larry woke up; sensing there was a song being written which he was not a part of. He very quickly said, “Here let me show you how to play that." He took my guitar and played nothing that I wasn’t already playing. Nothing was added, and nothing was taken away.
I look back now and see how ridiculous it was to give him half of a song that he had nothing to do with. At the time I felt he was my friend and it seemed like the brotherly thing to do. I didn’t really begin to resent that gift until I heard him introduce that song as he played in Lake Tahoe with his sister and he gave no thought to even mentioning my name. I have kept my mouth shut about this situation for so many years, the same way many writers who have had the same experience have done; professing some sort of distorted grace. As I look at it now, I understand that this gift, which brought him a significant amount of money, was not appreciated. As I muse about it, I thank the Lord once again for such a gracious gift. I am happy to say that I have never taken credit for composing anything that I didn’t fully contribute to nor do I have any intention of doing so in the future.