“Headed back down south”—the opening of today’s song is suitable to a trip back to where I’m from. It’s taken some time to see this as the case. As a mid-Atlantic State, Delaware isn’t really “south” and the state didn’t go with the South in the Civil War, though its agrarian southern part, which I’ll be driving through tomorrow, wanted to. And I’ll be going to Maryland, which did go with the South. So, south enough. And anyway, from the perspective of those Yankee lands I’ve lived in for 20 years this summer, it’s certainly south.
Though that’s not what Tom Petty means by “south.” He means Deep South, where he’s from. And this little ditty characterizing colorfully his relation to that region is one of my favorites from him, in recent memory. It’s from Highway Companion (2006), and that title is fitting too since I spent the greater part of the day today driving the highway from Connecticut to Delaware, which means that most of the day I’ve been in New Jersey—though not southern Jersey.
This notion of “the South” has a lot of valiance to me. You know it when you see it, and if you’re a Northerner like me, you kind of dread it. Regionalism is a major factor in what it means to be American, I believe. Petty does a great job of turning his relation to his own region into both a caricature and a kind of archetype. With the south comes family, Faulkner style, and Petty begins with what seems a trip back south to deal with his father’s past—“Gonna see my daddy’s mistress / Beg for her forgiveness / Pay off every witness.” Such concise rhymes to create backstory is pretty impressive for Petty, who by and large isn’t a narrative song-maker. Here we can imagine the hell-raiser aspects of Daddy, and a son who is trying to make amends—as with the whole history of “the South” and its reputation. This continues with him disposing of “the family headstones” and a “bag of dry bones” which is all that’s left of his ancestors. Moving the cemetery plot to make way for development, I suppose, to “make good all my back loans.” A reckoning is due.
“Down South” isn’t so much a story as an evocation of the phrase “down south,” but by piling up such details, Petty gives a voice and an attitude to this speaker that feels southern, but also distanced from his roots. And that’s the point. He’s going back home, where everyone knows him and where his relation to his surroundings is part of what makes him who his is, still.
In the next two verses we find more of a fantasy, of sleeping late and looking up former mentors, and the clever “Live off Yankee winters / Be a landlord and a renter”—the idea that he will, as a landlord, rent his property to Yankees who flee to the south (Petty’s from Florida) during the winter months, so that he himself will rent so as to rent out his own property. We imagine him throwing out the bones of his ancestors to raise up condos he will rent out while he rents a room in some kind of majestic fleabag hotel, where, the next verse imagines, he will “create myself” as a gracious Southern gentleman: “Impress all the women / Pretend I’m Samuel Clemens / Wear seersucker and white linens.”
That verse always brings a smile; you can almost see Petty himself pulling it off, once he’s aged into 70s or 80s, turning into a kind of “Colonel” figure, sitting in a straight-back rocking chair, sipping a mint julep on a porch, with great white mustachios. Hell, why not?
From that fantasy we come to two verses that sound more like reality and that they might be part of the singer’s real experience—“the heroes of my childhood / Who’re not gonna do me no good / Carve their names in dogwood.” This is different than looking up mentors; this is reliving the process of growing up that took place there, where the “heroes” (who may have been the kind that lead “astray”) are still heroes, with names to be carved on trees. Which sets up a relation to his own past (apart from the family past): “Chase a ghost down South / Spirits cross a dry field / Mosquitoes hit the windshield / All documents remain sealed.” That last line could still point back to the father’s past—if the father is the ghost being chased and possibly exorcised, but, following the previous verse, these lines strike me as better suited to the speaker’s own past. Or the entire family, perhaps. Nothing will be revealed in their lifetimes, he’s seen to that. The lines about the fields and mosquitoes evokes for me the drive “down south” in my home state, especially back when it was even more rural than it is now.
The chorus of the song, “So if I come to your door / Let me sleep on your floor / I’ll give you all I have and a little more,” keeps bringing us back to the provisional nature of this trip. On the road, sleeping on the floor of people he stills knows or once knew, and the mournful tone of it makes it sound like this might be the last homeward trek, as it’s taking all he has to get through it. The fantasy of a life to come in the south is just that, and the mourning is for having to go and take care of the father’s effects and to make peace with the past. “One more time” may be a way of saying “one last time.”
The song has become a favorite each time I venture “down south” and it matches to a time of the falling away of much of the elder generation in my own family, so hits right with that sense of dealing with the remnants of the past and of going back to where you once belonged to have a last look around. It’s an elegant and wistful, and wryly amusing, evocation of a place and time from Petty who, like all of us, is getting older, and, as he says on the album’s next song “fading by degrees.”