Delta Dawn – Helen Reddy
Number one in New Zealand – 7 September – 19 October, 1973
There is a popular series of children’s books by Shirley Hughes called the Alfie books. Alfie is a boy of about four or five who has a little sister called Annie-Rose. The final line of Eleanor’s current favourite, Alfie and the Big Boys, is “But after tea they all went outside and had a great game together being big, tough boys!” Eleanor likes this final line very much, she waits for it, and then she points at the little girl on the page and shouts: “And Big Tough Little Girls!” I said that Eleanor likes it when we get to this final line, but if I am honest I like it about as much as she does. Aside from the fact that it is cute, it is also reassuringly confident and assertive, and unbothered by whatever messages the book may be inadvertantly sending.
1972 and 1973 seem to have been years in which many people were very much bothered by what boys and girls could do, and Helen Reddy was a somewhat odd spokeswoman for the women’s lib movement. In December of 1972 her song I Am Woman climbed to number one in the USA. It was a song she received a Grammy Award* for in 1973, and stated famously/infamously (people with a sense of humour/Christian men) when she picked up her trophy: “I want to thank God because She makes everything possible.” I would love to see footage of this because the Grammys that year were hosted in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry; not a venue I imagine that would have embraced feminism to its bosom with great haste.
I Am Woman is an odd song. Helen Reddy doesn’t sound entirely happy with it herself her in her autobiography The Woman I Am. She describes the song as being a little awkward and I think this is probably because the words came first, which is unusual in song writing and usually leads to a little clumsiness.
After many years of trying to catch a break in the record industry Reddy had inadvertantly had a minor hit with her cover of the big female ballad from Jesus Christ Superstar, I Don’t Know How to Love Him. Because Reddy was a covers singer, and not an artist doing original material, and because her record label wanted to capitalise on her unexpected success, she was rushed into the studio to record a cash-in LP. Columbia’s brilliant strategy for this album was this:
For the other nine slots on the record I was advised to record the nine highest-rating songs currently on the charts as “name recognition” would guarantee sales.
Sounds a little like the incredibly successful formula applied to Ben Lummis and Rosita Vai. Reddy wanted to choose songs in a slightly more meaningful way. In fact it was this idea of selecting songs that were meaningful that led Helen Reddy to a discovery:
I searched for lyrics that reflected the pride I felt in being female and descended from so many strong women. Where were the songs that celebrated that? It seemed that there weren’t any. There were lyrics like, “I am woman, you are man, I am weak, so you can be stronger than”…. It dawned on me that I would have to write what needed to be said myself. Did I feel up to the task? Not really, but I remember lying in bed with the phrase, “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman”, going over and over inside my head.
She asked an aquaintance to have a go at the music, and although no one was entirely happy with what came out it remained the basic shape of the song. The iconic opening line – “I am woman hear me roar” – is just one of those song lines that has lodged in the public consciousness; regardless of whether it empowered some, or was open to satire and ridicule. Unfortunately the verses are the things that don’t really work, because even though the words are straightforward and strong (“…you can bend but never break me / ’cause it only serves to make me / More determined to achieve my final goal…”), the music and the delivery of these lyrics is a bit, sort of… jaunty.
Never mind, the song is saved by the chorus – the music and the lyrics work together beautifully and deliver on the promise of the title and the opening line. It must have had an even greater impact in 1972 when it came out, but this and the women’s liberation movement in general is something I will talk about in the following post. I Am Woman was the song that launched and sustained Reddy’s career even if she has taken that song and her career to interesting places. Probably the low point for most feminists was 1981 when Reddy performed it at the Miss World contest. Reddy’s response to the critics was: “Let them step forward and pay my rent and I’ll stay home. What I’m doing is advertising a product I wouldn’t use.” Frankly, that’s a pretty weak response, as was her next number one after I Am Woman: 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-meetin’ you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky-eye
She’s forty-one and her daddy still calls ‘er “baby”
All the folks ’round Brownsville say she’s crazy
‘Cause she walks downtown with her suitcase in her hand
Lookin’ for a mysterious dark-haired man
Lyrically it sounds a bit like the kind of songs that Reddy wanted to kick against with I Am Woman, and even though it was one of Reddy’s four number ones it is not even mentioned in her autobiography. Mind you, it is pretty uninspiring. If you imagine Dolly Parton singing the lines above in the most predictable country style possible then you don’t need to bother listening to it. The song is a very polished production, very easy to listen to, and very easy to forget. For some reason it was number one in New Zealand for six weeks.**
*Man of Errors’ Rule One: Awards are meaningless
**Man of Errors’ Rule Two: A song’s enduring musical enjoyability and its historic position on the charts have no mathmatical relationship
This post is part of a series about the number one songs of 1973 in New Zealand. The series can be found here.