Songs Where Almost Everyone Dies: Carolina Edition
There’s been a lot of doom and gloom around these parts as of late and I thought I’d pitch in with a couple of songs where virtually everyone dies. Many of you know that I am a big fan of both Ryan Adams and Jack White, and although they are musical contemporaries, I don’t think they like each other.
Adams allegedly wrote the song “Political Scientist” about Jack and Meg. This is some early 2000s musical beef stuff–not exactly relevant anymore.1 However, more recently, Jack’s band The Raconteurs released a new record which had the song “Don’t Bother Me” that specifically references things like “political science” and “easy tiger” in the lyrics. Listen for yourself I suppose.
Adams is a native of North Carolina, and while Jack White is from Detroit, he has also used his considerable talents to use Southern Gothic storytelling in his songs. It could be argued that Get Behind Me, Satan is one of the best examples of Southern Gothic Storytelling in music, maybe ever.2 He even calls Nashville his home.
Anyway, there could be a lot of stuff examined there, but it is not exactly on point to what I really came here to unpack, and that is songs where almost everyone dies, the Carolina edition.
“I’m not sure if there’s a point to this story
But I’m going to tell it again
So many other people try to tell the tale
Not one of them knows the end”
So, the song opens with this intro, which is a lyrically clever way of saying, “draw your own conclusions.” When asked about this particular track, White is usually cagey and basically notes that a lot of it is vague on purpose. The best stories are the ones where the reader, or in this case the listener, is left wondering.
“It was a junk house in South Carolina
Held a boy the age of ten
Along with his older brother Billy
And their mother and her boyfriend
Who was a triple loser with some blue tattoos?
That were given to him when he was young
And a drunk temper that was easy to lose
But thank God he didn’t own a gun.”
This verse contains the bulk of our dramatis personae which are, “boy the age of ten,” our hero “Billy,” “their mother,” and “her boyfriend.” We also have our setting, the Palmetto State, South Carolina–In a junk house, no less. This verse doesn’t really give the background on any of the characters save for the boyfriend, who is basically a gigantic piece of shit. All of us have known someone that is “the boyfriend,” dumb hillbilly who drinks heavily and treats women like cattle. In most cases, however, these losers do own firearms.
“Well, Billy woke up in the back of his truck
Took a minute to open his eyes
He took a peep into the back of the house
And found himself a big surprise
He didn’t see his brother, but there was his mother
With her red-headed head in her hands
While the boyfriend had his gloves wrapped around an old priest
Trying to choke the man.”
Couple things the narrator points out here, but not directly, Billy is definitely old enough to drive and own his own vehicle, and Billy’s unnamed brother is more than likely a half-brother due to their perceived age gap, but this is never really made clear in the song. The second part of the verse describes the mother as “red-headed,” which is another one of those strands of the narrative that comes into play later on when everyone draws their own conclusions. Also, the triple loser boyfriend is beating the crap out of a new character, the priest. It is not very clear why the priest is there, or what time of day it is.
“Billy looked up from the window to the truck
Threw up, and had to struggle to stand
He saw that red-necked bastard with a hammer
Turn the priest into a shell of a man
The priest was putting up the fight of his life
But he was old, and he was bound to lose
The boyfriend hit as hard as he could
And knocked the priest right down to his shoes.”
Billy, still in his truck and either hungover or in shock from what he is witnessing, which is just more violence.
Well, now Billy knew but never actually met
The preacher lying there in the room
He heard himself say, “That must be my daddy”
Then he knew what he was gonna do
Billy got up enough courage, took it up
And grabbed the first blunt thing he could find
It was a cold, glass bottle of milk
That got delivered every morning at nine
Two things the narrator points out to the audience here, that Billy knows the priest, but never met him. Which is to say he was local, but Billy never attended his church, or if he did, he never spoke with the priest. Then the narrator makes a jump that portends the climax of the song, which is that the priest MUST be his father. This is, of course, another vague narrative strand that could be addressed later on but isn’t to keep you guessing. Billy, either from adrenaline or still being under the influence, spontaneously grabs “the first blunt thing he could find” which is a cold, glass bottle of milk. The milk gets delivered every morning at nine, which if it is still cold as suggested here, then our time of day is morning. Shit is about to get real…
“Billy broke in and saw the blood on the floor
And he turned around and put the lock on the door
He looked dead into the boyfriend’s eye
His mother was a ghost, too upset to cry
Then he took a step toward the man on the ground
From his mouth trickled out a little audible sound
He heard the boyfriend shout, “Get out!”
And Billy said, “Not ’til I know what this is all about”
“Well, this preacher here was attacking your mama”
But Billy knew just who was starting the drama
So, Billy took dead aim at his face
And smashed the bottle on the man who left his dad in disgrace
And the white milk dripped down with the blood
And the boyfriend fell down dead for good
Right next to the preacher who was gasping for air
And Billy shouted, “Daddy, why’d you have to come back here?”
His mama reached behind the sugar and honey
And pulled out an envelope filled with money
“Your daddy gave us this,” she collapsed in tears
“He’s been paying all the bills for years”
“Mama, let’s put this body underneath the trees
And put daddy in the truck and head to Tennessee”
Just then his little brother came in
Holding the milk man’s hat and a bottle of gin…”
This very long verse is the ultimate climax of our story, Billy, still filled with adrenaline/rage from what he witnessed, Leeeeroy Jenkins’d his way into the house and we find out that priest is still clinging to life. The boyfriend attempts to get Billy out of the house, but Billy replies, “Not ’til I know what this is all about.” It’s at this point the boyfriend tells Billy that the priest was attacking his mother, which COULD be accurate since Billy did not witness how the altercation began. However, either the narrator is telling us directly that the boyfriend started the drama or Billy, filled with rage and hate towards the boyfriend, assumed the worst. Billy then does his best Nolan Ryan impression with the bottle of milk and kills the boyfriend.
A lot of assumptions come next, or continuing assumptions, Billy still assumes the priest is definitely his father. Billy’s mom reaches behind the sugar and honey to grab an enveloped filled with money, “Your daddy gave us this,” she collapsed in tears, he’s been paying all the bills for years;” This assumes, of course that the priest is the one providing all of the money. Note that she simply states “your daddy gave us this…” The narrator is either hoping we will assume the priest is the father, which would clean things up neatly, or there is something else at work. In that moment, the little brother appears “holding a milk man’s hat and a bottle of gin.”
“Well now you heard another side to the story
But you wanna know how it ends?
If you must know the truth about the tale
Go and ask the milkman.”
Finally, the last character is introduced in a way. The milkman. Now, I have seen/read a billion theories as to who the milkman is, is he really Billy’s father? Or is he the little brother’s father? Both? Was the priest there to simply hear a confession or was he indeed Billy’s father? Was the milkman the one giving the mother money all these years in exchange for…well…you know? Was the boyfriend actually the milkman? The answers to all of these questions can only be answered by the milkman, apparently.
A short time after this song was released a band called “The Pickens County Bandits” released a song called “Ask the Milkman.” The vocals sound mysteriously like Jack White. The song does not answer a lot of questions.
“Rose lived on the south side of town
Until her landlord showed up with two hundred-dollar bills
A notice of eviction on the other hand
Now she doesn’t live there no more
And everyone thinks he drowned.”
It would seem this song is sung from the point of view of the drifter who is also the singer/narrator. The first verse is a vignette about Rose and her landlord and ends with Rose living elsewhere and the landlord dead. His cause of death, drowning. It would also seem that the landlord was either attempting to pay Rose for sex or evict her in the event she said no.
“I pulled into Mecklenburg on them trains
Into a station that got flooded when they opened up the dam
And broke their connections to the railway lines
So, they could blast into the quarry
And for every load of granite
We got a ton of worry.”
The drifter arrives in Mecklenburg, so we are now in North Carolina, via train. It is not readily clear when the drifter arrived, like before or after Rose’s landlord died, but there is some clarity later on down the line. The drifter is now stuck in Mecklenburg county somewhere, presumably in a small town, because the railway lines were broken by intentional flooding. This was due to some enterprise mining granite. The drifter, and presumably Rose, have “a ton of worry” because this appears to be where they dumped the landlord’s body.
“One night at the diner over eggs
Over easy she showed me the length of her legs
But that gold-plated cross on her neck, it was real
And you don’t get that kind of money from pushing meal.”
Adams masterfully flashes the narration forward to a diner scene where his drifter character falls in love with a waitress who is definitely not Rose.
“I should’ve told him that you were the one for me
But I lied, but I lied
To most any drifter whose looking for work is too weird
I met your sister and I married her in July
But if only to be closer to you, Caroline.”
We now have a name for our waitress, Caroline. However, the drifter for whatever reason, does not make a move so to speak. Instead, he ends up marrying her sister “in July.”
“Percy and I moved down the street
Until we lost two pretty girls
One was seven and one was three
Alderman and Caroline owned the house right up the hill
Where we laid those babies down
So, they could still see our house.”
Caroline sister, Percy, and the drifter marry and after what appears to be a long passage of time, 7-8 years, had children. These two little girls mysteriously died. It is not immediately clear how, which adds to the mystery of it all. This drifter character could be a straight up psycho for all we know. We also learn the name of Caroline’s lover, Alderman.
“Suspicion got the best of old Alderman3 Haint
He owned an auto parts store off the interstate
But the lord took him home in July
And then Rose spilled the beans on the day that he died
We was in trouble.”
It is important to remember that the drifter is doing the narrating here, so this tale is told in the light most favorable to him. So, when he tells you Alderman Haint, which is a name straight out of Dickens, got suspicious–it means Alderman was starting to think a lot of death surrounds this narrator/drifter. This may or may not include those two little girls. Anyway, the lord took old Alderman home, “in July.” Rose, remember Rose, spilled the beans about the landlord’s death, but to whom?
I should’ve told him that you were the one for me
But I lied, but I lied
Tied up to concrete at the bottom of the quarry
With a tattoo on his heart that spelled out “Caroline”
He was silent but his rosary
Well, it drifted into the custody
Of a sheriff that was just deputized
We’re now back in the quarry where the drifter learned that dumping the landlord perhaps bought him 7 or 8 years of time, so hey, why not give Alderman a pair of concrete shoes so no one will think that he drowned? Somehow, Alderman’s rosary drifted to the surface and was recovered by a young sheriff. Before the final verse, perhaps you should be asking yourself who Rose had spilled the beans to before. Obviously, the drifter was not very creative in where he dumped bodies, and perhaps Rose was involved in her landlord’s death. Thinking she could possibly be implicated by the drifter she had nowhere to turn, but to vigilante justice…
“And I was down at the banquet hall
When two guys came up, pretty angry and drunk
And I’m still here at the banquet hall
At the banquet hall
Where the gun went off in the Carolina rain
In the Carolina rain
In the Carolina rain
So, we now find that the drifter was killed in some vigilante-led struggle “down at the banquet hall.” This was done at the behest of Rose since she could be implicated in the death of her landlord way back in verse one. He is still at the banquet hall, presumably haunting it.
Both of these songs spin tales of murder and infidelity. Adams choose to have a straightforward narration with a questionable, but somewhat linear, timeline. Jack White, however, creates a lot more ambiguity. From all accounts the ambiguity was created on purpose. The common thread for both songs, other than the murder and infidelity, is that they take place in the Carolina states, or more broadly, the American South.
I am interested in hearing other thoughts w/r/t the events that transpired in both of these songs. I could be reading the lyrics wrong, or I could be interpreting them wrong, or I may have missed a minor detail. For example, in “Carolina Drama” there are little things I glazed over like the white milk and red blood line which could represent evil/loss of innocence. That is an example of a real meta meaning that at first listen or glance only puts picture in your head without processing the meaning. Another thing is the title “Carolina Rain” along with the references to July may have a deeper meaning. I am not a native of North Carolina, does it rain or not rain there in July?
It very interesting how both of these songwriters utilize the Southern Gothic mode of storytelling though. It’s almost like both of these songs were actually written by William Faulkner. If you wanna write a good story set in the American South, just think of the very opposite of what antebellum looked like with it’s very French style large plantations manned by slaves, and replace it with the junk town in South Carolina, throw in some murder, and voila!