You don’t get a lot of songs about dead miners in the charts these days.
Not that “Big Bad John” was the only song about death underground in the mineral extraction business to do well – The Bee Gee’s scored an unlikely hit later in the decade with chirpily-titled “New York Mining Disaster, 1941” (it reached a frankly astonishing No 14 in the U.S. and No 12 in the UK). But as a genre, dead miners aren’t exactly up there with “my baby left me” or “you’re the one for me”. “Big Bad John” reached No 2 in the U.K. charts, thereby becoming our first entry in this series to peak at the coveted position, though in the U.S. it made it all the way to the top. “Big Bad John” was a country crossover hit and earned Jimmy Dean a Grammy nomination for best male vocal along the way – and he actually won a Grammy for “Best Country And Western Recording”. Not bad for a somewhat-lethargic ditty about a squished galoot.
It’s worth talking about Jimmy Dean a little actually, because he’s an interesting guy. “Big Bad John”, and indeed his music career in general are only one small portion of his life, though he did co-write our song for today’s discussion, which isn’t nothing. Had had a scattering of hits before and after (including the cheesy million-seller paean to mothers everywhere, “I.O.U.” in the 70’s), but also helped popularise country music in general with The Jimmy Dean Show, a variety show of the type that, again, you don’t get a lot of these days (thankfully, in this case). He was the first guest host of The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson needed some time away from the camera. He acted, appearing in a James Bond movie (admittedly, not a good James Bond movie) and a bunch of fairly standard made-for-TV fare. And there’s something else… what is it… oh yes, he founded a sausage empire (not something I expected to be typing out when this project began) with the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company, eventually bought out by Sarah Lee. He died in 2010, aged 81, and, well, he lived quite the life.
But we’re here to talk about “Big Bad John”, which even if not his biggest seller is certainly the song Jimmy Dean is defined by – there’s even a quote from it on his grave. But then, it’s the sort of song that kind of exists to be etched into a tombstone. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative of the type favoured by country songs of the day – a drifter strolls into town of the strong-but-silent type, keeps his distance, but when there’s an accident at the mine he doesn’t hesitate to give his life to save his fellows. It’s not a complex narrative, though there are layers. We’re told that perhaps Big Bad John “got into a fight over a Cajun Queen” and killed someone as a result – is his sacrifice a shot at redemption? That fits with the overall country tone of the song though the lyric declines to give us such straightforward answers (to, it must be said, its benefit). The character is basically an archetype, of the kind still in use today – the distance between Big Bad John and, say, Mike Ehmantraut from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is surprisingly short. But that makes sense – what “Big Bad John” is keying into is a universality, a sense that this is a character anyone could know. We might not be stuck down a mine with him, but we probably know someone who was quiet and kept themselves to themselves, only to step up when it mattered. It’s not the specifics of the situation that render “Big Bad John” relatable today, it’s the exact opposite.
And then there’s the music itself. Old Jimmy Dean has, in today’s parlance, got good flow. Other than the choral backing vocals who take the choruses, there’s no real singing here. Dean gruffly delivers his lines – as much acting as singing – in a style that, listened to today, feels strangely contemporary. He knows where to place and emphasis and where to back off, and that helps give an important emotional register to the song, When he starts – “you don’t give no lip” – we get a laconic, slightly amused delivery. But when “a giant of a man who the miners knew well” turns up Dean pushes his performance just slightly so there’s emphasis. Then we get a key change (a blunt one, to be sure) and he’s louder, almost shouting in places as the miners discover “there’s a light up above!” and quieter again once John’s fate is sealed. There’s a range to his performance, in other words. And throughout a spartan, spare instrumentation there’s the steady, repeated hammering of metal on rock marking out time, a constant pounding reminder of the mines, using sound as a narrative device more than a decade before Pink Floyd would add a ker-ching to “Money”, and before the Beatles inserted a typewriter into “Paperback Writer”.
It would be easy to dismiss “Big Bad John” as a novelty song, but perspective is important here. From the heady distance of the 21st century an overly melodramatic song about a dead miner reeks of novelty, but that’s not the case at all. There were dozens, hundreds even, of similar songs in the country charts at the start of the 60’s but “Big Bad John” crossed over when most of the rest didn’t. It would be nice to think Dean’s appealing performance was part of that, but what this song absolutely isn’t is a joke. It’s not meta, it’s not funny – it’s being played straight. Listen to Johnny Cash around the same time – there’s a lot of similarities. “Big Bad John” is unintentionally funny in places, that’s hard to deny, but even that kind of works in its favour. And by crossing over, by helping to bring a ghetto genre into the glare of the mainstream, Jimmy Dean can genuinely be said to have helped move the needle on popular taste. This is absolutely a song that deserves respect.
Not bad for a somewhat-lethargic ditty about a squished galoot.
What Else Happened in 1961?
I mean, it’s better than 1960, but that’s not saying a lot. The biggest song of the year is “Stand By Me”, outselling Elvis (and, um, Del Shannon), so Ben E King’s decision to go solo paid off. The Supremes sign to Motown, The Miracles land Motown their first million-seller, and the Beach Boys sneak out their first single, the title of which is the not-exactly-hard-to-guess “Surfin’”. Roy Orbison – who will not be troubling this series – releases his first album, Lonely And Blue, which contains the immortal “Only The Lonely” and Mr Aker Bilk releases “Stranger On The Shore” which was absurdly popular for a clarinet-led instrumental piece (the 50’s really are still clinging on). What else, what else… I will grudgingly acknowledge the release of the West Side Story OST. Oh, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meet for the first time, while The Beatles play their first Cavern Club gig. Yeah, fine, not much better than 1960.
1. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
2. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”