A few years ago, I read a book called The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum. It’s about a county in eastern Mississippi–Jones County–where, during the Civil War, non-slaveholding whites who had opposed secession deserted the Confederate army, and when the Confederates sent a squad to capture them and return them to the army, they resisted. They fought guerilla warfare against the Confederates for about a year and half until the war ended. The leader of this band was Newt Knight. A Natchez, Mississippi newspaper wrote at the time that Jones County had “seceded” from the Confederacy and formed “The Free State of Jones”. This was an exxageration, but the legend lived on. I found it interesting in that it dispels one of the many myths about the “Old South”, that all whites supported slavery and the Confederacy.
I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and grew up during the last days of segregation and the civil rights movement. My parents brought me up not to be racist. But that caused conflicts with the other white kids in my neighborhood. At a very young age, I had to decide whether to “get along” or stand up for what was right. Now, nobody threatened my life, or even beat me up over it. But still, it was tough sometimes. Because of that, I admire Newt Knight and his band of brave southern whites who fought against the slaveowners.
When I read the book, I wanted to write a song. But I was just getting into songwriting, and didn’t think I was worthy. The topic is so holy to me, I wanted to do it justice. And also, I think you need an “angle”. And what about the music? The obvious thing would be to write it as an old British or Irish-style folk song– “Come gather round me children, and I’ll tell you a tale, about how brave Newt Knight….” But I wanted to consider other “angles” besides the obvious.
Recently, I got an idea for the “angle”. The song will appeal to those who don’t just go along with the crowd, who will stand up against peer pressure for what’s right. I’m thinking the last 2 lines of the chorus will be:
I’ll take my stand for what’s right
I’ll take my stand with Newt Knight
I re-read the book, this time with pen and notepad. I wrote down imagery and interesting phrases from the book. That gave me a “library” to build lines for the song from. The problem will be to scale it down, to pick one aspect of it and write about that.
Musically, instead of the old folk style, I’m thinking a loud, jangly electric guitar. I’m thinking Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Neil Young. But do it in such a way I could still play a solo acoustic version. I started working on the music–melody and chords. I’ve changed the music 3 or 4 times already. I have a guitar riff. I can hear an Irish tin whistle, mandolin and fiddle doubling that electric guitar riff. Cool. I think The Elders are influencing me.
I’ve got a tentative first verse:
The Piney Woods of eastern Mississippi
is where I call my home
Where we raised the Union flag in 1863
They called it The Free State of Jones
A daunting task I’ve created for myself, but I’m pretty stoked about it.