Barry Saunders

A songwriter who told good stories (true or not) – Saunders

John D. Loudermilk at the Edmonton Folk Festival in sumer 1987.
John D. Loudermilk at the Edmonton Folk Festival in sumer 1987.

All I can say is I’m glad that when Durham native John D. Loudermilk decided to set the record straight on his biggest record, he set it straight with me.

Loudermilk, a Grammy-winning descendant of Durham and its late Few Gardens housing development, died Sept. 21 in Christiana, Tenn. He was 82.

For the past 55 years he had lived in Tennessee, where he wrote some huge pop songs that you’d know as soon as you heard them. Some of them were even about his old Durham neighborhood and were autobiographical, he told me when I talked to him eight years ago. I was interviewing him for a story I was writing about him, but such a raconteur was he that I called him a couple of times after that just to chat and because I had his phone number.

Ever heard Lou Rawls, David Lee Roth or more than 200 hundred others sing “Tobacco Road”?

“I was born in a trunk

My mama died and my daddy got drunk

He left me here to die or grow

In the middle of Tobacco Road.”

That song, Loudermilk told me, was written about a section of East Durham to which he used to deliver telegrams on his bicycle. It was called “Marvin’s Alley,” he said. “All of the houses had a light bulb that was a different color.”

Years later, he said, he learned that each color signified that house’s particular vice – gambling, women, liquor.

Those are vices?

Other notable songs he wrote were “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” and “Sittin’ In the Balcony” – the latter about sittin’ in class as a student at Campbell University – nee College. His humor, the same humor that snookered millions in 1971, was evident in some of his song titles: “You Call It Joggin’, I Call It Runnin’ Around” and “A Rose and a Baby Ruth.”

The hillbilly Gothic “Tobacco Road” was somewhat autobiographical, containing bits of “truthiness” about his impoverished upbringing and “growin’ up in a rusty shack,” but the story behind his biggest hit, “Indian Reservation,” was a massive fib containing not a speck of truth, he admitted when we talked.

Loudermilk, who was fascinating to listen to even while talking about the weather for seven minutes straight in 2008, told me how and why he tricked music chronicler Casey Kasem into disseminating to the entire radio-listening world a story about how he came to write the song. It was a powerful story, one that was so good that you prayed for it to be true.

Here’s how I found out it wasn’t: When I called Loudermilk and asked what happened to Chief Bloody Bear Tooth and the other angry Cherokee Indians who pulled him from his car and pummeled and tortured him and were fixing to kill him until he vowed to publicize in song their piteous plight, he said, “What?”

I explained that I’d just heard a replay of Casey Kasem’s 1971 “American Top 40” program in which “Indian Reservation” was the No. 1 song in the nation. In his introduction, Kasem, whose syndicated program was carried by hundreds of stations around the world – including both WAYN and WLWL in Rockingham, so I heard it twice each weekend – told the story about the angry Cherokees extracting the promise of the song.

Oh that, Loudermilk chuckled.

“I made it up,” he said.

Kasem, he said, “woke me up at 3 o’clock in the morning. I was mad. He called, and I just made it up as I went along. He kept going, ‘Outta sight, man. Outta sight.’ He got exactly what he deserved.”

Loudermilk told Kasem that while driving from Nashville to Durham in the 1950s, his car got stuck in the snow and he clambered into the back seat to sleep. Next thing he knew, he said, he was being yanked from the car by the angry Cherokees who beat and tortured him. When one prepared to deliver a death blow, he said, he told them he was a songwriter and that he would write a song about how badly they’d been treated if they’d only let him live.

The reality, he said, was that there was snow and he had had to stop, but he stayed in a warm hotel. When he awoke the next morning, he said, he looked out the window and noticed several Cherokees walking slowly through the mountains. “The clerk told me, ‘They do that all the time,’ but he didn’t know why. That got me to reading about the Cherokees.”

That led to the song and to an award from the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma, he told me.

Only later, he said, did he find out his parents were part Cherokee, “but back in those days they hid it.”

While in Oklahoma receiving an award for the song, he said, he was shown a list of people forced to walk the “Trail of Tears.”

“I saw the names ‘Homer and Martha Loudermilk,’ ” he said. His great-, great-, great-grandparents were 91 years old when the government gave them 24 hours to pack up, leave their land and begin the 1,600-mile trek, he said.

Martha and Homer survived – thousands died – for nine more years, he said.

“I began to cry when I saw their names,” he said, “and they said, ‘That’s why we wanted you to come here.’ 

Outta sight, man.

For the record, in the years since I interviewed John D. – the D stands for nothing, he said – Loudermilk, I’ve tried to verify the story about Homer and Martha. I know that down around where I’m from – 50 miles from Lumberton – there are a lot of Lowdermilks, but neither the Bureau of Indian Affairs nor various Native American organizations could actually confirm what he told me.

Hmmm, I wonder if I woke him up, too.