This is the first of a two-part look at songs (“Wreck on the Highway” and “Percy’s Song”) about road crashes and their aftermath …
The meaning of life is that it stops.
Shards of shattered windshield, mangled steel, the stink of burning rubber. Torn clothes drenched with liquor, pungent on the breath of a dying man whose blood mingles with that of his passengers on a moonlit road. Lives cut short by reckless decisions and a stranger stumbling upon the scene, helpless to intercede. Moans of pain as eternity beckons, then death rattles as hearts cease to beat. Crackling flames, perhaps a still spinning tire. Otherwise, silence and night.
“Wreck on the Highway” uses spare language to describe a tragic tableau caused by human folly that affords no hope of survival and perhaps no redemption. Even in a musical genre – old school country – where melodrama is an accepted means to an artistic end, “Wreck” stands out for its grim fatalism. A temperance homily, sincere if moralistic, in its original form – the 1938 recording by its author, Dorsey Dixon – the trimming of some lyrical fat and a rhythmic rethink in subsequent versions transformed the song and its forlorn “I didn’t hear nobody pray” chorus into something less preachy and more universal in tone.
Who did you say it was, brother?
Who was it fell by the way?
When whiskey and blood ran together
Did you hear anyone pray?
Dorsey Dixon: Wreck on the Highway (1938)
Dorsey Dixon (1897-1968) wrote message songs. A poor textile mill worker from South Carolina, at age 32 he channeled a flair for songwriting into a part-time career as a singer/guitarist in the hillbilly style. Local radio exposure led to his recording over 50 sides for RCA Victor in the 1930s in a fiddle/guitar format with his brother, Howard. Dixon drew from life experience in his songs, and, after “Wreck” (inspired by a newspaper story about a fatal crash; original title, “Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray”), his best-known tunes are labor songs like “Weave Room Blues” and “Babies in the Mill” (about child labor; Dixon had started mill work at age 12, Howard at 10, and their younger sister worked as a spinner from age 8). His lowly origins drew mockery from factory bosses and his New Deal sentiments, accusations of communism. Like so many dirt-poor Southerners, he took refuge from personal pains and disappointments in a deep religious faith. A posthumously published memoir was entitled, “I Don’t Want Nothin’ ‘Bout My Life Wrote Out, Because I Had It Rough in Life.”
Struggle and frustration also marked his music career. None of the Dixon brothers’ recordings escaped the hillbilly ghetto, and when “King of Country Music” Roy Acuff scored a hit with the re-titled “Wreck on the Highway” in 1942, unable to recall the song’s provenance, the Grand Ol’ Opry star took writing credit. Dixon reluctantly sued and an out-of-court settlement awarded him the copyright, $1,700 in unpaid royalties, and a percentage of future profits. It proved to be the pinnacle of his success. A quixotic relocation to New York City to promote his music (during which he worked in a New Jersey rayon factory) gained him no ground; he stopped performing and returned to mill work in the South. Within a few years his eyesight failed, forcing him to retire. His wife left him and his brother died on the job. When Dorsey himself died a decade later, despite a modest revival of interest in his music during the ’60s folk boom, he remained a mere footnote in country music history.
I didn’t hear nobody pray, dear brother
I didn’t hear nobody pray
I heard the crash on the highway
But I didn’t hear nobody pray