When Patsy Cline first heard Willie Nelson's demo version of 'Crazy', she didn't like it, thinking it sounded too vulnerable and heartbroken. Talked into it by her husband and her producer, she would make a record that seemed to capture something fundamental about the lives of its contemporary listeners, but while much has been written on Cline's status as a pioneering woman in the male-dominated world of country music, the fact that the song and many of her other famous singles - like her first hit, 'Walkin' After Midnight' - hint strongly that the persona of the singer is going mad, has been mostly overlooked. In this episode I look at both songs and ask why madness might have played such an important role in the career of the most important female country singer of the late 1950s, and what it might tell us about the lives of men and women of the era.
All the songs discussed in this episode, including the original recordings of 'Walkin' After Midnight' and 'Crazy', as well as Willie Nelson's demo recording, can be heard here.
If you've enjoyed the episode please leave a review on Apple podcasts! Thank you :)
Walkin' After Midnight & Crazy
Hello and welcome to the Secret Life of Songs - a podcast on what happens in pop songs and why they mean so much to us. I’m Anthony, a musician who writes and performs music under the name sky coloured and this week I’m going to be looking at the country singer Patsy Cline, and her most famous recording, ‘Crazy’, written in 1961 by the then-unknown Willie Nelson, but I’m going to begin by looking at a single from earlier in her career - her first to make any sort of impression on the record-buying public - ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’, recorded and released in 1957:
[music - ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’]
By this point in her career, Cline had had a number of unsuccessful years as a recording artist, putting out non-charting honky tonk and rockabilly records and performing at shows in her home state of Virginia and on country music radio stations. It was this song that placed her in the national consciousness, reaching number 12 on the pop chart, an unusually high placing for a country singer at the time. It was the first in a series of singles which, by the time of her sudden death in 1963, would see her heralded as one of the greatest vocalists of the century. I want to look at what it is in her voice that might have caught the imagination, and to consider what these songs and this singer might tell us about the lives of men and women of that era.
The musical setting of ‘Walkin After Midnight’ is in many respects conventional and even conservative: it sticks closely to a standard AABA 32-bar template and uses only the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords. The arrangement - with its steel ‘slide’ guitar and acoustic bass - does not stray from the sound of conventional country records of the time. The ‘pop’ quality - the element that struck several reviewers as its ‘bluesy’ flavour - seems to come down principally to its use of stressed minor thirds in the melody over major chords, which, as we’ve seen in a number of previous episodes, has always been a key signifier of the blues style. What’s striking about the use of it in the melody of this song is its repetitiveness, and the way it combines with the insistent use of the tonic note. This repetitive melodic shape provides the song with its wearying, depleted quality, each bar starting with a bump up and straight back down to that tonic ‘C’; sometimes, it’s up to that bluesy minor third, sometimes the major, and at the end of the form - on ‘for you’ - it only reaches the second, like a bouncing ball losing energy.
Cline’s delivery is, in the early verses especially, unsentimental, with none of the intensity and heavy vibrato that would characterise her later work. Listen to the casual, southern-inflected phrasing of ‘just like we used to do’: this sense of the ordinary that she gets across in her performance is key to the song’s effect. Together with that insistent tonic in the melody, we hear the everyday quality of the singer’s unhappiness. The lyrics make it clear this is something that goes on all the time - it isn’t ‘I went out walking’, it’s ‘I go out walkin’: it’s something she’s always doing; a constant, draining habit.
But despite the more-or-less conventional setting and Cline’s cool delivery, there’s something haunting about the song. Film-maker Mary Harron, in a piece about her love of Cline, wrote that Cline’s ‘true mode was existential loneliness … I always picture her … walking along that midnight highway’. I think you can hear it in the way her voice is couched in reverb, when the instrumentation feels dry and close - listen especially in the bridge, and you can hear the way Cline’s voice is set apart from its backing. If you make the lead vocal dry - i.e. you take out reverb - the effect is intimate, crooner-like, and indeed exactly this treatment was used during this period for singers like Bing Crosby; but if you make the instrumentation dry and put reverb on the lead vocal, the effect can be one of dislocation, the singer sounds isolated, in a different, more distant space to the rest of the music.
The lyrics in particular seem to jar with the breeziness of the musical arrangement. In the bridge, when Cline sings of a weeping willow crying for her and the night-winds whispering, she seems to slip into some sort of hallucinatory state. The title of the song itself - Walkin After Midnight - hints at a notion of mental disorder - of the connection between the moon and madness, of lunacy - and what’s more, it’s a type of madness that would have been specifically gendered as female. The hours after midnight carried associations with the supernatural and anxieties around female autonomy. During the seventeenth century, women caught outside during this time could be arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, which may not have been familiar to Cline’s audiences, though the use of the classic trope of the ‘highway’ in the second verse certainly would have been:
[music - 'Lost Highway']
This is the most famous ‘highway’ in country music - Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway’ from 1949, an iconic country song, familiar to anyone who would have been listening to Cline, and which creates the setting the singer in Walkin After Midnight walks onto:
The highway is a symbolic one: a purgatorial journey taken by a soul in exile. Cline’s song combines the idea of the long highway of regret with a specifically feminised suggestion of madness, which brings us to her most famous recording, released in 1961:
[music - ‘Crazy’]
Willie Nelson, a virtually unknown singer-songwriter who’d moved to Nashville in 1960, unable to find a label to sign him, met Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline’s second husband, in a bar next to the famous Ryman Auditorium, often known as the Grand Ole Opry House, and managed to play him a demo tape of ‘Crazy’. Dick liked it but Cline didn’t, when it was played to her - it took an amount of persuasion by both her husband and her producer, Owen Bradley. Cline resisted songs which presented her as acutely vulnerable and heartbroken but Bradley, who had ambitions to expand the sonic and commercial scope of country music, pushed her to perform exactly that sort of material.
I think it’s worth pausing at this point to reflect on the complexity of authorship that such a history reveals about the origins of pop songs, and on the fact that a figure such as Cline, a major recording artist with hits behind her, still did not enjoy full autonomy over her output. It’s hard not to picture her surrounded by men who believed they knew better than her, disregarding her instincts about her artistic direction. The way these stories are usually told tends to gloss over this; the fact the song becomes a hit seems to justify whatever went before. But it’s a key facet of what is eventually inscribed on the record - there’s a fascinating comment by Bob Moore, the bass player on the ‘Crazy’ session, who said, “one thing Owen did was to make her slow down the songs. And she didn't want to slow them down. And when you slowed them down, she'd put a lot of feeling in there, but sometimes I thought she just had a lot of feeling 'cause she was kind of mad at Owen because … she wasn't really thrilled over doing something that slow."
Comments like this demonstrate that it’s also inadequate to see these records as entirely the result of an overwhelmingly male production team masterminding a hit, with the female star as their helpless puppet. Cline pushes back and asserts artistic authority with her performance. Again, comments from the session musicians reveal a lot about how the record came into being. This is Gordon Stoker, a member of the vocal group, the Jordanaires, who were the backing singers on ‘Crazy’: "I remember when Patsy heard the demo, she said, 'Look, there ain't no way I could sing it like that guy's a-singing it,'" … "Phrasing. The phrasing of it. The way he cuts his words off and choppy. She didn't want to do it like that. She wasn't going to do it that way."
The differences between Nelson’s demo and the Cline single are fascinating: Nelson’s version is gruff and self-effacing. That cut-short phrasing that Cline disliked and replaced lends the whole song a sardonic, almost cynical quality. Cline’s delivery, by comparison, is wholly committed, with an intensity that always seems to be right on the edge of desperation. She manages to make her voice sound as if it’s about to crack, with skips, gaps and even little half-breaks on words like ‘worry’, but it’s ultimately kept under control. The impression is of a woman who knows she has to use all her strength to keep her feelings in check.
Angela Davis, in her book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, which looks at the work of female African-American musicians emerging from the post-slavery period of reconstruction into the twentieth century, contrasts the treatment of love and sexuality in the work of figures such as Bessie Smith with their white counterparts. She writes, ‘the sphere of personal love and domestic life in mainstream American culture came to be increasingly idealized as the arena in which happiness was to be sought. This held a special significance for women, since love and domesticity were supposed to constitute the outermost limits of their lives. Full membership in the public community was the exclusive domain of men. Therefore, European-American popular songs have to be interpreted within this context and as contributing to patriarchal hegemony.’
On one level, the songs Cline sang align closely with this summary of mainstream American music of the mid-century. Themes of monogamous commitment and devotion recur throughout. Her songs are full of desperate pleas for the lasting love of one man, of the jealousy and devastation at being abandoned for someone else, and occasionally of the glee at besting a rival for a man’s favour. A quick glance at the titles in her singles discography - ‘I Love You Honey’, ‘Heartaches’, or ‘Today, Tomorrow and Forever’ - suggests a social conservatism consistent with that of 1950s popular music and country music in particular; a thoroughgoing expression of the era’s restrictive, sexist values.
And yet there’s much in Cline’s life story to suggest that not only did she contradict this ethic in her personal life but was also seen that way publicly. Music writer Warren Hofstra has written that ‘Cline was already at age twenty-eight a well-known vocal artist with a national following … At the same time, she was subject to condemnation, often with the crudest sexual slander, by many people of her own community.’ Despite being the first woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, it would be nearly forty years after her death before her hometown of Winchester, Virginia honoured her with any sort of memorial.
She married twice, she wore outfits that for the time were seen as scandalously revealing, and there were frequent rumours that she conducted affairs with married men. Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter, writing in 1996 of conversations she had had with her mother, who had known Cline, gives hints at what in Cline’s personality may have upset conservative opinion in the early 1960s. She writes: Cline was ‘wild and willful … rooted in her body like a redwood in the earth … in command of a startling sexuality that infuses everything,’ qualities which meant she was, for women of that generation, ‘a source of fascination, distrust and raw, if hidden, admiration’.
The situation of women in America after the second world war was a difficult one. In many ways, greater restrictions were placed on women in the 1950s than they had in the 20s and 30s, which would have been particularly galling following a war in which women had been deployed in many roles outside the home. They were now expected to go back inside, raise children and housekeep. This was the period of the Baby Boom, in which the cult of motherhood and the home as a feminine domain reached its greatest prominence in American life. This trend was the subject of the foundational text of second-wave feminism, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, which was being researched and written in the years 1957 to ‘62, correlating almost exactly with the recording career of Patsy Cline.
It’s not quite what she means but when Friedan writes in the first paragraph of the book, ‘There was a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image that I came to call the feminine mystique’, it’s hard not to think of the apparent distance between the affirmations of matrimonial devotion in Cline’s songs and the facts of her life and personality. What’s more, it’s clear from Friedan’s study that women of the era were experiencing profound psychological tension as a result of social pressures. She writes, ‘If a woman had a problem in the 1950s and 1960s, she knew that something must be wrong with her marriage, or with herself. Other women were satisfied with their lives, she thought’.
In fact, women of the era were frequently seen as inherently susceptible to madness. This followed a century of western psychiatry in which hysteria and related illnesses had increasingly been thought of as female issues. The ‘crazy woman’ stereotype had its roots in the nineteenth century, and meant that female-reported experiences of dejection and trauma were frequently dismissed or wrongly medicalised. Psychiatrist and feminist writer, Phyllis Chesler, has written about studying psychiatry in the 60s, saying, ‘we were taught to view women as somehow naturally mentally ill’.
The ‘crazy woman’ idea has a long history in music, long predating the emergence of pop in the twentieth century. Musicologist Susan McClary, in her book, ‘Feminine Endings’, writes about the recurrence of the figure of the madwoman in operas from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries by European composers like Monteverdi, Donizetti and Richard Strauss. She notes how consistently the madwoman’s insanity is presented as a display of uncontained sexual desire and that these scenes of female madness are often set-pieces of dazzling vocal virtuosity but, crucially, that this sexually-charged spectacle is always safely bound in a musical structure that represents order and reason. She writes, 'a composer constructing a madwoman is compelled to ensure that the listener experiences and yet does not identify with the discourse of madness. It becomes crucial, therefore, that the musical voice of reason be ever present as a reminder, so that the ravings of the madwoman will remain securely marked as radically “Other,” so that the contagion will not spread'.
So, in Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa, published in 1638, the female protagonist, a nymph who has been driven mad by the abandonment of her male lover, sings an erotically-charged lament for him, longing for his return and hinting at the suicide it’s assumed she’s about to commit, all while a male chorus comment on the mad behaviour as it’s being enacted, whose parts are characterised by steadying tonal cadences in a strictly regular tempo, while the nymph’s part ranges irregularly around the key and time signatures.
[music - Lamento della Ninfa]
Patsy Cline is sometimes held up as an example of a female pioneer within the music industry, someone who broke down barriers for women, both in the way she handled her career and in her music: they hear in her work defiance, a talent too undeniable to be restrained by class and gender. We’ve already seen how the real picture is more complicated than that - certainly she had a forceful personality but she did not have free choice over her music and the direction of her career was to a large extent defined by the men around her.
Madness crops up throughout Cline’s records: it’s not just there in the two songs I’ve been speaking about but also present in singles like ‘I Fall to Pieces’, which contains that same sense of the singer’s mind on the very edge. So is her career another example of men profiting off an impassioned display of a female mind in distress, as they do in those classic operas by male composers? Certainly, the rigidity of the song structures that contain Cline’s performances, and the warm familiarity of the country music arrangements that cloak them, suggest something of McClary’s observation of the rationalist containment of female madness in opera. Isn’t that partly what the all-male backing vocal section is doing in songs like ‘Crazy’, where they swamp Cline’s melody with complacent major-chord ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’, just as it’s reaching its emotional peak? We almost overlook the fact that she’s singing about going mad in these songs because the setting safely runs along such confining, conventional lines.
But contained within those reassuring musical structures is Cline’s voice, with all its masterfully executed swoops and gaps, and it’s there that the emotional force of these records emanates from: the sense that at the heart of the most domesticated and conservative of all the varieties of American popular song we are hearing something like female autonomy; a heartbreaking tension between the free agency embodied in Cline’s vocal delivery and the suffocating clothing it’s presented to us in.
In one section of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan describes women’s responses to interview questions about their satisfaction with their lives, and the ‘problem that had no name’, a widely-reported sense of emptiness, anger and despondency among American married women in the late 1950s. At one point, in a passage which to us will inevitably recall ‘Walkin After Midnight’, she writes: ‘Sometimes a woman would tell me that the feeling gets so strong she runs out of the house and walks through the streets’. Cline was able to communicate all the tension and dissonance of such pronounced but suppressed emotional suffering: the note of desperation in her singing is always present but always contained; we hear the process of repression, the loneliness and slow trauma of pretending to be happy.