Drag City is co-releasing Mickey Newbury’s, “Heaven Help the Child,” as a split 7” on March 27th, with longtime fan Bill Callahan covering the same song on the B- side. The label already reissued three of Newbury's big LPs last year (including Heaven Help The Child), which resonated.
While critics are pretty invested in insisting that he never gained the renown that they believe he ought to have, Mickey Newbury’s career wasn't too bad through the 1960s and 1970s. In 1968, he had three songs at number one on three different charts, with another in the top ten on a fourth chart. He wrote some of the legendary songs—some of which were recorded by people like Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Roberta Flack, Eddy Arnold, and Solomon Burke – and, in 1980, Newbury became the youngest writer to be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“Heaven Help the Child” is, aesthetically, a 1970s songwriter’s song; it sounds not out of place between Kris Kristofferson and someone like James Taylor. There are real hooks, and they run deep. It ebbs and flows, it is acoustic and earnest.
The trick is that Mickey Newbury really is his own man! Listen again and “Heaven Help the Child,” is a song of ideas, it is immense, a monument to ambition and desire and music. This is the mobilization of skill, great skill, mainstream skill. We see a writer who is working the angles, committed to conveying something that feels sincere; dexterous and tight.
The song travels, but the imagery is sharp. While the first verses focus on images of the bohemians, the song fills out the narrative. Mickey Newbury builds a world around the individual, resituating human experience repeatedly, each context revealing beauty and struggle. The song floats in the experience of youth; the perpetuity of the tragic disconnection between the helpless, lonely belief that struggle belongs to the individual and its actual universality.
On a mechanical level, I like listening to songs by writers who write for a living because their livelihood depends on their familiarity with mechanics. They seem to pick and choose and twist the structures, as they turn their attentions to more ambiguous ideas. “Heaven Help the Child” doesn’t cycle, it reflects and builds out and shifts through arrangements and structures. The song lumbers in linear directions—aesthetically, narratively, thematically—propelled by a string of internal rhymes. And then Mickey Newbury almost rights it all with a slant rhyme that carries more weight than expected.
America is at the core, repeated experiences, leaving for the city, serving in the military. Mickey Newbury writes “Heaven Help the Child” like a melancholic Walt Whitman, adept in as well as fully conscious of the value and workings of this medium that is central to the story. The song conveys compassionate respect for humanity, contemplating the emotions that are not unwavering pride, or pure apathy, or pure disdain, or pure superiority, but that are tied to questions of uncertainty or regret or failure.