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Crediting 'Hickory Wind'
by David W. Johnson

There is evidence that the late country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons may not have written his best-known song, "Hickory Wind." The author of most of the song appears to be a blind singer-songwriter who was singing the song in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1963 at the same time Parsons visited the city on frequent occasions. The author of an additional verse appears to be Parsons' credited co-writer, Bob Buchanan.

 Photo courtesy Ralph Grizzle
Until a recent move, Sylvia Sammons lived in Highlands, North Carolina, where she ran a woodworking shop most of the year and wintered in Florida. She made her home above the shop. On Friday evenings during the visitor season, she would set up a PA system on the balcony and sing for an hour to listeners sitting below on lawn chairs.

Sammons' possible authorship of "Hickory Wind" came to light when traditional musician Kay Justice, whose most recent recording (with Ginny Hawker) is Bristol: A Tribute to the Music of the Original Carter Family, identified Sammons as the author of the song while performing at a small church concert in southwestern Virginia. 

Sammons confirms Justice's attribution. "Yes, I did, in fact, write that song some 30 years ago now," Sammons says. "I cannot claim that too loudly, however, since I 'sold out.'"

She says that in 1969, with the help of a friend who was a music teacher, she reached a cash settlement with either Vanguard Records or a music publisher for the rights to "Hickory Wind." She agreed to turn over a tape-recorded copy of the song she had mailed to herself. The tape was her only physical proof of authorship, though a retired college professor recalls hearing Sammons sing "Hickory Wind" as early as 1963.

"She wrote it," says L. Beatrice Hutzler, who taught biology at Clinch Valley College - now the University of Virginia's College at Wise - from 1970 to 1994. "I don't know if I was one of first or the first to hear it. She was visiting [a mutual friend] in Brevard, North Carolina, south of Asheville. She was at that time living in Greenville. She had her first seeing-eye dog then and was trying her wings as far as becoming independent. She must have been about 18."

A former colleague of Hutzler's characterized her as a very reliable source of information, and a former student recalled her as "a stickler" for accuracy.

Hutzler remembers the later correspondence with Vanguard that Sammons describes. According to a spokesperson for Vanguard, "We do not keep any correspondence dating back that far."

In 1963, 17-year-old Gram Parsons, who lived in Florida, had convinced Greenville resident and family friend Buddy Freeman to be his manager. "Folk music was very hot then," says Freeman. "Pepsi Cola was sponsoring a weekly television show of local groups. I knew all those people." He arranged for Parsons to appear on the show. Soon, "Everybody's kids were talking about him, and he liked coming to Greenville."

Sylvia Sammons was making her start as a folk singer in Greenville. Her repertoire included traditional and original songs, one of which was "Hickory Wind," she says. "I had sung the song quite a bit back in those days at various coffee houses and clubs where I was playing at the time. Somehow - one never really knows how these things happen - the song was obviously stolen.

"I was completely flabbergasted one day to hear a Joan Baez recording of my song," she says. "I had never been approached about publishing and yet, there it was. I remember phoning the radio show on which I heard the song and asking the host of the program if the songwriter was given credit on the album, and if so, who it might be. I do not even recall now who he told me the credit went to."

The credit and copyright belong to Parsons, who died in 1973, and Bob Buchanan, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels. According to Parsons and Buchanan, they wrote "Hickory Wind" on a train ride to Los Angeles in early 1968.

An account of writing "Hickory Wind" appears in the Parsons biography of the same title by Ben Fong-Torres. Writes Fong-Torres, "'Hickory Wind,' simply structured as it was - three verses, no chorus - was one of Gram's finest moments as a songwriter."

Other songwriters and former Parsons colleagues agree. In the notes to a recent two-CD Parsons compilation Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels, Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn calls "Hickory Wind" Parsons' best song. Former Byrd and co-founder, with Parsons, of the Flying Burrito Brothers Chris Hillman holds it in similar esteem.

"It's his signature song," says Hillman in the CD notes. "If Gram had never written another song, 'Hickory Wind' would have put him on the map. The song says it all - it's very descriptive, with vivid imagery. It's actually quite literary, but Gram, as we know, was a very bright kid." Parsons graduated from the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, and attended Harvard College in the fall of 1965.

Hillman recalls "As far as I know Gram and Bob Buchanan did indeed write 'Hickory Wind' around 1966-67 . . . . As unstable as Gram was in my brief time with him on this earth, I sincerely doubt he was a plagiarist in any of his songwriting endeavors unless his co-writer Bob brought him the idea."

Bob Buchanan quit the music business more than 30 years ago and lives in Michigan, where he recently retired from General Motors. When interviewed, he had fond memories of his friendship with Gram Parsons and his career as a New Christy Minstrel from 1964-66. He recalled in detail the writing of "Hickory Wind."

"We were a little Hollywood weary," said Buchanan. "The song itself came to be because I had gone back to Michigan to see my folks and Gram had gone back to see his family in Florida." Buchanan drove to Florida to meet Parsons. The two took a train to Chicago, stopping over to go to music clubs, then boarded a train to Los Angeles.

"I was down getting a sandwich in the dining car and came back to room," said Buchanan. "Gram had his guitar out and was working on the start of 'Hickory Wind.' We were feeling the same thing. We had both been back home and in a simpler time, and suddenly we were heading for this big Hollywood full of cigar-chomping executives. We were in a down mood."

According to Buchanan, he took out his guitar and wrote the song's second verse. "I helped him a little on the melody and turnaround and the second verse and he had the bulk of it," he said. He recited these lyrics from memory:

I started out younger at most everything.
All the riches and pleasures, what else can life bring?
Whenever I'm lonesome, I always pretend
That I'm getting the feel of hickory wind.

He described the life experience behind the second verse. "I started out younger. Of all people in my high school class, how many go out and do what I did? I was on the road and having adventures when I was 19 years old. I had a fancy sports car and motorcycle back in my house in Hollywood. I had all that and was still bankrupt. What else can life bring? Big deal with all the riches and pleasures - that wasn't the answer."

"Gram mentioned a couple of weeks later that the song was written down on paper and he had given it to a publisher," said Buchanan. Parsons told Buchanan he had credited him as co-author. "It was good of him to do that. I was there when he wrote it, and the second verse, which is absolutely mine." Bob Buchanan soon left Los Angeles and its music scene, never to return except for a visit.

The first recording of "Hickory Wind" appeared in July 1968 on the Byrds' ground-breaking Sweetheart of the Rodeo album - considered to be the first commercial country-rock album, though Safe at Home by the International Submarine Band, featuring Parsons' songs and vocals, was recorded in late 1967. Contractual difficulties held up its release until April 1968, by which time the group had disbanded.

In 1968, the Byrds had were down to two members: McGuinn and Hillman. The remaining Byrds hired Parsons to sing and play guitar and some keyboards. Though fruitful in terms of recording, Parsons' time as a Byrd was brief. He left in July, saying his decision was in protest of a concert the group was booked to play in South Africa.

The copyright of "Hickory Wind" to Parsons and Buchanan dates to 1969, possibly in connection with its appearance in May of that year on Joan Baez's David's Album. This is the version that caught Sylvia Sammons' ear. All told, "Hickory Wind" appears on seven of Baez's recordings for Vanguard, which has repackaged her work several times.

In addition to the Baez version, Sammons says she is familiar with versions by former Parsons singing partner Emmylou Harris and "a multitude of bluegrass groups." She seems unaware of either the Byrds' recording or Parsons' later rendition of "Hickory Wind" on his Return of the Grievous Angel album, released in 1974 after his death.

"I think, other than principle, I did better economically to have taken the money as I did," says Sammons. "I am guessing, but I do not believe royalty payments would have amounted to the sum they imparted to me. Although I have written quite a few songs down through the intervening years, I have never had any published. I now value them as my little children or wonderful pets and do not believe I would or could sell them."

[(c) 2002 David W. Johnson]

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