Being Thrown Back In Time

Originally posted November 25, 2008

As many times as it happens, I continue to be amazed at the power of some songs from one season of my youth to yank me out of my cozy midlife home and plop me back in my bedroom on Kilian Boulevard, with a history textbook open on the table and a host of teenage dilemmas bubbling underneath the surface of the high school junior I was.

I’ve written a little bit before about that first year when I discovered Top 40, the 1969-70 school year. Many of the songs I heard on the radio during those nine months are old friends, records that I nod and smile at when I hear them on the oldies station in the car or when they pop up on the RealPlayer here in the house. But there are a few from those months that don’t just trigger the pleasure of recognizing an old friend; those few records throw me back nearly forty years and remind me not only of what I heard in those days but how it felt to hear it and how it felt to be in my skin at the time. That’s powerful stuff, and it can be a little disorienting.

Regular readers know that I have a fascination with memory and memoir, and I frequently – I realize after the fact – wrestle with the question of how our memories color our present and how sometimes the memories that tint our current lives are events that we’d have judged to be insignificant and totally unmemorable at the time they happened. And when there’s an external trigger – and music is, I am certain, one of our most powerful triggers – we’re back where all those things happened that helped to make us who we are now.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not events that come back. Rather, one encounters a wave of pure emotion. I have no idea what I was doing the first time I heard Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.” It was no doubt during the early weeks of 1970; the record entered the Top 40 in late January and peaked at No. 4 in mid-March. All I know is that the times must have been difficult for me. Because whenever I heard that record’s opening guitar riff over a gentle organ wash, the jolt of recognition is accompanied by a horribly sad sense of “Damn, I wish things were different.”

And I do remember that for a chunk of that season, that was how I felt. The events behind the feelings aren’t really important here, although I do have a good idea of what they were. The fascinating thing in 2008 is that those few seconds of that record – like several others from that season – still has the ability to replicate how I felt when I heard it so long ago.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned “Rainy Night in Georgia” when I made a brief comment about its creator, Tony Joe White. And when Benton’s version of the song popped up on the RealPlayer this week, I realized that I’ve never posted White’s original version, which he released on his 1969 album Tony Joe White . . . Continued. So here it is:

Tony Joe White – “Rainy Night in Georgia” [1969]


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