Fifty years on, his songs still ring true
by Marshall Bowden
I was ten years old when Jim Croce’s debut album, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, was released. I remember that there was major promotion for the album on local AM radio station Super CFL both on the air and in advertising space on its Super CFL survey. I bought a copy of the album largely on the strength of the title track single, a story of pool hustlers and barroom violence, but I was pulled into the record by the thoughtful songwriting and the way the songs showed me, a nascent songwriter, how songs could be written from different angles and in different styles. It was truly an inspiring album, and I think that listening to singer/songwriter records from this era made those of us who grew up listening to them a bit more compassionate. Certainly it’s interesting that Jim Croce’s songs resonate more deeply with me as the years pass by, showing how insightful his work was despite his young age.
Consider that “Time In a Bottle,” maybe Croce’s best song, was not released as a single when You Don’t Mess Around With Jim was initially released, but rather posthumously as the most poignant release since Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay.” The song features a beautiful minor key melody giving it a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern lilt, then it resolves its tension by shifting to major key for what is a somewhat unwieldy chorus, all of it supported by a gentle guitar filigree. Lyrically, it demonstrates the way that Jim Croce’s best songs have a logic and flow that makes them seem like they already existed.
The singer/songwriter movement, or whatever you want to call it, came of age in the mid to late 1960s and existed, in its purest form, through about 1975. But that marketing description homogenized, as it so often does, a wide variety of music and of songwriters. There were those who were refugees from Tin Pan Alley like Carole King and Neil Diamond. There were the Bob Dylan post-folk singers like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Cat Stevens. There were also groups whose ethos was that of the singer songwriter performed by a duo or group–this would include Crosby, Stills, and Nash, America, or Seals & Crofts. There were the newer guys like Jim and Harry Chapin, whose album Heads & Tales featuring his song “Taxi” was released in 1972, the same year Jim released Life and Times.
This new breed of singer/songwriter was more inwardly focused than the previous generation, whose folk wing was politically motivated and based in a universal idealism. Bob Dylan had led the way out of that particular box, and he took a lot of guff for it. It’s not as though later generations didn’t still genuflect at the shrine of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but imitating their style and approach to folk music only ensured that an ever smaller audience would receive their messages. Dylan blew that apart by taking a rock and roll approach, but that didn’t satisfy him. As the sixties ended and at the time of Jim Croce’s ascendancy Dylan had gone back to being a singer/songwriter with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. He continued to explore songwriting as well performing other people’s songs to see how they worked with sessions for Self Portrait and New Morning.
At this point I really just need to come out and say this: Jim Croce was, and has continued to be, pretty underrated as a songwriter. To be honest, his storytelling hits and up-tempo numbers are among his least affecting songs. Listening recently to You Don’t Mess Around With Jim again, I am struck by the fact that, out of twelve songs, eight of them (two thirds) are slower, or more introspective numbers and these are all really good songs. To my mind, Croce’s debut record is the American male’s Tapestry, full of songs about memories, passing time, lost love, regret, pain, and nostalgia. And even on Tapestry, Carole King had her “Smackwater Jack,” “Corazon,” and “I Feel The Earth Move.”
“Tomorrow’s Gonna Be a Brighter Day,” “New York’s Not My Home,” “Photographs and Memories,” “Walkin’ Back To Georgia,” “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” “Time In a Bottle,” “A Long Time Ago,” and “Hey Tomorrow” are songs off that first album, some of which could not be named or recalled by any but die hard Croce fans. But each is a beautiful song, fully realized, a real gem waiting to be rediscovered.
Jim’s songs are simple, but not easy. You can pick them apart, look over the various parts and how they’re put together and you won’t find anything other than pure craftsmanship. They say what they mean and mean what they say. Because of that, Jim is sometimes overlooked as being a deliberate, careful artist. His work is confessional, as opposed to the work of John Prine, who rises more from the folk tradition.
Jim Croce’s stories are mostly first person narratives where the full story is gleaned from the dropping of certain words or phrases. They are centered around a narrator, ostensibly Croce, but he is standing in for everyman, playing a character based on people he talked to or knew firsthand. In his piece “The Singer/Songwriter and the Confessional Persona,” David Shumway explains it this way: “What such artists reveal is not an external cause of the work but emotional states the artist has experienced. In making these emotions available to an audience, the circumstances that gave rise to them are necessarily transformed.” (David Shumway, Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014)
Ingrid Croce, Jim’s widow, put it this way in an interview with Classic Bands’ Gary James:
“When he wrote something it usually wasn’t one circumstance that spurred it on. It was a lot of different people and a lot of different circumstances that brought that song together which is why I think his music is so universal. He didn’t just have an experience happen to him and say ‘I’m gonna write a song about it.’ He looked at other people, and talked with a lot of other people. He was in a sense a journalist of what was going on at the time.”
A journalist of what was going on at the time. That ‘s how I’ve always thought about the best songwriters and their music. Whether they specifically reference current events or not they point towards where we were, who we were, and what we were thinking. Nowadays music like Jim’s would be consigned to a box defined as country or what is now referred to as Americana, which is any roots music that is related to the history of this country. From playing gigs at coffee houses, parties, on college campuses and small clubs, Jim had played everything from blues to rock to country to folk, and all of these threads found their way onto his records.
Jim Croce became a pop star, grabbing that moment when a song of his hit the zeitgeist perfectly: ‘you don’t tug on Superman’s cape/you don’t spit into the wind/you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger…’ But he was a songwriter who practiced his craft with great intensity and who should be mentioned in the same breath as writers like John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and Paul Simon. He also had the outsize personality to pull it off, a seasoned smile and ready laugh, and a bit of carny patter to go along with any song he performed.
The story goes that Croce was going to take a break after the tour that turned out to be his last–it was a make-up for some missed dates due to illness, the only date Croce had missed in the two years of his rapid ascent. One imagines that with time to work on new material he would probably have tried some new things, so the three albums that essentially comprise his recorded career would likely have been the end of a cycle in his career. The three albums he made for ABC/Dunhill in 1972 and 1973 are perfect in their own way, and they point the way towards what surely would have become a formidable body of work.