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272 – Southern Gothic: Ghost Stories and Legends Featuring Steve Gorman of The Black Crowes

To say that the American South has a complex history is an understatement. To us in Wisconsin, it sometimes feels like a different country entirely and 99% of our touring experiences down there have been amazing. There is something to Southern hospitality and friendliness that makes it a pleasure for us to visit.

But the South also has its share of darkness. We live in a racially charged society. It’s not something our band, as three white people from the frozen North, have had to deal with much, but you don’t have to believe in ghosts to know that the specters of slavery and the Civil War hang over the place. And those are the focus of many of the ghost stories of the area. It’s part of the place, but it’s not the be all and end all of it.

The South has its own vibrant and beautiful culture. Part of what makes it great is the blending of all the cultures that has gone on to create art that’s really unique and incredibly popular.

Mike on the left on the bass and Wendy in the back on the violin, playing some Southern Rock in a band called Michael Alexander & Big Whiskey. Photo by John Flores.

Southern Rock for example is one of those artistic gumbos. A mixture of blues, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, and country music, it takes elements of several traditions, black and white, to make amazing music. Even in Wisconsin, when the opening riff to “Sweet Home Alabama” starts, people lose their shit. Women want to dance to it, men want to sing along to it. And one of the most successful Southern Rock bands of all time is The Black Crowes.

Steve Gorman on the far right with his band Trigger Hippy. Photo by Scott Willis.

Steve Gorman was a founding member of that rock ‘n’ roll powerhouse. It’s his drumbeat you first heard on “Hard To Handle”, their original hit (and we covered their version for years.) They sold over thirty million albums in their time but the usual rock n’ roll story of excesses and egos eventually imploded the group. He currently drums with a rock n’ soul band called Trigger Hippy and they are playing in Madison at the High Noon Saloon on November 13th. I interviewed Steve to preview the show (and click on this article if you’d like to read more about the concert) but he also gave me a ghost story, here’s him telling it directly:

Yes, I do have a ghost story. And I say that as a guy who always rolled my eyes at other people’s paranormal experiences and I still do! Despite the fact that I had one.

It wasn’t at a venue or a gig, but a friend’s house in LA. This was in 2003 and our neighbor was having a backyard cookout. I had a toddler and a baby and so did everyone else on the block so we were constantly all hanging in someone’s backyard. And when you live in LA you’re outdoors all year round which is why you wanna go there if you have babies, because it helps. People in Wisconsin can follow that train of thought real easily.

Year-round, your backyard is another room of the house. There’s no mosquitoes, there’s no humidity. It’s pretty great. For awhile anyway.

Everybody’s in the backyard, the grill’s fired up, we’re listening to music, it’s a really nice neighborhood get-together. It’s my buddy Jared’s house and I walked into the kitchen and I was standing at the sink and I realize that there’s a woman standing right next to me. And I hadn’t even noticed her, and I did that thing where I’m went, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you” because I was crowding her by going to the sink… I think I was washing my hands.

I just looked to my right and I said “Oh, I’m sor…” but there was nobody there. And out of the corner of my eye peripherally I saw an older woman who was wearing a red bandana in her hair. An older lady with a red bandana with a pattern on it. And as I went to say “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t even notice you/” there was nothing there.

And it really impacted me. I felt something inside like, “Oh what the Hell was that?” Nine times out of ten I would have thought “oh, I’m seeing something” or my brain had a weird synapse misfire. But it really moved me.

And I walked outside and I went over to Jared my friend and I go, “I just had the weirdest thing happen.” And he goes, “What?” I go, “I was just in your kitchen and I swear there was this old woman that was standing next to me, but she just wasn’t there.” And my friend Jared goes, “Did she have a red thing in her hair like a bandana?” And I just stared at him in absolute disbelief. And I said, “Yeah.”

His daughter’s name is Sadie and he said, “Sadie sees that woman all the time.” And that’s a true story and I have goosebumps right now re-telling it. And I know the look on my face must have been great because he was like, “Dude, that’s alright, don’t worry.” And I was like “What the fuck, man?!” I thought I was losing my mind. He’s like, “It’s fine, she’s always in the house and Sadie just sees her.” So, great, me and a three-year old girl are connecting over this.

Steve Gorman, Drummer of Trigger Hippy and The Black Crowes

While the South creates amazing music, their unique history makes for some one-of-a-kind hauntings. In this episode, we talk about some famous stories and what makes ghost stories in the American South unique. Here are some of the topics we cover, in addition to hearing Steve Gorman tell his story for himself:

  • Haunted plantations across the South
  • Confederate ghosts in Nashville, Tennessee
  • The curse of The Bell Witch and An American Haunting
  • The pirate Jean Lafitte who haunts New Orleans
  • Why Madison, Wisconsin has its own Confederate ghosts

For this episode, we decided to do a version of the old English folk song, “The Unquiet Grave”. American folk music, particularly in Appalachia and the Ozarks, directly descends from the ballads of the English, Scottish, and Irish who settled The New World. In fact, the accent of Shakespeare’s time sounds somewhat more like an American Southern accent than it sounds like the accent of Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart (as much as everyone loves those guys!)

“The Unquiet Grave” has been covered by everyone from to Joni Mitchell to Ween and it weaves the tale of a pair of lovers where one died too young. In some versions, it’s a girl who died, in others it’s the boy, but what remains the same is that they lay on their lover’s grave until the ghost appears to them. When the lover left behind begs for a kiss, the ghost warns that even a kiss from their lips would kill them and it’s not worth losing your life over lost love.

How cold doth blow the wind tonight,
I feel some drops of rain.
I never had but one true love
And in greenwood she was slain.
I’ll do as much for my true love
As any young man may.
I’ll sit and mourn all on her grave
For a twelve month and one day.

The twelve-month and one day being up
The dead began to speak.
“Oh, who sits weeping on my grave
And will not let me sleep?”
“‘Tis I, my love, sits on your grave 
And will not let you sleep,
For I crave one kiss of your lily-white lips
And that is all I seek.”

“My lips they are as cold as clay,
My breath smells earthy strong.
If you have one kiss of my lily-white lips,
Your life will not be long.”
“My life be’t long or short sweetheart,
But that is all I crave.
Then I shall be along with you
A-lying in my grave.”

“‘Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk.
The finest flower that ere was seen
Is withered to a stalk.
The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay,
So make yourself contented, love,  
Till God calls you away.”