Random Runners-Up: ‘The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O.C. Smith

The late sixties were one of the most eclectic periods for the UK charts, as the classic mid-sixties beat sound fractured, and a multitude of different genres filled the void.

‘Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O. C. Smith

#2 for 3 weeks, from 3rd-24th July 1968, behind ‘Baby Come Back’

Which means country/soul oddities like this were free to spend three weeks at #2, behind the Equals’ reggae-rock chart-toppers. I say ‘country/soul’ because, while the sound is pure rhythm and blues, with a brilliantly funky bass-line, the story it tells is one of pure country woe…

Oh the path was deep and wide, From footsteps leading to our cabin, Above the door there burned a scarlet lamp… Daddy’s a drunk who packed up and left, leaving the weeds high and the crops dry so, yes, mum’s turned to whoring to feed her fourteen children. And yet, it’s an overwhelmingly positive song. Yes, I’m the son of Hickory Holler’s tramp! announces O. C. Smith, unashamed of how his mother made ends meet.

The neighbours did nothing to help, but did plenty of talking, and judging. The children didn’t notice though – all we cared about was momma’s chicken dumplings... – and grew up loved and nurtured. Mum’s dead now, Smith sings, but every Sunday fourteen roses arrive at her graveside. By the end, as Smith declares once again just who he’s the son of… Well, if there isn’t a tear in your eye.

It’s a very progressive song – probably long before ‘progressive’ became a thing – and I wonder why such a big hit has been erased from the sixties canon? Maybe it’s because the subject matter is just a little too on the nose, a little too celebratory towards the world’s oldest profession? Either way, I’m glad the date-generator threw up this forgotten hit. Ocie Lee Smith had many chart entries on the Billboard chart in the sixties and seventies, but in Britain he is a bone-fide one-hit wonder. He died in 2001.

One last number two for you tomorrow, and it’s one we can all sing along to…

7 thoughts on “Random Runners-Up: ‘The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O.C. Smith

  1. This was far and away in my view the greatest record he ever made – possibly the only really great one. The only other tracks I ever heard from O.C. were either sophisticated jazz/crooner tunes (as befitted someone who once worked with Count Basie and his Band) or rather unexceptional MOR soul fare, like another Lou Rawls or Billy Paul – not really my kind of music. But this was the business, and did have an intriguing storyline to boot. Interestingly, another No. 2 UK one-hit wonder, Clarence Carter, charted in 1970 with a wonderful story-themed song, ‘Patches’, on similar lines about a disadvantaged, poverty-stricken childhood. (Possibly another candidate for your runners-up one day?) I always thought both songs were twins (even if one did come later). O.C. did have a lesser UK Top 30 hit in 1977 with ‘Together’, but ‘Hickory Holler’ is the better song by miles.

    1. I’ll have to check out some of his other stuff, having genuinely never heard of him or his biggest hit… Maybe I misread, but I don’t think Wiki lists his #30 single. Either way, he’s basically a one-hit wonder.

  2. Great record. Gritty soul just doesnt seem to appeal to anyone not bought up on it, and oldies radio wouldnt touch it with a bargepole these days, they only like upbeat oldies or lush love ballads – wouldnt want the listener switching channels and risk playing something not jolly or smoochy!

    When i was 10 i had no idea what the song was about i genuinely thought his dad was a tramp. As in Hobo. Im not quite sure what business hickory holler had with a hobo, but i knew OCs mum and dad must have been really poor! And i felt so sorry for them and quite right they should be proud. Being poor is no shame!

    It must have been 5 or 10 years later before the penny dropped…:)

    1. It really has been forgotten it seems, at least by radio, as I had genuinely never heard it before…

      I had a similar experience with Nancy from ‘Oliver Twist’. Growing up with the movie, I thought she was just a jolly barmaid. When I read the book… Oh my.

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