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FAR BANKS OF JORDAN 

WWW.TERRYSMITHMUSIC.NET 

A Look at ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? 

 Over the years since ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? was first released by Johnny Cash and June Carter on a Columbia single and also on The Last Gunfighter Ballad album in l976, I have been asked about the circumstances under which the song was written.  Beginning at  some point in l974, it has been my custom to write the date a new song is completed at the top of the handwritten lyrics in the notebook I use when I am actually working on a song.  Excluding bits and pieces of paper on which I might have jotted down a title or line or phrase while I?m driving, working around the house, etc., it?s in this notebook where a new song is originally written down.  But ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? was completed before I began dating the lyrics, so I am not sure of the exact day it was written; in fact, I don?t even have the original manuscript.  I?ve been asked for a copy of the original, but the song simply pre-dates my keeping the original, hand-written versions in notebooks. 

   However, I know where I was living when the song was composed, and that helps me at least approximate when it was written.  In September of 1972, I moved from my home state of Texas to Nashville to teach school for a living and to pursue a career in songwriting on the side.  I moved into a two-story, East Nashville boarding house run by Mrs. Virgie Langford,  an elderly lady who was a member of the same church that I was attending and who was called Granny by all her boarders, many of whom were students at the near-by Nashville Diesel College.  After having been in Music City for about a month, I landed a job with the Nashville metropolitan school system, but I continued living in the boarding house until I bought my own home around Christmastime of l973.  ?Jordan? was written in my downstairs bedroom of that boarding house, so the song was penned at some point between mid-September of l972 and Christmas of l973. 

   Two events occurred during the sixteen months I lived at Granny Langford?s home that MAY have influenced the writing of ?Jordan.?  My parents drove from Texas to visit me in the fall of ?73.  They stayed at the boarding house while they were in Nashville, and during the time they were there, we received a call from California telling us that one of my father?s brothers had passed away.  This uncle, only in his 50?s, was the first of my dad?s or mom?s brothers and sisters to go home to be with the Lord.  Also, in l972 the movie Sounder was released.  The film, starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson, is the story of a black Louisiana  sharecropping family during the Great Depression.  Desperate to feed his family, the father swipes a ham from a neighbor?s smokehouse and ultimately in imprisoned for his wrongdoing.  His family struggles to survive while he is doing time.  His return home is one of the most powerful movie scenes I?ve ever witnessed.  Cicely Tyson, who plays the sharecropper?s wife, is outside their shack working when she notices a tattered man limping up the long lane that leads to their home.  She intently studies the man as he approaches, and when she realizes that it is her husband, she goes berserk.  Yelling and wildly waving her arms, she dashes down the road to meet him, their three children close on her heels. 

   Since I am not positive about the exact date when ?Jordan? was written, I am not certain that my uncle?s death and my seeing Sounder occurred BEFORE I wrote the song, but if either or both did precede the song, I believe they had an influence.  I think this is especially true of the movie.  I believe what people find most appealing about ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? is the chorus: ?I?ll be waiting on the far-side banks of Jordan./I?ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand./When I see you coming, I will rise up with a shout/And come running through the shallow water, reaching for your hand.?  The picture painted in these lines has a strong resemblance to the homecoming scene from Sounder

   The original recording of ?Jordan? was the result of two commitments I made when I left my family and friends in Texas and moved to Nashville.  I decided that if I were going to leave behind everyone and everything I knew and held dear to come to Tennessee to pursue songwriting, then I needed to ?get serious? about the music business.  I promised myself that I would do my best to complete one new song a week and to pitch five tapes per week to publishers, producers, artists?anyone who would give my songs a listen.  These efforts resulted in my first Nashville cut, by Kitty Wells, in the spring of ?73, and not long after that, I submitted a tape of gospel songs to the Oak Ridge Boys? publishing company, Silverline Music.  Silverline signed three songs to publishing contracts, ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? being one of them.  A few months later, when the Oaks were appearing with Johnny Cash in Las Vegas, they pitched ?Jordan? to him.  On the night that Duane Allen of the Oaks called me and played the original Johnny Cash cut of the song (at this point it was a solo by Cash and not a duet with June), Duane also told me that the Oaks had recorded ?Lord, I?ve Been Ready for Years,? another of the songs that had been signed with Silverline.  Duane?s double-barreled phone call, telling of cuts on songs of mine by two major artists, made the night an extraordinary one for me.  It took me a few days to ?come down? from the news. 

   As the years went by and I was getting cuts by artists such as Roy Acuff, Chris LeDoux, and Australian cowboy legend Smoky Dawson, new recorded versions of ?Jordan? were being released.  The Carter Family included the song on an album in l976, and their version inspired a cut by Bluegrass Brigade, a group based in Kansas City.  Both these recordings proved to be significant.  Although June Carter Cash sings part of the song at the close of the opening scene of Robert Duvall?s movie The Apostle and an instrumental version is played when June?who plays Duvall?s mother in the film?dies, it is the Carter Family recording,  twenty years after its original release, that was used on the soundtrack CD for the movie.  Bluegrass Brigade probably had the first recorded bluegrass rendition of the song; and although Willard Cox of the Cox Family told me that he had heard the Johnny Cash/June Carter recording on the radio while the Coxes were playing a gig in Texas in the late 70?s, Mae Burlison, who with her husband Jack make up the core of Bluegrass Brigade, related to me that Willard pestered her to write down the words after hearing their group perform the song at bluegrass festivals where both acts were appearing.

   In l994, when the Cox Family teamed with Alison Krauss for their first Rounder Records release, I Know Who Holds Tomorrow, Willard chose to include the song he?d heard for the first time almost twenty years earlier.  The popularity of the Cox Family/Alison Krauss CD, which won a Grammy the following year, and the Coxes? including the song on their live concert performances introduced ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? to the bluegrass community at large.  Within months, the song was being included on recordings by various bluegrass and gospel groups.

   At this writing, the song has been recorded over eighty times that I know of, including a rendition by Grand Ole Opry star Ernie Ashworth on the CD he released to celebrate his 35th anniversary as an Opry member.  ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? has also spread beyond the banks of the USA, having been cut by well-known Irish singer Paddy O?Brien and by at least two acts in Australia.  In addition, my recording of the song was included on a British Johnny Cash tribute CD; this collection features various singers, was put together by English author and DJ Paul Davis, and was released in the United Kingdom.  ?Jordan? has appeared on three Grammy-wining recordings:  I Know Who Holds Tomorrow by Alison Krauss and the Cox Family in l995, the soundtrack from the movie The Apostle in l999, and June Carter Cash?s Press On, which includes a new recorded version of the song by June and husband Johnny Cash, in 2000.

   When I began to broaden my musical horizons and become a singer/songwriter as opposed to just a songwriter, I included the song on my first album, Look at My Hands, a collection of original gospel songs recorded in Nashville in l979.  To date there have been three recording projects which followed Look at My HandsA Double Dose of Country, a album containing a variety of secular country songs was released in l986.  Quilt of Memories (1996) features songs built around the theme of reflecting on the past, and Texas Roots (1999) is a salute to my home state and my Texas musical heritage.  My policy of attempting to finish one composition per week has produced a catalog of between 1500-2000 songs.  This catalog has supplied the songs for all my recordings, and I am hopeful that I can release other albums of original material in the future.  My having always recorded my own songs does not mean that there are not a lot of old favorites that I enjoy singing and new songs by other writers that ?blow me away.?  Perhaps I will have the opportunity to include some of both on forthcoming recording projects. 

   Watching how ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? has evolved over the years has been a real education for me, and I now understand how one can listen to folk songs such as ?Barbara Allen? and ?John Henry? and seldom hear two versions that are alike.  Variations in the lyrics of ?Jordan? range from minor to what I consider major.  A Texas bluegrass band added an entire new verse that was handed to them by someone at a festival where they were performing.  A duet learned the song from the Texas group?s recording, so the new verse was included again on the cassettes the duo recorded to sell at their live performances, thus perpetuating what I consider an inaccuracy in the song.  Changes in the melody have not been so major nor commonplace, but if one were to line up the eighty-plus recordings of the song and listen to them back-to-back (which I?ve never done but hope to do someday just for kicks), differences can be heard.  At a festival in Texas, I was off to myself with my guitar, rehearsing some songs while preparing to go on stage when a couple who knew I had written ?Jordan? ambled up and listened for a while.  Later the wife told me privately, ?My husband says those aren?t the original words to that song.?  I hope I wasn?t sarcastic when I answered, ?Well, I?m the originator.  I guess I ought to know.?

   I understand the reason behind some of the lyric changes, especially by gospel groups, in some of the versions of ?Jordan.?  They want to eliminate any indication in the song that the singer has discontent with Heaven.  I want to go on record that I certainly believe that there will be absolutely nothing that will prevent us from enjoying the beauty and glory and peace of eternity.  Also, I KNOW that Christ is the FIRST person we should be looking forward to seeing when we pass from this life, but I also know that the hope of being reunited with our loved ones is one of our prime motivations to keep pressing on here on earth.  I have always considered ?Jordan? more of a love song than a gospel song.  Certainly it has gospel overtones, but it is a song of faith and hope and devotion.  Perhaps it is an exaggerated statement of one?s love for another, a love so strong that it motivates one to say, ?I love you so much I would like to share my first glimpse of Heaven with you.? 

   Over the years, I have personally sung ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? at funerals, and word has gotten back to me that the song has been sung or recordings of it have been played at many other memorial services.  I wish I had logged all the stories that I?ve been told about what the song has meant to folks?it?s the stuff of which books are made. 

   Just a few days before I sat down to write this piece, I was contacted by a member of the bluegrass group Mixt Company.  Mixt Company has included ?Jordan? on their new CD, which at this writing has yet to be released.  They were playing in St. Louis and performed the song on their program.  After the show they were approached by a couple who told them how much the song had meant to them and asked the group to sing it again for them in the wings of the auditorium.  Teary-eyed, the husband and wife told the band about their twenty-two-year-old daughter who had been brutally murdered while she was working at a fast-food restaurant.  A few weeks later, Mixt Company was performing in Nashville.  The same couple came up to them after the set and told them that they had had the words to the chorus of the song inscribed on their daughter?s tombstone.  If ?Far-Side Banks of Jordan? offers comfort and hope to people facing trials such as this, then the song serves a purpose far beyond any that I imagined when it was written in that little Nashville boarding-house bedroom.      

                                                                    Terry Smith?Spring, 2001
 

 

 

Revised: September 03, 2007

 

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