When Richard Thompson performed at Delfest in May, he confronted the dilemma he faces at almost every show: How long can he ignore the calls from the audience for his best known song, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” before he gives in and plays it? On that warm afternoon in western Maryland, he gave in early and played it halfway through the set.
Performing solo-acoustic at the big outdoor stage within the racetrack on the north bank of the Potomac River, Thompson said, “I’d like to thank Del McCoury for popularizing this song in the United States. He sang some different words,” Thompson added with a cryptic smirk, “but that’s okay. This, however, is the only version of the song you’ll hear today in B-flat.”
That was a veiled hint that the songwriter would be returning to the same stage later that evening to sing the song with the festival’s namesake for the first time ever. It would be a landmark performance. McCoury, who has dominated 21st-century bluegrass in both awards and reviews, had taken this British musician’s song about a British motorcycle and British geography and made it a favorite of bluegrass and Americana audiences across the ocean. And in that trans-Atlantic journey is a lesson about songwriting.
Thompson, a huge fan of older American music, had deliberately set out to write a song about an outlaw who rides a motorcycle rather than a horse—and to make the story as British as possible. The motorcycles mentioned aren’t American models but British: Vincents, Nortons and Greeves; the only place name in the song is Box Hill, a summit in Surrey’s North Downs and a popular cycling destination. McCoury changed the journey’s destination to Knoxville, but he left the names of the motorcycles alone—Harleys are never mentioned—and yet the song has become a bluegrass classic.
“It’s important to make music that incorporates elements from where you come from,” Thompson added, “so you’re contributing something of yourself into the music. If you’re from England and you’re writing about the Mississippi Delta, there’s something missing. You can be a good imitator, but what are you bringing to the process? The early British Invasion bands really came to life when they stopped doing covers of American songs and started doing original tunes.”
It’s one of the counterintuitive truths about popular music that the more local and particular you make a song, the more likely it is to sound universal. Listeners identify with a song because of its details, for we don’t live our lives in vague generalities but in nitty-gritty specifics.
It doesn’t matter if the details in the song are the listener’s details or not; what matters is that the song reflects a life lived in someone’s particulars. Maybe you didn’t shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but you certainly feel regret for some similar, singular sin. Maybe you never rode a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning—maybe you’d never even heard of that make of motorcycle before—but surely you’ve had some specific possession that meant the world to you.
“’Vincent’ started with the frustration of coming from Britain and wanting to reflect British culture,” Thompson told me in 2001. “It’s hard to find mythological elements from my lifetime to build a song around, because American culture has been so dominant. The mythical places are Laramie and Cheyenne. ‘Going Back to Lancaster’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
When McCoury’s sons Ronnie and Rob brought their father the song and suggested he record it, Del hadn’t heard it. But, as it so happens, he was old enough to remember a time in the 1950s when British motorcycles were all the rage in America before the homegrown models took over. And he recognized a good story tied to a good tune when he heard it. All the Briticisms in the tale didn’t make it sound alien; they made it sound lived-in.
“I used to ride motorcycles myself,” McCoury remembers. “I had a 1947 Indian Chief. ‘Vincent Black Lightning’ wasn’t your average bluegrass tune, so that attracted me to it. You get tired of the same old train of things. I’m always looking for something different in a melody, a story or the changes. I like a challenge. There are so many chord holds in that song that I could never do it without my band. Whenever I try it with anyone else, it’s a train wreck.”
Thompson does the song in B-flat, but McCoury does it in C. At Delfest, during the hurried rehearsal on the McCoury tour bus, it was quickly determined that it made more sense for one person to change keys than for the five members of the Del McCoury Band to change. Del sang the opening verse, Richard the second, and Del the third before they joined voices on the final refrain. The McCourys kept the final-verse banjo breakdown of their arrangement.
It wasn’t the best version of the song you’ll ever hear, but it was perhaps the most historic. It was thrilling to hear the understated baritone of the tall Englishman in the French beret and gray goatee contrasted against the piercing high tenor of the even taller Pennsylvanian in the blue suit and combed-back silver hair.
Thompson recorded the original version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” on his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh. It’s a beautifully constructed song. It opens with some fast and tricky acoustic-guitar picking, a catchy phrase that ends on a high note, then on a low, back and forth, till it descends into the lower register. The same motif provides not only interludes between verses but also the coda.
“’1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ is a song I reinterpret every night,” Thompson said. “I play around with the instrumental part; it’s a Scottish rhythm but other things creep in. In terms of structure, it’s quite similar to a Scottish ballad from the 17th century, but that’s probably a good thing. It’s a structure with which I’m familiar, and it’s a structure that works. It encourages an economy of language and a power of language. It hasn’t been surpassed.”
For all its roots in Scottish folk music, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is quite innovative in its narrative structure. Most folk and pop songs are monologues by one speaker; even dialogues are rare. But Thompson’s song has four characters: Red Molly (a teenage girl attracted to motorcycles and the boys who ride them), James Addie (a young, low-level thief whose prized possession is the titular vehicle), Sergeant McRae (the cop pursuing the young thief) and an unnamed narrator. Each role has a fair number of lines, and the result is more like a play than a poem.
Sean Rowe plays “Vincent Black Lightning” for Paste
The song begins with the action already underway. Red Molly has summoned up the courage to talk to the slightly older James, complimenting his bike as a way of flirting with him. He confesses that he’s impressed by her good taste in motorcycles as well as her good looks: “Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.” The narrator describes him pulling her onto the bike seat behind him as they ride out of the city to Box Hill.
“In the context of popular song,” Thompson pointed out, “where you got three verses in three minutes, it helps to cut to the chase by jumping into the middle of the story. You don’t have to set it up so elaborately or end it so carefully. I often amuse myself by starting a story without knowing where it was going. You finish it and you realize that it’s you or someone you know. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s about you or someone else; it’s only important that it works as a song and says something about humanity.”
In the second act, James gives Molly an engagement ring along with a warning: “I’ll tell you in earnest, I’m a dangerous man. I’ve fought with the law since I was 17, and I’ve robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine.” The warning is fulfilled when Sergeant McRae comes looking for Molly to tell her that her fiancé took a shotgun blast during a robbery and it doesn’t look good at the hospital. (The song’s one flaw is the cop’s name; “Sergeant McCree” would make a much better rhyme with “armed robbery.”)
In the third act, Molly is at the hospital bed, where James is hallucinating about supernatural motorcyclists: “Angels on Ariels in leather and chrome swooping down from heaven to carry me home.” With his last breath, he presses the keys for the Vincent into her tear-dampened hands.
“It surprised me that it’s become such a popular song,” Thompson said, “because it’s a ballad with eight stanzas. I’m surprised that people have the attention span. ‘Vincent’ is my most requested song, and ‘Beeswing’ is the second, which is another story song with even more stanzas. In some communities many years ago, such songs were the only process for communicating the news, but it surprises me that it still works. People like stories in the context of a TV program, a stage play or a movie, but it’s surprising that it works in pop music. Maybe there’s an element of escaping from your own life into someone else’s.”
As he mentioned above, Thompson keeps messing around with the song, especially the instrumental interludes, and the song continues to evolve. As good as the original studio version, the versions on his various live albums (most notably Live from Austin TX) are even better.
Something similar has happened with the Del McCoury Band. The quintet recorded the song soon after learning it, and the studio version on 2001’s Del and the Boys is a bit tentative. But the song caught on with the band’s fans, and as the musicians played the tune again and again, they gained familiarity and confidence with it, and this song from a British Sufi Muslim became a bluegrass standard. My favorite McCoury version of the song comes from a rare, merch-table album, Live from State College, PA.
“Richard Thompson wrote this,” Del says on that recording, “and we wondered what he’d think of it when he heard it, but he liked our version. We played up at Newport, Rhode Island, at the folk festival there, and we went on just before he did. A lot of bluegrass fans were there, and they wanted us to sing ‘that motorcycle number.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that, because Richard’s coming after a while. He wrote it and he does it better than I do.’ But they wouldn’t shut up and after a while we had to do it. He had his picture made with us. He was really proud that we recorded it.”
Rob McCoury plays the opening instrumental on the banjo, and Del sings the story not in Thompson’s Brit-folk baritone but in the high, lonesome mountain tenor of his former employer, Bill Monroe. With Jason Carter’s fiddle fills nipping at his heels, Del holds out the vowels as if James Addie were in some Appalachian dark hollow, warning Red Molly of his coming doom. The instrumental interludes are reinterpreted by Carter and by Ronnie McCoury on mandolin. Del’s voice rises into a scary intensity for the hospital scene; then all the instruments but the banjo and lead vocal drop out for the eerie hallucination.
The McCoury arrangement is a brilliant adaptation of an adaptable song, and it’s the approach Thompson and McCoury used when they sang together. Like so many Scottish tunes that crossed the Atlantic to become old-time country and then bluegrass, this one had been thoroughly Americanized. Even if the motorcycle models still echoed the Old World.