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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

On the soul masterpiece that is "Midnight Train to Georgia"

Gladys Knight & the Pips' classic combines outstanding vocals with a compelling lyrical narrative that has a surprising twist in its chorus.

Over the past couple days, I've struggled coming to terms with my impending return to Berkeley for in-person classes. The semester started nearly two weeks ago, but with the university moving classes online for that time, I've stayed home, working on days where my class load permits.

Normally, I'd be very excited about getting back to Cal — I've thoroughly enjoyed my time there, and I have a lot of reasons that I should enjoy my final undergraduate semester. Lately, though, I've been paralyzed by a fear of the unknown that awaits after my graduation in mid-May. I feel a lack of direction when it comes to my potential next steps, and I feel like I'm already letting myself and others down.

Today, I initially sought to find a song that fit my emotional state, but I ultimately settled on one that looked at another part of my ordeal: leaving. Coming back from my last work shift on the Peninsula for a considerable period, I flipped to the 70s station on XM and heard Gladys Knight & the Pips' legendary recording of "Midnight Train to Georgia." As I began to sing along (with the Pips' backing vocals, because I dare not try to sing along with the Empress of Soul), I realized that its theme of a journey back to something familiar had some parallels with my thoughts on returning to Berkeley — of course, without the idea that I'd become a star; I'm just trying to get my degree here. The lyrics on dreams not always coming true, yet love persevering, also gave me a bit of hope that I'd find happiness even if I don't end up getting what or where I want in life.

My appreciation for "Midnight Train to Georgia" is twofold. Firstly, there's the purely musical appreciation, headlined by the impeccable back-and-forth between Gladys Knight and the Pips throughout the track. Emblematic of the relationship between the two parties throughout their collaborative career, the exchange permits slow movement of the song's plot, enhancing Knight's established lyrics with a mix of tight unisons and lush harmonies. The chorus harmonies are probably what bring me back to the track more than anything else, even more than Knight's spot-on, emotive performance; I enjoy trying to hear all the different intervals as well as adding further extensions or bass notes as I sing along. On the instrumental side, the feature toward which I gravitate is Tony Camillo's descending Hammond organ figure, from the root note of D-flat down to the fifth of A-flat. I hear the motif as representing the letdown the song's male subject experiences, while also being resolute in moving forward through its repetition and use of anchoring notes within the song's key.

Secondly, of course, there's the appreciation for Jim Weatherly's lyrics. Inspired by a conversation with Farrah Fawcett, Weatherly originally wrote of a "midnight plane to Houston," before the title was wisely amended on the recommendation of Sonny Limbo, publisher for Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney), who recorded the song before Knight did. Limbo thought of his change as "a more R&B-sounding title," but more than that I hear "midnight train to Georgia" as a much more sonorous phrase thanks to the long "o" vowel in "Georgia." The rest of Weatherly's lyrics remained as is, and they slowly weave their way through a man's decision to leave behind the star-seeking dreams of Los Angeles — the city "proved too much for the man (too much for the man, he couldn't make it)" — and return home to the Peach State. The rhymes are comparatively sparse for popular lyrics, but this lack of rhyming does not detract from the story at all; rather, it allows for it to be more free-flowing.

I also love the romantic twist in the latter half of the chorus, in which Knight declares she's "got to be with him" on the train, and that she'd "rather live in his world / Than be without him in [hers]." It's a twist I wouldn't have seen coming on an uninformed listen, but it adds so much to the narrative. Rather than "Midnight Train to Georgia" being a tale of dejection, it becomes a story of the endurance of love despite life failures, and it leaves the impression of hope despite its earlier lyrics.

A song's essence lies at the confluence of its lyrics and the music to which they are set. At this confluence in "Midnight Train to Georgia," one finds a soul masterpiece in which each part combines to enhance the others. It remains one of my favorites across all popular music, and given my current situation, I enjoy it for the glimmer of hope it provides that I'll have support and love even if I fall short in other facets of life.


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