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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

The song's called "Rainy Night in Georgia," but tonight it fits the mood in Berkeley just as well

Just as much as music has the ability to transport oneself to another place and time, it can also further ground you in your present surroundings.

Amid the strongest storm to hit the Bay Area in decades, it was hard for me to think about anything other than the rain we were receiving, which will continue to fall into tomorrow morning. That thinking crossed over into the music I heard in my mind, and subsequently the music about which I plan to write tonight.

Now, plenty of songs talk about rain — it's a lyrical topic that can be used to fit all sorts of conversations and connotations — but most of them don't truly capture the rain in their sound. One track which impeccably does both is Brook Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia," one of my very favorite tracks of its era. An R&B ballad of loneliness on a night much like the one I'm experiencing tonight in Berkeley, "Rainy Night in Georgia" evokes the elements through a couple genius instrumental decisions.

"Rainy Night in Georgia" was written and originally performed by Tony Joe White, whose take on the tune was released in 1969. White's version was driven by a forward Hammond organ and guitar, but while Benton's cover — a cut from his 1970 album Brook Benton Today — retains those instruments, they and the rest of the rhythm section are much more subdued and behind the vocal line than they are on White's original. Benton's version is substantially slower and softer, lending to its more laidback and contemplative feeling. To me, the lyrics also lend itself more to this interpretation of the tune, and the lyrics are ultimately further embodied by the instruments that play behind them.

The slow intro, with its descending guitar line above the organ, sets the stage for Benton's somber reflection, which itself begins by laying the scene for the song: "Hoverin' by my suitcase / Tryin' to find a warm place / To spend the night." The narrator is exposed to the elements on this rainy night, and the only comfort he can currently take is in hearing his love's voice calling out to him. In back of this verse, the first rain-like instrument is heard in the form of a steady ride cymbal. Despite Benton describing "heaving rain fallin'," the cymbal's soft decay is more reminiscent of a constant, but light drizzle. The rain isn't really an antagonist in "Rainy Night in Georgia"; rather it's simply part of the scenery in which the narrator finds himself.

As emotive strings and increased rotation of the organ's Leslie speaker drive Benton's impassioned singing of the song's title in the chorus, one can feel the rain become somewhat more intense. Part of this feeling comes from the cymbal picking up its pace, but it more strongly comes from the addition of one soft, but potent instrument: the piano, played by acclaimed R&B producer Dave Crawford. His slowly descending line in the instrument's high register — heard after Benton sings "I feel like it's rainin' all over the world" — is the sonic embodiment of rain falling as one looks out onto the night. I always hear it as falling upon a building or a vehicle, with the subject having at least a modicum of shelter from the elements... and surely enough, the final verse reflects a similar setting with the narrator finding himself "a place in a boxcar."

Listening to "Rainy Night in Georgia" now, I connect to the second verse more than I ever had before. Its talk of "Neon signs a-flashin' / Taxicabs and buses / Passin' through the night" more than subtly reminds me of my immediate surroundings living in Southside Berkeley, on one of the busiest streets in the area. In viewing the storm from my window that looks... down right onto a busy bar (which plays music so loudly I can identify it from bass lines despite closed windows and my own headphones), I viewed the rain from similar conditions to Benton and White's narrator, though I sadly didn't have the late, great Toots Thielemans playing harmonica right next to me like Benton did. Ah, well, you can't have it all.

My own window scene and the song's bridge both lend themselves toward short bouts of existentialism, as I and Benton's narrator both look out on the busy, rainy world in which we find ourselves. We both bemoan the current conditions, knowing we can't change them: "How many times I wondered / It still comes out the same." Simultaneously, I feel grateful for a couple reasons: 1) I'm sheltered, just as Benton's narrator ultimately is; and 2) this rain is quite welcome in many ways, considering the drought conditions in which we have found ourselves. Of course, I can't simply brush away some of the more damaging effects of the storm, from power outages to uprooted trees to debris flows, and I commiserate with those affected by it. All the while, I realize that I can't change anything about the rain, and we all have to learn to roll with the punches life has sent at us, and that includes the elements and the increasingly extreme weather with which we may live in our climate change-altered world. "No matter how you look at it, or think of it," Benton sings, "it's life, and you just got to play the game" — we've got to be able to navigate through a world over which we have been thrust, and over which have essentially no control by ourselves.

In writing this piece during this rainstorm, I've been struck by how realistic the portrayal of the elements in "Rainy Night in Georgia" is. The rain feels ever-present, completely enveloping one's surroundings... but it's not like it's some sort of sentient antagonist. It's just... there. It's part of life, and it too shall pass, but it's just hard to see things that way in the moment. Hopefully when the storm does subside, it will leave positive effects in its wake in the form of much-needed water for the Bay Area and California.


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