Tracy Nelson of Mother Earth - "Down So Low"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Tracy Nelson.

"Down So Low"

Artist: Mother Earth
Writer: Tracy Nelson
Album: Living with the Animals
Year: 1968
Label: Mercury
Tracy Nelson wasn't my first folk music dream girl. I'd have to give that honor to Buffy Sainte-Marie, followed closely by Carolyn Hester. As the '60s went on they'd be supplanted by Maria Muldaur, of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and Essra Mohawk, aka Uncle Meat with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, both of whom I saw regularly at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. But Tracy was the first one I met in person. Not that I'm sure I knew who she was when I bought an album from her at Discount Records in Madison, Wisconsin in the spring of 1965. That would have been around the time she released her first album, the very bluesy Deep Are the Roots, three years down the road from and several thousand miles to the northwest of her starring role as the lead singer of the San Francisco based psychedelic blues rock band, Mother Earth. That's where she became known for her volcanic vocals on tunes like "Mother Earth" and her own "Down So Low," a searing ballad containing one of the great high notes of her career.

Living in Tennessee now, Tracy still sings the blues and releases magnificent albums, but she's never written anything to match the elemental power of "Down So Low." To Tracy, this is a not a bad thing. "The only really good songs I've ever written were about some heartbreak or other," she said, "and since I'm very happy these days I'm not writing very much."

Though the song has been covered more times than Tracy ever could have fantasized, it has yet to be performed on The Voice or American Idol. "Oh, Jesus Chris, what a horrible thought," Tracy said. "I'd sooner it was in a deodorant commercial than that."
Tracy Nelson:When I was in Madison I was kind of a folk singer and then I joined an R&B band. That's when I first started getting serious about music and playing with a band. Original music was what was happening, but until then I just either did folk music or covers of other people's tunes. It wasn't until I got out to San Francisco and jumped into it with both feet that I thought about writing.

The inspiration for "Down So Low" was getting my heart broken. It was written right in the aftermath of a relationship with Steve Miller. I didn't even have the band then. I was working at Discount Records in San Francisco when I wrote that song. I had a piano in my house and there was a piano at my uncle's house. I remember I started working on it at my uncle's house out in Walnut Creek. I mostly wrote the lyrics out there, while I just sat at the piano and played around. I didn't put anything on tape. I've never owned a tape recorder in my life. So, I wrote the song and learned it. Shortly after that I put a band together and when it was time to do the record, I pulled it out.

We hadn't even performed it before I recorded it. The guys in the band complained because the song was so dang hard to learn. We'd been doing blues up to then, songs that were just three changes and you didn't even have to know the song to play it. It took lots and lots and lots of rehearsing before we could do that song. Every musician I've worked with subsequently has complained about it because of the different time signatures. It changes keys three times. I absolutely didn't plan it that way. That's just how it came out. There was no explanation for it. I was aware of different time signatures. I'd listened to some jazz and The Beatles were starting to play with different time signatures too. So when I was sitting at the piano and that bar came out in five, I knew I could have made it be in six, but I thought, well, this is cool. I don't remember if anyone asked me to change it. I mean, I was the boss. It was my song, my band. And I just didn't want to change it. I liked the way it was, and that was that.

It didn't get into the set for a long time. We put it on the record; you know, there are two songs that I wrote on that record, both of which have weird time signatures. I never wrote a song like that again after that. But even after we recorded it, I didn't perform it for a while. I just didn't think it was that great. Maybe it was too personal. Singing it wasn't painful by the time I recorded it. I would never have recorded it if it continued to be painful. It wasn't painful writing about my feelings. It was a completely cathartic experience, so it wasn't that. It's just that I didn't like putting my feelings and anything personal about myself right out there. I don't write very personally, the way a lot of writers do. I didn't talk about who it was based on for many, many years. Again, because I just didn't want it to be that personal. Once it was really old news, then I started laughing about it.

When the song started getting airplay and people were asking for it, I said, "Oh, no, I have to sing that song, now!" This is why I warn all songwriters: don't ever record anything you don't want to perform. We were playing mostly around San Francisco, at the Fillmore and the Avalon, so I'm sure I did it at both those places. I remember doing it one time at the Avalon when we were on a show with Steve Miller and Bukka White. I never told Steve that I'd written it about him and I doubt if he knew at the time. I only told him recently, when, as a joke, I wrote him a thank you letter for inspiring it.

Soon there came a point where I realized I really can't avoid doing this song. So we rehearsed it a lot. I think George Rains was our drummer at that time, but for the album I brought Joe Rodriguez to play drums on it. He was a jazz drummer and we brought him in just for that song. Even to this day, I work with drummers who just can't play it. If I'm using a pickup band for something, I can't do it. Or if I do it, I just do it solo at the piano. I rarely do it at festivals, because it's not a good outdoor crowd of people kind of song. I usually do it about midway through the set because it's really, really hard to do. I mean, from the first time I ever sang it, it was hard to sing. I mean, physically hard. As a song, it's just rangy. So I would always have to put it somewhere in the set where I could pace myself, like I'd have a really easy song right after that, or I'd have the guys do an instrumental. I did two high notes on that first Mother Earth record that I couldn't do now if you poked me with a stick. Finally, about two years ago, I began performing it a full note down and it's much easier for me. If I'd thought of it 30 years ago, I would have done that back then. No one's ever noticed that I'm doing it a little bit lower.

To this day, a month doesn't go by when I don't get something, either through my web site or just an email from someone, saying how personally attached they are to that song. I've had people tell me they've played it at their husband's funeral, or just how it reached them. I'm still not sure why. I know why I wrote it. I know what it means to me. But it's just one of those freaky things. You can't make it happen, it just does. And it still astounds me that other people keep cutting it. A couple of versions stand out to me. One's weird and one was just really so completely different. Diamanda Galas was the singer, I think. Kind of a performance artist, really outside. I don't even know what her genre is. And David Clayton Thomas recorded it, but never released it. What I heard was he just didn't think he did a good job on it. But their producer had a copy of it and he sent it to me some years ago. A really great jazz musician and arranger named Jimmy Guiffre did the arrangement and it's really cool.

From the minute I wrote it I wanted Aretha to do it. And I also thought of Mavis Staples, though it's not really Mavis' kind of song. But I'd still like to hear Aretha do it. I was in contact with one of her producers years ago when she was still working with Arista and they said, "We know that song. But it's been covered by so many people." They didn't think it would be something Aretha should do, but I'm still holding out hopes for that. The first person to cover it was Linda Ronstadt. I think Etta James did it not long after that. You know, to have Linda record the first song I ever wrote, that wasn't a big hit, wasn't Top 40 anywhere, and then to have it covered within the next few years by Etta James, that's pretty thrilling. And then Maria Muldaur did it, Cyndi Lauper, and Ellen McIlwaine, and there's some people that I don't really know who they are who did it. I just see the names on the license requests, because I own the publishing. Very few of them attempt that high note at the end. I mean, Linda has the range, but I can't remember if she did it or not. It wouldn't have sounded the same as mine, because she would have hit it effortlessly. I had to reach down to my toenails to get that note. I've written several songs that when I'm done with them, I say, "Why the hell did I do that?" They're really, really hard for me to sing. But I don't have any control over that. I write it and then hope I can do it or hope somebody with a better range than me cuts it.

"Down So Low" has bailed me out a thousand times. I call it mailbox money. It's the great thing about being a songwriter. I mean, that song has been paying me money for 40 years. When Linda recorded it, I got a huge check and bought a farm with it. So it's a wonderful, wonderful gift. Also, when I think about all the people who have done it, it just stuns me.

I mean, I was stunned when I heard my version was going to be in the movie Not Fade Away, because everything else that's in that movie were big hits, things that everyone knows. And so I was really pleased that the music supervisor (Miami Steve Van Zandt) was aware of the song beforehand. Because it's not something like where you go back and look at Hits from the '60s and you're going to find it. They had to license it from me, so I knew they wanted it for the film and I even knew what scene it was supposed to be in, but I didn't know until I got the check that it actually had made it through the editing process. I think it's in the background of a scene and it's a great deal of the song, if not the whole song. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have a friend in Nova Scotia who said they're slated to get it there in February. So maybe it'll get here soon.

January 18, 2013.
Tracy's website is

More They're Playing My Song

Comments: 10

  • Connie from Treadwell,nythis is an album i bought back in the day..saw her locally several years ago at south kortright and she brought down the house ! come back !!
  • Kevin Duzinski from Lockport Ilthis is really cool I've always loved hasten down the wind so one of my favorite Linda albums I love the old Tracy and mother Earth..
    what I find really neat is the Steve Miller connection because I know Stevie Guitar Miller back in the day before went out to San Francisco was born in Milwaukee. his godfather was Les Paul.. and Les and Mary Ford were wisconsinites to the end..
    show the time frame is perfect before he went out to Frisco he was still wisconsin-milwaukee based and the fact that Tracy and him we're together for a while is a little tid bit of history many people don't know..I'm glad I stumbled on this it's just a few years later than it was posted but very cool thanks.
  • Jim Kozak from Northwest InI remember hearing this song as a freshman at Ball State in Muncie IN and telling people what an incredible song it was. I would start conversations asking people if they ever heard of Tracy Nelson. Now, I would like to see her live and let her know how she has impacted my life. Also, get my copy of Living With the Animals signed. Tracy, I think I saw where you played at City Winery in Chicago. When are you coming back?

  • Tim Day from Norman, OkWho was their lead singer before Tracy nelson
  • Terry S. from Dallas, TxThe first time I heard "Down So Low" by Tracy Nelson, was only days after my brother died in the Army, in `1969. He had raised me from birth taking care of all my needs and 'showing' me to all his friends. He was only 5 years older, but even my Mom said that he was better at it than her. He was 20 when he died and my family turned to total chaos as a way of life for the next few years. While the doctors put my Mom on Valium and my Dad on Librium, I went on LSD. It was the only relief from the overwhelming grief that no one would even mention the subject. My Dad could be very rural in some areas and when my school offered counseling with a Psychologist, he hit the roof screaming that no one was crazy in his family! His pain slowly killed him and he died less than 8 years later after confessing to me that he felt he was to blame for my brother's death for letting the Army take him into the draft. Five years later, I knew that something had to change for me to go on living. I saw a therapist and, over time, was able to remove the pain and help my Mom as well. At the time of the song, I could identify with so much in my life and the words of the song. Today, I am a retired Mental Health Social Worker. I worked primarily with juveniles to help with their anger and misunderstandings about their own lives. I still love this song and now I see it as a part of the healing process I went through. Thank You for having the courage to write about pain in a way that most can't.
  • Robert P Smarse Jr from Westfield, Massachusetts-01085-3217What an excellent, well written story about how affairs of the heart can affect the songs that you write. fighting off demons, as well. A Truly excellent song that always seems to bring me back to those days. Timeless classic!
  • Diana C from Akron, Oh"Down So Low" and that whole album still moves me....40 some years later
  • Bruce PollockThat's the great thing about the Internet. We can edit the article to omit the oversight (either on your part or mine, I can't remember either). We can even link to the video, if there is one.
    Or we can just feel it was taken care of in your comment.
  • Tracy Nelson from TennesseeThanks Bruce. For some reason, perhaps a senior moment on my part, there's no mention of Cyndi Lauper's fantastic cut but otherwise a wonderful addition to my Down So Low archive.
  • Greg Callahan from Hyde Park, NyThank you for posting this, Bruce. Great article about a great song (written and sung by a truly great artist). As a long time fan, I might disagree that with the sentiment that she's never written anything that matched its "elemental power." Give her composition "Words Unspoken" a listen. I find it every bit as moving as "Down So Low"--maybe more so. This vide clip doesn't have the BEST sound, but it gives you the idea.
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