By Randal C. Hill
Songwriter Alex Harvey has explained that “Delta Dawn” was written about his mother, a Mississippi Delta-born hairdresser living in Brownsville, Tennessee. At 41, she had given herself over to drink after a man who had promised her the world disappeared, leaving her to stumble along Brownsville streets, suitcase in hand, looking for a “mansion in the sky.”
When Harvey was 15 years old, he played in a band. “We had just won a contest, and we were going to be on a TV show in Jackson, Tennessee,” he recalled. “My mother said she wanted to go. I told her that I thought she would embarrass me. She drank and sometimes would do things that would make me feel ashamed, so I asked her not to go that night.”
When Harvey returned home later from the TV taping, he learned that his mother had died in a car wreck after running her vehicle into a tree. He suspected that her death wasn’t an accident but had been a suicide. Devastated, he turned deep inside his music as the only form of therapy that brought him any solace.
Several years later, Harvey was at a fellow songwriter’s house. It was late, and everyone there had fallen asleep except him. That’s when he experienced a life-altering vision, of his own personal “Delta Dawn”: “I looked up, and I felt as if my mother was in the room. I saw her very clearly. She was in a rocking chair, and she was laughing.”
Instantly, two song-lyric lines wafted into Harvey’s consciousness:
She’s forty-one and her daddy still calls her “Baby”
All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy
He woke his friend and fellow songwriter Larry Collins and breathlessly poured out his story. Together, the two composed “Delta Dawn” in 20 minutes.
Harvey recorded the song first, followed by Tanya Tucker’s country version, Bette Midler and Australian-born Helen Reddy, with Reddy’s soft rock version catching the rocket ride to the peak of the Billboard chart and becoming her second Number One single after “I Am Woman.”
“I really believe that my mother came into the room that night, not to scare me, but to tell me that it’s okay, that she made her choices in life, and it had nothing to do with me,” Harvey said. “I always felt like that song was a gift to my mother—and an apology.”