Listen to this song by folk-blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps. It’s “Tommy”, as featured on Phelps’ 2001 release Sky Like a Broken Clock. For my money, it’s one of the saddest songs ever written, yet beautifully realized.
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This song is full of pathos, and what’s more is that Phelps playing and his voice, although excellent, seem almost secondary to the portrait it paints of the central character. The folk music idiom is known for its tragic figures, for characters who go their own way which often end up facing their doom down to bad choices. Yet, here in Phelps’ tale, the central figure is not arrogant, or lazy, or cruel. He is innocent; too innocent to live in a world where such a state of being isn’t allowed to thrive.
And because he is strange, for reasons of illness or developmental challenges, Tommy is isolated too. So, the line ‘Tommy was a good man, and nobody knew’ is a summation of a worthy character, and possibly an indictment against a society that often lets the best of us go unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved. So, it kills me every time I hear it.
For more information about Kelly Joe Phelps, check out the Kelly Joe Phelps Official Website.