#703: The Snake by Al Wilson
Allen LaMar “Al” Wilson was born in 1939 in Meridian, Mississippi. By the age of twelve he was singing in gospel choirs. Meridian, Mississippi, was the same hometown where James Chaney, the Civil Rights worker who’s killing, along with two others, led to the infamous “Mississippi Burning” trial. Young Al Wilson was friends with James Chaney and the Wilson family knew the cost of living in segregated Mississippi. Alene Wilson-Harris, a daughter of Wilson, said of her father’s upbringing: “My father, well, he grew up in a very volatile time for a young black man. And, he was, unfortunately, in a position to have to know what it was to actually leave a place because there were life-threatening circumstances and hardships and all of those type of things in order to try and make a life for yourself somewhere else where those factors didn’t exist.”
According to the liner notes to Show & Tell: the best of Al Wilson, Al Wilson’s family moved to San Bernardino, California, in 1958. After he graduated from high school, for four years Al Wilson was part of an R&B band named Johnny Harris and The Statesmen. Next, he entered the United States Navy and sang in an enlisted men’s chorus. Returning to civilian life, Wilson sang in a number of R&B groups in the early to mid-60’s. He also developed a gig as a stand-up comedian in case a career in the munis industry failed to pan out. In 1966, Wilson was introduced to pop singer, Johnny Rivers, and was signed to Rivers Soul City record label. In early 1968, Al Wilson had a Top 40 hit on the Billboard R&B charts titled “Do What You Gotta Do”.
His next release was an ominous narrative tale called “The Snake”.
“The Snake” is a song about a woman who is a caring person who takes pity on a half frozen snake she encounters by a lakeside trail. She takes the snake into her home and brings it back to health. She tries to love the snake and tenderly hold it. However, the snake gives her “a vicious bite.” The woman complains to the snake that she revived it and it might have died, except for her intervention. However, the callous snake rebukes her, advising her that she knew he was a snake from the start and she got what she had coming to her.
The song was written by civil rights songwriter and actor, Oscar Brown Jr., who drew from one of Aesop’s Fables, The Farmer and The Viper, to write the lyrics to “The Snake”. The Farmer and The Viper has the moral that kindness to the evil will be met by betrayal and is the source of the idiom ‘to nourish a viper in one’s bosom’. Aesop’s fable about The Farmer and The Vipper begins with a farmer discovering a viper in the freezing snow. The compassionate farmer decides to pick up the viper and keep it warm by placing it in his overcoat. Once The viper is restored by the warmth, it bites The Farmer, who dies realizing that it was his error in judgment that caused his fatality. There are both Greek and Latin versions of the story. In the Greek version the farmer dies admonishing himself “for pitying a scoundrel.” In the Latin version of the story, told by Phaedrus, the viper snake brags that he bit the farmer “to teach the lesson not to expect a reward from the wicked.”
There is a variation on the fable that tells “that the viper is magic, and repays the farmer with a sack of Oboluses” (Greek coins) every morning. Greedy for the bounty, the farmer’s son makes an attempt to cut the snake open to get all the coins. However, the snake kills the son. Finding his song dead, the farmer grieves his son’s death. But the snake asks the farmer: Why do you mourn over loss of that which gave none, yet tried to destroy that which gave all? Then the viper vanishes forever. In the 15th Century the inventor of the printing press, William Caxton, embellished the story of The Farmer and The Viper. In Caxton’s version, the snake threatens the farmer’s wife. It ends up strangling the farmer when he seeks to save his wife from harm. In the 17th Century, Jean de La Fontaine has the farmer murder the snake with an axe when the serpent threatens his wife and children, as told in “Le Villageois et le Serpent.”
And in the 19th Century, Russian fabulist, Ivan Krylov, adapted the story after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. He uses his story of The Peasant and The Snake to warn children against offering any assistance or shelter to Napoleon’s defeated troops. Lyrics to “The Snake” have been used by President Donald Trump as a moral lesson for those attending his rallies. The President equates the snake in Al Wilson’s song with immigrants who are trying to cross the borders into America. Trump warns his attentive crowds that immigrants who seek to enter America will only give the nation a vicious bite, metaphorically. Members of Al Wilson’s family have questioned if the deceased singer, who grew up in segregated Mississippi, would have approved of President Trumps’ use of “The Snake” to advance the goal to build his “beautiful wall” along the USA-Mexico border.
“The Snake” climbed to #2 in Vancouver in August 1968. However, it stalled at #27 on the Billboard Hot 100. Elsewhere, the song peaked at #4 in Winnipeg and Birmingham (AL), #5 in Fredericton (NB) and San Deigo, #6 in San Fransicso, Detroit, Louisville (KY), St. Louis and Dallas, and #7 in Edmonton, Miami and Atlanta.
Although not a hit in the UK in 1968, “The Snake”, climbed to #41 on the UK singles chart in 1976. Wilson had a minor follow up hit with a cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Lodi.” Al Wilson’s hit making was limited to his one major hit, “Show And Tell,” which climbed to #1 in early 1974. The smash hit was written by Jerry Fuller. Wilson was never able to repeat his success. Regarding the obstacles he faced in having another hit record, Al Wilson once told the press, “I think it’s very important to be on the charts, because it keeps your name alive. But I’d rather disappear than make records for companies that don’t do their job. I’m a professional, and I think people should always do their best, no matter what their job is. It’s like singing. If you do a thing well, it doesn’t matter if it’s a ballad, soul, blues, or rock. You can reach people of many tastes, and please them all.” Wilson went on to tour and sing at clubs, primarily in Los Angeles, over the decades that followed. Al Wilson died of kidney failure in 2008.
October 12, 2018
Samuel Osborne, “Donald Trump Reads Sinister Poem About Snake Biting its Host – and Dedicates it to Anti-immigration Police,” Independent, London, UK, April 30, 2017
Dahl, B. “Liner Notes,” Show & Tell: the best of Al Wilson, Fuel 2000 Records, 2004
“Al Wilson, Soul Singer and Songwriter, Dies at 68,” New York Times, April 24, 2008.
The Farmer and The Viper, Aesop’s fables
William Caxton, Wikipedia.org
Pierre Peronne, “Al Wilson: Expressive singer of ‘The Snake’,” Independent, April 2008.
Allan Smith, “Family of ‘The Snake’ Singer Speaks out About Donald Trump Using the Decades-old Song as a Rally Cry,” Business Insider, September 26, 2016.
“Boss 30,” CKLG 730 AM, Vancouver, BC, August 30, 1968.
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