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Kris Kristofferson discusses his career

BROADCAST: Apr. 30, 1971 | DURATION: 00:30:11


The broadcast begins with an excerpt from interview with Pat Zimmerman where Mr. Zimmerman Plays "Sunday Morning" by Kris Kristofferson . Kris Kristofferson discusses his career as a songwriter and performer during the 1960's and 1970's. Mr. Kristofferson discusses working during that time with Janis Joplin, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel We're talking to Pat Zimmerman for the past two hours, past two days, teacher. It's the Southern school at 4520 North Beacon, and if you want to, you know, [unintelligible] books or take more books or a tape recorder specifically or want to contribute, fine. It's a remarkable place for the very simple reason because there is a remarkable man teaching, I guess. So what song will we close with, you suggest? You said Kris Kristofferson you were thinking of?

Pat Zimmerman Right. It's a song called "Sunday Morning", which is about a fellow that gets up, I believe in the city, he doesn't really say it's a city. He gets up on Sunday morning and goes through the sort of existential motions of nausea. Nothing to get up for, except to go outside, and he goes outside and smells someone frying chicken, and he begins to think about home and how he's lost something somewhere along the line since he left there.

Studs Terkel And here is a recapturing and more in the case of Pat Zimmerman. [content removed, see catalog record] I thought of this way of opening a conversation with Kris Kristofferson, whose voice you heard singing his song, "Sunday Morning Coming Down", I thought of this way because that's Pat Zimmerman, marvelous young teacher at the Southern school here in the Uptown area where many of the disfranchised and dispossessed live, particularly Southern whites, because of the ability of Kris Kristofferson, my guest, to reach, to reach deep into what life is in one way or another. Kris Kristofferson, by the time of this broadcast will have appeared at Quiet Knight, we hope he will return again soon. But this is part of his Monument album, and monumental it is in his way, too. You know, it's the last album of Janis Joplin, of course, her--the one that played in all the jukes where young people are. Of all varieties. "Me and Bobby McGee", of course, so this song and yourself, Kris Kristofferson, how come you write the songs you do? How'd it come about? Think about you, Kris. Where are you from?

Kris Kristofferson Originally from Brownsville, Texas. Still. I don't know, you just write about what you know about, at least the best things you write are, and that one, and a lot of the others just were--were parts of, were the life that I was looking at the time. And when you're lucky, you write something that a lot of other people have experienced. Maybe they couldn't put it down that way, like that particular was a Sunday morning we had Ray Stevens cut the first version of it and we got a letter from a Baptist minister down in Georgia saying, "Mr. Stevens, you have said more in this song than I'd said in 25 years of preaching," which may well be true. But he got three converts in his damn church by playing it that one time.

Studs Terkel Of course, your songs are, you see, they do have that, that almost preacher quality, preacher in the wild sense, not preacher in the institutionalized religious sense, but the sort of, the wild preacher, preach a certain kind of gospel of life in a certain way, you know.

Kris Kristofferson Well, that's probably fitting that Johnny Cash cut the thing then, 'cause he's a kind of a preacher.

Studs Terkel You said Brownsville, Texas. You have a song called "Just the Other Side of Nowhere". It was Brownsville, Texas, just the other side of nowhere?

Kris Kristofferson No, I got the idea from that from a kid who, a songwriter named Vince Matthews who's working out at Nashville now. He done his time in Chicago and, I guess the poor section here or whatever, and he was telling me he was from--he said he's from Waverly, Tennessee. And then he said, "Actually, I'm not from Waverly, I'm from a little town just the other side of Waverly," and I thought about his, he used to tell me about when he was bumming around Chicago, and as a matter of fact, he said the TVA found his town. He said the Caterpillars was coming in, and all of a sudden one day he said, "There's people in here!"

Studs Terkel TVA found the town. You're talking about TVA found the town, I know that you're a friend of Johnny Cash, and I know something about, I wish I could meet him some day. And there's something about his boyhood, he was one of the transients, he was one of the Joad people, "Grapes of Wrath", and he was in a transient camp during the Depression. You speak of TVA.

Kris Kristofferson Picked a lot of cotton, John did. He lived in Dyas, Arkansas and come from a real poor background.

Studs Terkel You know what I thought you just said? I thought you just said, "direst Arkansas."

Kris Kristofferson Well, it was pretty dire, too, but he--it's amazing that John is where he is today and as is well-read and as artistically up there coming from where the Bible Belt background that he did and really no education.

Studs Terkel See, there's something about your songs, and I notice also those who dig your songs the most and there are a great many, but you're saying you're breaking stereotype too, because we're so conditioned to slick songwriters, you know, who write and those who come from certain areas, although yours are a different background than Johnny's I know, but that you're saying in all these people there's a possible poet in a way.

Kris Kristofferson Oh, yeah. I've seen more poets in Nashville like this kid I was telling you about, who had never had an 8th grade education, Vince, and is it, more poets there than I ever met in Oxford or in college in the academic circles.

Studs Terkel Perhaps we should ask you about this--you mentioned Oxford, because you yourself I know attended Oxford, you were a Rhodes scholar. You came from--your father I take it was, is retired lieutenant colonel or something in the Air Force.

Kris Kristofferson He was a Major General.

Studs Terkel Major General. Well, how--now, how come?

Kris Kristofferson How come

Studs Terkel How come you thinking as you think? Writing as you write?

Kris Kristofferson Well, I was always going to be a writer, I guess, or since I can remember going to be anything. No, I was going to be a boxer first. But then I, I thought I wanted to be a writer. I was going to write short stories and the great American novel, but I haven't done it yet.

Studs Terkel But you did, you were in "Atlantic Monthly", kind of sitting there, there was Oxford. There was college. So that's the other how come. How come you're not, say, either behind the ivy covered walls of some place. How come this?

Kris Kristofferson Well, I never did really dig school, and I never planned to be a teacher. In fact, I wasn't going to go to Oxford. But I got talked into it by a philosophy professor, who is--I'm glad he talked me into it. I always felt that, you know, you either did something or you studied about it, you know, and I don't think I'd be a good teacher, but I thought I could be a good writer. You know. And it's not really real life in the academic world. I'm sure it's stimulating to a certain type of cat, but it wasn't for me. I mean, I learned more in the summers when I was working with construction crews, you know, and railroad gangs and stuff like that. I thought anyway.

Studs Terkel Well, perhaps in your case this is the point. Maybe there's a fusion here of the two, and this fusion is so exciting, that what I call the book in the street, you see, or the book in the railroad yard. Maybe the fusion of the two here is what makes your writing so exciting.

Kris Kristofferson It's possible. I'm not really that well-read, so that I can remember my English, you know, like counselors [whatever they were?], talking about how pitifully small my reading list was, I had to write down everything I'd read and I guess I'd read Salinger and Faulkner and Hemingway and that was about it. When I left college. I got to do more when I was over in England, but I can't--I don't read much now.

Studs Terkel But the source of your writing is mostly the songs are your observations and your gut experiences.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah.

Studs Terkel In a way.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah. Well, see, I don't--I think--well, you can learn a certain amount from reading. You know, just the mechanics of it, but Lord, I know kids that haven't even gone to high school that can twist a phrase in a way that you would never believe it. Like this kid--you were talking about a song I sang last night.

Studs Terkel Last night, this was the night before this particular conversation is occurring at the gate--at the Quiet Knight where Kris Kristofferson and his group--by the way, one of the members of the group is here. I'll ask you about that later. Visually it's fantastic as well as musically, the group. It was something out of a tapestry. To me I felt it was something out of a wild piece of tapestry. Your two guitarists, your bass, I don't know what I'm going to--I want to come back

Kris Kristofferson I can't wait to tell them what you

Studs Terkel I want to come back to this young kid, that's Roger and he's from Uptown. I know Roger when he was 13, he's going to call a--he's almost an urban Huck Finn. He lives on his own, his father's an old drunk, mother dead long ago. And Roger lives on his own, yet Roger is a poet. He wanted to see you last night because he knows of your songs. My point is, you reached Roger very deeply.

Kris Kristofferson Damn, get him to come down again.

Studs Terkel He's the one who said, "Depression? [unintelligible] Well, we were just born. Depression? I don't know what depression is. We call it hard times, and it still is, but depression is something I was born in. So, I don't see that as something different." That's the way Roger talks, who probably went to fourth grade or so, see.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah, yeah. Well, see they come out of it, and like Billy, Billy Joe Shaver, the kid who wrote this, that song that you liked, that "Christian Soldier" thing. Well, that one is pretty plain what he says, but he writes some songs that, he says things that, man, you could go to school forever and not write them that way. And I wish that, I wish I had examples of him right now, but just phrases that are just, they're flat poetry and the cat had to just come out of his head.

Studs Terkel You mentioned that song "Christian Soldier"--that's the thing about Kris Kristofferson, too--he's also mentioning these other writers all the time continuously. Could you just--I don't mean for you to sing, could you just offer a, just a few lyrics of that, pieces of that, the way it goes,

Kris Kristofferson It's so darn simple that I hate to even, but it's a not too long ago in Oklahoma. It's done like Merle Haggard would sing it, you know, "Son of a Okie preacher, kneel to pray, said Lord I want to be a Christian soldier just like you, and fight to build a new and better day." Then it goes and says, "Now, many years and miles from Oklahoma that same young Okie boy still kneels to pray, but he don't pray to be no Christian soldier anymore. He just prays to make it to another day. Says 'cause it's hard to be a Christian soldier when you tote a gun. It hurts to have to watch a grown man cry. Where we're playing cards and writing home and having lots of fun telling jokes and learning how to die." And it's just, it goes on to say he sees things he's come to know that's so confusing, he can't tell what's wrong from right. Can't tell the winners from the losers and thinking of just giving up the fight. What I dig about is the feeling you get on the chorus, where all the voices are singing, it sounds like almost, you know, back home in a little church or something or other. "It's hard to be a Christian soldier when you tote a gun." And it knocked me out that this kid is writing, he's just a from what you would call redneck background--

Studs Terkel Well, I don't--

Kris Kristofferson And--

Studs Terkel I never use the word--

Kris Kristofferson Not

Studs Terkel I never use the word "redneck." I would never use the word. "Redneck" to me is like using the word "nigger." Same--just as offensive. Just as offensive. I know what you're talking about, though.

Kris Kristofferson And he's coming out with something that's--most people would not imagine would come out of this area. They think, they expect something more like the "Fightin' Side of Me" that Merle had. Just like you're talking about "redneck" being offensive, I, when Merle had "Okie From Muskogee", I didn't like everything that was in that song, because it put down some other people. But I had to dig the fact that here is a guy who was an Okie, who is out in California saying "I'm proud to be an Okie from Musko"--because out there that's a dirty word, just like "nigger."

Studs Terkel You see, that's the point that's powerful to me and important about Kris Kristofferson's writings, it's he cuts through the word protest and unpro--the fact that every human has this feeling he wanted to be recognized and accepted. And it's true demagogues use "Okie From Muskogee" or "Fightin' Side of Me", the demagogues, and just as use "Christian Soldier", naturally one thinks of My Lai, naturally of course, you know, think of that, to die and also you could add the word to kill, you know. And, so, in a sense this is what you're digging into. "Beat the Devil" I think is--you have a lead-in here. This is a talking song. Suppose we hear--because you speak--there's a religious overtone here, but in a very good sense to almost all your songs, you know.

Kris Kristofferson Well, see, I got the idea for doing that one from John, back when, this is Cash, when he was really in his hard times, I guess, he was pretty wasted himself. I met him bouncing off the hallways one time in Columbia back when I was working like a janitor there and he was lucid in spite of the fact that he was completely wasted, you know. And he started reciting me some poetry, religious poetry that was really beautiful. And I got to thinking, "Look at this cat, man, he comes from pulling cotton back in Dyas, Arkansas, uneducated and he's writing some really moving religious poetry that I just wish that somebody knew that he did it, you know." But I's figured he was going to be dead singing for all these people before anybody heard it, and I thought, who's going to give a damn? You're killing yourself for these people and they ain't gonna care. And so I thought of that singing part of that song and then through--seeing how he pulled himself up and seeing him continue to try and communicate with these people and go and stand up in front of the Arkansas State Legislature and telling them they got rotten prisons and stuff like that, I saw why he was doing it, and that he had to keep fighting against this feeling that nobody is going to ever hear you, you know? And even if, even if they don't ever hear you, you gotta still try it.

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear this, there's an introduction. This is a talking song. Now at the very beginning you're also telling about--perhaps we could cut to the talking. You have an intro before the talking song itself.

Kris Kristofferson Well, yeah, you can play that. It ain't much of an intro, is

Studs Terkel Let's hear that. And now this is--we'll talk about the tradition of talking blues and talking songs after we hear this. "Beat the Devil", and it's a question of hearing or not hearing.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah.

Studs Terkel It's a question. [content removed, see catalog record] Of course, this song is [inspiring?] you're talking about deafness and dumbness, too, aren't you, in a way?

Kris Kristofferson Yeah. Well, a lot of people say they don't. It's just like the same people that say, "Why do we want to go see a movie about filth and squalor, man, you know, I don't want to hear about it." You know? They say "Why don't you write nice things, like 'Pillow Talk'"?

Studs Terkel Right. Right. Right.

Kris Kristofferson You know? Something to entertain us. But there's got to be some people who do want to know, because they bought this one.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Maybe there is some--what do you notice on that, think, because here's a song that speaks about not hearing and people crucified what they try to show. And this can apply to any number of people of all ages and you feel? Your audience. What do you sense? Did you sense changes occurring? Because some of the songs, these songs could never have been popular. There were songs written back in the '30s and Woody Guthrie songs, but again Woody was in his way pushed around and flattened.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah, well, he was pushed out and run a lot more than I ever

Studs Terkel But the fact is today there is--you find there's more receptivity among the young particularly I suppose.

Kris Kristofferson You know what? I think kids in all their lifestyle now are at least trying to go toward a more honest and less bull in their daily living and in what they're digging as far as music goes. Like the people that they're turning on to, or people they wouldn't have back 10, 15 years. Nobody's going to listen to Merle Haggard before, but the kids dig him, even though he is an Okie From Muskogee, and people turn on to Johnny Cash, who--they even like, hey, well anyway, who was my hero and back when I dug him back in California nobody liked him, and because it's just an honesty of expression. And I think Bob Dylan had a lot to do with this. You know, he was saying things that a lot of people didn't want to hear.

Studs Terkel And seeing Bob Dylan had a predecessor.

Kris Kristofferson Sure.

Studs Terkel That's Woody, and Woody had a predecessor. But there's been a leap though, it seems there's been a big leap.

Kris Kristofferson Well, it had to be the audience. I mean, it's happened faster than I ever expected, because when I went out and heard people in these little hip places, you know, like The Troubadour and stuff in California, dropping names like Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard and stuff like that, where used to be, I mean, all they did was rock, and they had to be going back to something basic and honest, 'cause these guys are just, that's all they are.

Studs Terkel But the words, too, the lyrics, too.

Kris Kristofferson Well, that's country music, it's the lyrics have always been more important than anything else.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of it, here just the other side of nowhere now, say Henry Hanson of "The Daily News", who--one of the first told me about you, too, journalist there. He likes "Just the Other Side of Nowhere". And you mentioned that earlier, that kid you met, you know.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah.

Studs Terkel Which is just the other side of nowhere. Again, this is also, it's about out--your songs are really about outsiders to a great extent, too, aren't they, considered outsiders by respectable society quote unquote?

Kris Kristofferson Yeah, well, it's like "Stranger". Just like Terry was saying the other day when we first came here. And God knows we ain't--we're not bums and on the sidewalk anymore. But still, when you're a stranger in town, it's a lousy feeling, you know, and I don't know, an outsider gets a look at everything that that a guy who was caught up in it doesn't get, so in a way you're kind of fortunate.

Studs Terkel Something you said before we went on, as we go into "Just the Other Side of Nowhere", you said something about there's one [ring?] doesn't know what it is himself, the guy, unless he really is poor or Black or whatever it is, or that white sharecropper or the white guy living in here in Chicago in Uptown. I'm sure certain cities, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, particularly. People.

Kris Kristofferson Well, it's they live by a completely different set of rules and they look at things that we accept completely differently because the law treats them different, because--

Studs Terkel Well, we'll come to that matter of the law in a moment, the song "Law Protection of Equals", but the other side of nowhere, because that's where they come from, in a way. As far as authorities are concerned, they come from the other side of nowhere.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah, well, who cares? I mean, you're in Chicago. You're not in Thief River Falls or something.

Studs Terkel "The Other Side of Nowhere". This is the point, isn't it, that those that come from the other side of nowhere really are considered non-people in a way, this is also part of it.

Kris Kristofferson Ain't legitimate

Studs Terkel Oh, I [unintelligible]. Kris Kristofferson is my guest and he's quite remarkable songwriter, understander of things, and he's laugh at this phrase legitimate people because we'll hear the voice of an acquaintance of mine, a former member of the police force, tactical force, tactical force are those in the middle of things, explaining his views of life, and he speaks of legitimate people as those who behave themselves. I gather the non-legitimate behave would be tourists and visitors and those who just keep their mouth shut and there's a song of yours, laws for the protection of the people, you know. I thought, perhaps, you ought to hear the voice of my acquaintance, just this phrase. It involved a number of things and one is attitudes toward long-haired kids, and suppose we hear his voice and then it seems like a natural lead from his voice right into your song. Can we do that? Yeah.

Policeman This, but I can tell you the hippie kid, you got time.

Studs Terkel Sure.

Policeman I got a kid down there in Old Town, one of them long-haired jobs, right? Well, I grabbed him and I cut a chunk of hair out of his head. Now, this sounds brutal. Go ahead and call it brutality. Here what I call constructive criticism again. This kid, three weeks later, approached me on the street and I never recognized him because he was dressed with a haircut and he had a job. And the reason why he got it because somebody took an interest in

Studs Terkel Well, there's that irony. The irony and the horror, both. So Kris Kristofferson guest, and of course the question is, how? Problems now. Process. Or whatever they want to call. The writing of the song; some--what leads to you catching on to a certain idea for?

Kris Kristofferson Well, in this case they were telling me about this guy that lived right across from the bar that I was tending, [they were a?] tavern, and that had had his hair cut off. I saw him and he looked weird, you know. I didn't even recognize him at first, just as your friend didn't recognize him or this guy didn't look like he's happy about the concern, and the song just came real fast, which is not characteristic of most of my songs, really come slow and painfully, but this thing was just like I was just holding a pen, you know, and I think I finished it in one car ride.

Studs Terkel It really just--so this one just came to you fully.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah. Well, it just, you know how it--for example, the guy's name nickname was Jesus who they, whose hair they cut. It wasn't Homer Lee Honeycutt, but, and he wasn't like Jesus, he was really a surly, antisocial type guy. Never talked to anybody, but he didn't harm anybody, either. And he could have been a prophet for all we knew. And it was wrong anyways.

Studs Terkel But in some cases this came to you just that way. In some, though, you wait for that phrase or whatever to ring. Yeah,

Kris Kristofferson Yeah, well, you may have the idea and carry it around in your head until you get all of the right things going. I hate to rush a song, because you can always rhyme enough lines to make a song, but you're not going to be proud of it when you finish.

Studs Terkel Well, the phrase "best of all possible worlds," this is part of Kris Kristofferson's album. "Best of all", naturally we think of Voltaire, we think of "Candide", we think of irony, of course. "Best of All Possible Worlds": How'd that come?

Kris Kristofferson Well, that was after I got thrown in jail in Nashville for going down and trying to help out a couple of drunk buddies of mine, and I couldn't believe it was happening, you know. I wasn't drunk, I just got off my job at the studio and it just struck me real weird that you could get thrown in jail for being poor. And I saw other people getting thrown in for being Black while I was there and beat up for it. And I think things have changed a little bit down there since then. But there have been a lot of scandals and stuff, but at the times she was poor Black you were raped if you're on the street after a certain hour in the wrong place. And, so, you either cry about it or you laugh about it, and I chose to laugh at the time.

Studs Terkel It's best of all possible worlds.

Kris Kristofferson Yeah. [content removed, see catalog record]

Studs Terkel "Best Of All Possible Worlds" I'm thinking about Kris Kristofferson and the songs and by there are a great many on this album. "Darby's Castle" one we probably wouldn't have a chance to hear which also concerns with how quickly things could change, too, or things can fall. I'm thinking since we talked about the police authorities in the last two songs in a way and this acquaintance of mine since you just heard a piece of a tremendous paradox and conflict in him and hurt as well as this propensity for brutishness, too, and [unintelligible] someday a song about a policeman with a conflict in him.

Kris Kristofferson Oh, yeah, well, there's two side--

Studs Terkel Tremendous conflict, turmoil inside him would be a great theme.

Kris Kristofferson Well, see, because mainly they had to come from a background pretty similar to the cats who they are busting in the case of the transients and poor people. And like this guy, he really thought he was doing that kid a favor, and in his way I guess, you know--

Studs Terkel My

Kris Kristofferson By his standards he was helping him. And just the way he was doing it was a little bit hard.

Studs Terkel But that's against their own people, in the way that's very often the case. In "Grapes of Wrath", remember seeing "Grapes of Wrath", they're just about to come to California, this cop says, "Where you from? Oh, yeah!" Then he says, "You better get going! Go on, now!"

Kris Kristofferson Well, Steinbeck really had a way of doing these things, it almost made you cry, when he'd do some little act of kindness.

Studs Terkel Because you know, almost the hour goes so quickly, I hope this is the first of a number of meetings we have, and we can't do it without "Me and Bobby McGee". We know this mostly, of course, through the work of Janis Joplin, her last album. And who else did it see? Roger Miller did it, too.

Kris Kristofferson Ramblin' Jack. He does it all the time.

Studs Terkel But "Me and Bobby McGee", this song itself, this song itself has that plaintive quality. More than that, there's one--

Kris Kristofferson That is a real [plaintive?], yeah.

Studs Terkel But that one line, of course, throws me. Freedom is--

Kris Kristofferson Just another word for nothing left to lose. Well, it is. It's like when you get--I got all the stuff robbed out of my apartment one time. My apartment, slum tenement down there, and there wasn't that much to rob. But at first it kind of brought me down, because there were some boxing trophies and things that they had--then all of a sudden it felt great, because I didn't have a damn thing tying me down.

Studs Terkel This is the way I suppose a lot of poor people feel, too, when that--when they shout for that which is coming to them, and the voices and the [years? ears?] are deaf, then there's a freedom in that sense. That is, freedom from a certain kind of fear. There's the fear of hunger, the fear of rats and the kids and lead poisoning. But the fear of authority becomes less and less. Or does it? I don't know.

Kris Kristofferson Well, it's like Vince Matthews, this kid I was telling you about, he wrote this song about the guy--that Johnny Cash recorded for him, about him, what he's going to do with his last dollar bill. He could buy food, he could buy a night in a flophouse or whatever, and he takes the damn thing and throws it into Lake Michigan. He ain't never going to be a slave to that dollar bill, you know.

Studs Terkel "Me and Bobby McGee", perhaps, to end this and Kris Kristofferson our guest, and I found it a very moving encounter, and the very end musically rich, too. We haven't talked about the musicality and your sidekicks, your friends who are here with you at the, were with you here at the Quiet Knight will return, wild scene I saw with the four of you, the two bass men, the guitar guys and the guy at the organ, it was a wild scene out of some medieval scene and, yet now, very dramatic and thank you very much.

Kris Kristofferson Thank you. I want to play those words to my producer and--

Studs Terkel "Me and Bobby McGee" and Kris Kristofferson. [content removed, see