A some kind of wonderful adventure with John Ellison and the Carpenter Ants

By Matthew Young, RealWV

It’s almost two in the morning, and I’m squeezed in the back seat of a Toyota Tacoma with a sleeping John Ellison on my right and an air-drumming Jupie Little on my left. 

There’s a song playing.

Are you waiting for the streetcar, are you waiting for the streetcar, are you waiting for the streetcar…

I’ve never heard it before, but Michael Lipton says the drummer is a rhythm machine, and I can’t argue with that. Michael’s in the front passenger seat playing with an iPod, and Ted Harrison is driving. The song is by a band called Can. I’m not familiar with them, but Wikipedia tells me they were a German experimental rock band in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Michael also says the song is catchy, and I can’t argue with that, either. 

None of this is important, of course. But I want to tell you the story of the incredible two days I spent with these guys, and I don’t know where to start. So I figured I’d just go to the end and work my way back.

The end of this story begins in McDowell County.

The End

“I came down to Landgraff about two years ago, and I went up on the hill where I grew up. All the houses are gone – there’s nothing left. So I was looking around, and I could see, in my mind, all the coal trucks that would go up and down the hills. I was just standing there, and it was so quiet.”

John spoke from the small stage in the second floor meeting room at the Kimball World War I Memorial, and the 100 or so people there hung on his every word. Michael, Jupie and Ted were all behind him, holding their respective guitars and drumsticks.

“All you could hear were the birds,” John continued. “I thought, ‘Wow, once upon a time this hill that I’m standing on was busy. People everywhere trying to earn a living.’ And I just said, ‘You know what? I’m in a West Virginia state of mind.’”

John told the story of how he came to write the song “West Virginia State of Mind” right after he sang it. I’ve heard him sing it before, but it was different this time – he was different. Not in any tangible way I could explain, mind you. But something in his voice made it clear that he was singing it in the place that he was from, and to the people who look at him as one of their own. John was home.

John Ellison has fun with the audience at the Kimball World War I Memorial, May 10.

“I was born on the banks of the Kanawha River, in a two-room shack my father built out of driftwood,” John recalled. “My mother told me that when I was two years old, she woke up in the middle of the night because the house was moving. She stepped out of bed, and water came up almost to her knees.”

Within minutes, John explained, his family home was swept away down the river. While John, his older brother, and his mother all escaped the flood with their lives, everything they owned was gone. The year was 1943.

“I grew up in total poverty,” John said. “My father was earning $600 a year working in the coal mines. I looked at how hard he was working and never having anything. My mother even kept a lock on the refrigerator so we couldn’t go in. We could only eat when they took the lock off.”

“When you talk about hard times, I’ve seen them and I’ve lived them,” John noted. “It’s made me who I am today.”

Who John is today is the guy sleeping next to me in the backseat of a Toyota Tacoma at two in the morning. He’s got YouTube playing a video on his cell phone describing the 12 second poop theory, and I don’t dare turn it off because the phone has slipped down into an area where I don’t particularly want to stick my hand. 

Are you waiting for the streetcar, are you waiting for the streetcar, are you waiting for the streetcar…

Who John is today is a legendary musician, whose songs have transcended genres, cultural boundaries, and time. John is an icon, and a true American success story. In 1967, he wrote “She’s Some Kind of Wonderful,” which has become one of the most played songs in the history of radio. He is a husband, a father, a West Virginian, and a child of God. John is a grandfather 16 times over, and a man approaching his 83rd birthday with an unwavering passion for life.

I just wish he’d wake up and turn off that stupid video about pooping…

“There are a lot of dream-killers in this world,” John told the audience. “Everything you see on this Earth, it came from a dream. When you have a true vision, don’t let anyone kill that spirit, because that’s when you lose.”

“That’s how it works,” John added. “You have to hold on to your dreams. You have to believe in God, and you have to believe in yourself.”

In addition to the poverty experienced by his family, John’s childhood was filled with the rampant racism that came with everyday life in rural 1950’s America. 

“One day in Welch, they announced a talent show on the radio,” John explained. “They said the winner would receive $500, and a trip to New York to record. Well, I knew I was good, so I signed up for the contest.”

When John arrived on the day of the contest, he remembers being the only Black person there. When it was his turn to sing, John blasted out a Chuck Berry tune that was strong enough to see him declared the contest’s winner, which didn’t sit well with several of the white contestants.

“They said there is no way we’re gonna let a…,” John paused for a second, seeming to think about his next words. “You know what they said. It was like somebody put a knife in me. Everyone in that room heard that. Tears were streaming in my eyes, and I walked out.”

“I lost because of something I couldn’t change – the color of my skin,” John added. “But you know what it did for me? It made me angry, and it made me determined. I looked back and said you think you stopped me? I’ll show you that you can’t stop me. Nobody can stop me.”

John wanted more than a poor, Black kid from the coal fields could ever have in mid-twentieth century West Virginia. At just 17-years-old, and without first telling his parents, John bought a one-way ticket to Rochester, New York to pursue his dreams. And he showed the world that he couldn’t be stopped. 

Are you waiting for the streetcar, are you waiting for the streetcar, are you waiting for the streetcar…

John stood on that little stage singing songs and telling stories for almost three hours, and the people who were there that night danced and sang right along with him. I know the rest of the guys were tired trying to keep up with him, because I was tired from just watching them try to keep up with him. 

Over four years now I’ve lived in West Virginia, and that was my first time in McDowell County. I don’t exactly know what I was expecting. But whatever it was, those expectations were blown out of the water about five minutes after we arrived. The museum is beautiful, the performance space is fantastic, and I can honestly tell you that the people there were the kindest and most welcoming I’ve met anywhere in the state. I shook hands, I laughed, and I hugged more strangers than I could count. What an amazing place it is where John’s story began.

Our ride down there, on the other hand, that was a different kind of story. I think we found those roads that John wrote about – the ones made of gravel, and also dirt. But that’s probably one of those stories that you really needed to be there for to appreciate. 

The Middle

One thing that’s true about every story is that whether you start at the beginning, or you start at the end, the middle is always in the middle. And at the start of this story’s middle, I was still exhausted from the end of the beginning. 

It’s about 9:15 in the morning, and I’m in the middle row of a Honda Odyssey with a wide awake John Ellison in the front passenger seat and Michael Lipton driving. We’re headed downtown to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, which occupies two storefronts in the Charleston Town Center. 

Once we get there, we’re greeted by what appears to be an insane Englishman. He’s walking quickly toward us while yelling at John. For a second I can’t tell if he’s really English, or he’s acting out a scene from H.M.S. Pinafore. 

This is Gavin Wissen, the curator of the Hall of Fame Museum. As it turns out, he is an Englishman. Behold him. He came across some garage sale find of an old recording John made that he didn’t remember making, and Gavin was excitedly telling him all about it. 

The students from Tolsia High School arrived around 10:30. They were there to participate in the Hall of Fame’s Music Career Counseling Program. This is a really cool thing. I had the opportunity to see this program in action the week before at Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, but it’s just so much more intimate there at the museum. 

Michael was on the panel, and so was John. They were joined by John Ingram from Mountain Stage, and Jay Gilmer, who’s a member of the Theatrical Stage Union. Also up there was Vas Scouras, engagement director with the 84 Agency. They told the kids about all the different career paths available in the music and entertainment industry, and how so many of those jobs can be done from right here in West Virginia.

Watch the full WV Music Hall of Fame “Music Career Counseling Program” on The RealWV’s YouTube channel.

The kids were super engaged, and it was great to see. John sang some songs, and the kids sang with him. He told them about turning down an offer of $1.5 million for the rights to his music two years ago, and I saw a room full of shocked 16-year-old faces. Just imagine if they’d known about the lock on the refrigerator. 

One of the students asked a question about writing songs, and Michael says, “At the end of the day, jot things down about what you did. You can write a song about anything.”

Then Michael pointed at me.

“It’s like our friend Matt Young, he’s a writer,” Michael told the students. “He writes about lots of things, and he also writes about music.”

I smile like a dope because I don’t know what else to do. 

“Why are you pointing at me?” I think. “You guys up there are the ones who are doing it. I’m just the guy who tells people about it.”

When the program ended, John walked over to me. He smiles, and thanks me for the coffee I got him before the kids showed up. It was a complicated cup of coffee because he’s a rockstar, so of course it was. Chai, latte, grande, triple whip, double pump, extra hot – or something like that. Musicians, man. It’s coffee. As long as there’s coffee in it, it serves the purpose.

“You hanging out with us for Kimball tonight?” He asks.

I mounted some half-hearted protest, but we already know how the story ends. 

John Ellison, Jay Gilmer, and Vas Scouras talk to students from Tolsia High School at the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s Museum of Music in Charleston, May 10. Photo by Matthew Young, RealWV.

The Beginning

I’m in the back row of a Honda Odyssey. Jupie Little and John Ellison are in the middle, and Michael Lipton is driving. We just picked up Todd Withers, who’s in the front passenger seat, from the Marriott downtown, and we’re headed to Beckley so he can accept the “Hometown Legend” award on behalf of his late father, Bill. 

You know Bill Withers, even if you’ve never met him. There have been moments in your life when it was just the two of you, and he helped make it a lovely day. It’s four years now since he passed away, and there ain’t no sunshine since he’s been gone. 

I sat there looking at the backs of these guy’s heads, and I thought about how cool my job can be sometimes. How many people get to have these kinds of experiences? Not many, I wouldn’t think. Definitely not enough. 

John was talking about Yugoslavia. And after listening to his stories, I’ve come to realize that I probably don’t want to visit there. It may be very nice, I don’t know. And it’s very possible I’m missing out on something great. But his car broke down, he broke his foot jumping off a stage, and he got a worm infestation from eating unregulated meat. People tell me that sushi is delicious, but it’s still raw fish so I’m not eating it. I’m applying that same principle.

Apparently John had these worms living in his intestines for months and months, and he didn’t know. He found out they were there when they started coming out, and I’m not going to tell you how they started coming out. He had to take a course of giant worm poison pills to get rid of them, and again, I’m not going to tell you how they came out. 

Jupie Little, John Ellison, and Michael Lipton at the Beckley Convention Center, May 9. Photo by Matthew Young, RealWV.

By the time we got to the Convention Center, my throat hurt from the straight hour of laughing. I floated around the room taking pictures while John, Jupie, and Michael changed into their stage clothes. When it was time for Todd to accept the award, Michael went up on stage with him. 

“Since my father died, I can honestly say that our family has been humbled by all of the unlimited and overwhelming love and appreciation for my father’s music worldwide,” Todd told what was probably 200 people or more. “As a family, we’re still trying to protect his legacy, and hopefully bring his music to generations of fans.”

I thought about what Todd was saying, and about how heavy a weight it must be to carry and protect his father’s legacy. Then I thought about my father. Todd and I are about the same age, and both our fathers passed away close to the same time. Bill Withers’ legacy is in good hands I think. I saw the pride on Todd’s face when he accepted that award. But what about Bill Young’s legacy, am I doing all I should to protect it? 

I think maybe I met Todd because I was supposed to. Maybe I needed that reminder of how a son should honor his father. I think Todd is a very good teacher. His dad taught him that sometimes we all need somebody to lean on, and my day taught me that when somebody needs help, you help them. 

It’s pretty wild how things happen, or how you realize they’re happening. Beyond Bill Withers’ songs, there’s the idea of a strong connection to this place where he came from. I’m not even from West Virginia, and I felt it. Todd shared something with me that night, and I’m sure he shared it with a lot of other people too. So yeah, I think Bill Withers’ legacy is in good hands. 

Jupie Little, John Ellison, and Michael Lipton perform Bill Withers’ unreleased “Mama, West Virginia,” while Todd Withers watches from on stage. Beckley Convention Center, May 9.

After Todd finished speaking, Michael gave some remarks. He’s gotten friendly with the Withers family over the years, and Bill was one of the first inductees into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Michael spoke of a documentary that they had worked on together about West Virginia musicians, and he shared something Bill had told him while they were filming. 

“The challenge is to get young people who grow up in places like West Virginia to take the limits off of themselves, and realize there’s no magic that somebody else has in the world that they don’t.”

“They’re just people – and man, that’s a lot.” 

So that’s the beginning of my story. I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

Check out the band Can, because their drummer really is a rhythm machine, and it is a catchy song. Jot down the things you do during the day, because you really can write a song about anything. And seriously, stay away from Yugoslavia. 

Oh, and take the limits off yourself. There’s no magic that somebody else has in the world that you don’t. And if by some chance you ever find yourself in the back seat of a Toyota Tacoma at two in the morning with a sleeping John Ellison and an air-drumming Jupie Little, enjoy the moment. I know I did. 

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