“Lord, Have Mercy on My Soul”: Sin, Salvation, and Southern Rock

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“Lord, Have Mercy on My Soul”: Sin, Salvation, and Southern Rock

by J. Michael Butler
Southern Cultures, Vol. 9, No. 4: Winter 2003

"The band delighted in sharing their bottle of Jack Daniels with a chimpanzee."

In 1971 the five-member rock-and-roll group Black Oak Arkansas released their debut album. The songs on the record illuminated themes addressed by Black Oak and the larger “southern rock movement.” Most southern rock lyrics glorified such stereotypically male values as fighting, gambling, and sexual conquests. Two other songs, “The Hills of Arkansas” and “When Electricity Came to Arkansas,” revealed a love of state and region that also permeated southern rock lyrics. Yet the most lyrically intriguing song on Black Oak Arkansas was titled “Lord Have Mercy on My Soul.”

Although most Black Oak songs were anything but serious, “Have Mercy” began with the deep, solemn voice of lead singer Jim “Dandy” Mangrum accompanied only by a church organ. The spoken introduction recited the story that Mangrum eventually sang. In a somber tone, Mangrum vividly described how he recently “walked through the halls of Karma” and “shook hands with both the devil and God,” whom he “respected” and had “run with” throughout his life. While the devil possessed his body and God possessed his mind, he explained, his soul currently belonged to both. Mangrum recalled that as they considered his eventual fate, the devil became excited while the Lord expressed sympathy. At the thought of facing God on judgment day, Mangrum begged, “Lord, please have mercy on my soul.” The constant repetition of this line at the song’s end conveyed the sincere concern the band felt for their spiritual salvation.