“Battle Hymn”: An Excerpt From Willie Davis’s “I Can Outdance Jesus”

"I Can Outdance Jesus"

Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Willie Davis’s new collection I Can Outdance Jesus. Cara Blue Adams had this to say of the book: “Davis writes about the South, and especially rural Kentucky, in an unflinching way that weaves together humor and the darknesses of poverty, violence, addiction, and despair.” Read on for a glimpse inside Davis’s take on music, religion, and life.


Battle Hymn 

Anyone who speaks in my accent grew up primed for destructions. It comes as common to us as the knowledge to snarl during pain, so we try not to mourn. Each of us got swaddled at the base of headless mountains—chopped down first for the coal, then for the highways, and now out of tradition—and all we knew of homes was they were meant to change.  

I changed too. The question I field the most from any number of bitch or son thereof is, “What happened to you?  What happened to you?” I don’t imagine they’re looking for advice. Nothing happened. I was born up a holler-head, ran wild a spell, and I always sung when I could. I never known my father, which is not as uncommon as a three-nutted horse. I heard once that he wound up as a commercial fisherman in Maine, which is high on my list of places I don’t care about.  

My mother got her tongue cut out by tongue doctors when I was twelve, babbled around for a year and a half, and then bid us adieu. At least I assume it was adieu—without her tongue, it was hard for her to say much except for one long vowel sound. It’s sad, but I heard sadder. 

Learning guitar taught me a new way of fighting. Me and the Salyer boys would snort a line or two, then they’d holler at me until I sang. I sang old songs—the type of weepy ballad that is to East Kentucky what the National Anthem is to war. When I played on street corners in front of strangers, everyone acted kindly, but I figured that was mostly surprise at hearing a young boy sing old songs. 

So I sang their “Methodist Pie,” their “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew,” or their “Diamond Joe” and all the while shuck and grin. I meant it as spoiling for a fight, but I didn’t know what kind. Then one night when I was singing a gospel tune to some friends in my backyard, Oliver Penny, who’d just done three tabs of acid, misheard “Come now, Jesus, break this wall” as “Come now, Jesus, take this waltz.” As soon as Oliver could remember which way was inside, he fetched us a piece of paper where we scribbled our first song, “I Can Outdance Jesus.” 

We liked it so much that the next Sunday my buddies and I went to The Episcopal Church to sing it for the people leaving the sermon. As the Church folk filed out, I hit a few high strings and waited as they gathered around. Finally, I had enough of a crowd where I could begin.  

The song has a slow build: “I was in a nightclub in Jerusalem, in 22 AD,” I sang. “The band started playing, and on the dance floor, it was just Jesus and me.” The me in the song wins the dance contest with God’s eldest, and just as he receives his thorny dancing crown, the chorus begins:

                        I can outdance Jesus 

                        So won’t you dance with me? 

                        You can’t shimmy, and you can’t shake                         

                        With your feet nailed to a tree. 

                        I can outdance Jesus. 

                        O babe, I’m on a roll. 

                        He might be the king of the Jews,

                         But I’m the king of soul.  

Oliver Penny got spooked at singing blasphemy within  earshot of the lord, but the way I figure it, I’m Christlier than most people.  



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