photo by Shannon Claire
by Michael Todd
About five years ago, Manny Coon was born, and about five years ago, he wrote the long, sad tale of "Sweet Virginia." Funny how quickly kids pick up songwriting these days.
That's not true. Manny Coon is Elliot Wegner, a bushy-bearded, tattooed 26-year-old with a good laugh and a love for fishing. Five years ago, Wegner had just turned in his electrical instruments for something that suited someone at school in Norfolk without a band. He'd soon become an electrician by trade who made his hardly-hushed folk singer stage name, Manny Coon, on the downtown circuit of Lincoln, Neb.
This Wednesday, Wegner celebrates his first five years as a solo artist by enlisting a few friends to play with him at Duffy's Tavern. Dubbed the Spotlight Killers, Wegner's backing band is a collection of musicians from the scene including Terry McGinn from Triggertown, Pat Bradley from The Amalgamators, Joe Salvati and Jon Augustine from Kill County, and Nick Westra from Crush The Clown on drums.
HN: When and where does the story take place in your mind?
EW: I’d say maybe the 1930s or ‘40s.
HN: Do you picture it as being in the Midwest generally?
EW: Yeah, I do. When I was writing it, it seemed like a desperate era or had a desperate background to it. I wrote this song almost five years ago, so I have to think about it to try to remember what was going through my head when I was writing it.
HN: Does the story still resonate with you now five years after writing it?
EW: I think the story still means a lot, and it’s fun that you mention that. Not too long ago, I got a Facebook message from a woman that had heard the tune. She had a stillbirth, went through some altercation, and the story of the song happened to her.
She went as far as messaging me about it to say the song was fairly accurate and she found something that was comforting, which sounds macabre, but it must have seemed appropriately written.
HN: Do you think years down the road, songwriters will be writing folk songs like this about people or characters of 2012?
EW: It’s possible. That’s such a romantic era (the '30s and '40s), but I could see this era being romantic for someone 30 or 40 years down the line. With the recession and everything, they’re suffering a little but not as much as they were back then.
HN: What does it feel like to create a story within a song where the characters go through hardship? Do you sympathize with them as you create them?
EW: Oh, absolutely. I have such a backward writing method. I usually start in the middle, and the stories kind of spur off of there. I can sympathize with the characters in the tunes. A little bit of every character comes from something I’ve been through, or I’ve read, or someone that I’ve known.
HN: And how would you describe your writing process. You said you start somewhere in the middle?
EW: Yeah, usually I’ll start with a hook or a few lines or so, and it evolves from there. The catalyst is usually somewhere in the middle unless I’m intentionally writing a certain story. I try not to be too autobiographical because that’s too revealing. I like to have my anonymity if I can.
HN: Sure. Do you feel the same way with the name that you go by on stage? Does that help with the anonymity?
EW: Yeah, a little bit. It’s funny because I still have coworkers or people that I work with on job sites that will see something in the newspaper about me, and they’ll say, “There’s this guy, and they look just like you, but his name’s different.” And I usually just keep that to myself, I let them go with that (laughs), because it’s hilarious.
Capo on third fret
There is a girl in my town named Virginia
And she’s pretty as the day is long
She was married to a salesman who was always on the road
Yes, she wed a man that always would be gone
And I know that love wasn’t part of their marriage
And I know that soon enough, she would have left
But the dame was with child with no one to take care of
That baby boy that lay beneath her dress
It’s been a hard nine months for sweet Virginia
And I know that things were getting worse
‘Cause no later was her boy born, they laid him in the ground
Yes, his date of death the same as his birth
And yes, that doctor said that there were complications
And yes, that doctor said it truly was a shame
Not the death of the child but the absence of a man
There was no father there to give his son a name
And yes, the next time that I saw my sweet Virginia
Yes, her stomach it was flat, her eyes were gray
And the only thing that showed was the box of baby clothes
That she was taking to Parrish thrift that day
And upon the sun-blistered lips of sweet Virginia
They asked me how in the hell did you get through all your pain
I said through giving up and trying, and through booze and cigarettes
And through trying not to do it all in vain
That was the last time that I saw my sweet Virginia
Yes, all her meds they did little work to aid
The hollow-hearted mother without a branch to grab
It was her broken heart that led her to her grave
And if you listen very close during twilight
Through the bushes you can hear it all deploy
The sweetest lullaby that your ears have ever heard
From a joyful mother to her darling boy
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. He heard this song for the first time in Casey Welsch's car back in 2010, and he hopes more people listen to music for the first time with someone else. It's a good memory. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.