David Ackles

The Road To CairoDavid Ackles
Down RiverDavid Ackles
Out On The RoadSubway To The Country
Inmates Of The InstitutionSubway To The Country
Love's EnoughAmerican Gothic
Waiting For The Moving VanAmerican Gothic
Another Friday NightAmerican Gothic
Montana SongAmerican Gothic
House Above The StrandFive & Dime
One Good Woman's ManFive & Dime



Contributor: Kasper Nijsen

If American singer-songwriter David Ackles (1937-1999) is still remembered among a wider audience today, we have to thank his colleagues Elton John and Elvis Costello – see them discussing his music here along with a very short clip of David singing. Their cover of Down River is the most-watched ‘Ackles’ video on YouTube. Elton met Ackles way back in 1970, when Ackles was the opening act for the upcoming songwriter’s American debut. At the time, the latter wasn’t entirely comfortable with the hierarchy. After all, Ackles had been an important source of inspiration to him.

By that time, David Ackles had two records out, with two more to come. His self-titled first album was a folk-rock affair backed by the members of Elektra’s Rhinoceros formation. It contains his two best-known songs: Down River and The Road To Cairo.

Down River was covered by The Hollies and Spooky Tooth, but Ackles himself did it best. A gloomy piano progression accompanies the story of a released convict who returns to his sweetheart, only to find out she has left him for an old school-friend. In the final verse he bids her farewell and declares, ‘Me? I got things to do.’ As the swirling organ and frantic guitar solo, courtesy of Doug Hastings, careen the song to an unsettling climax, we hesitate to think what ‘things’ exactly the singer has got ‘to do’.

Another specimen of human driftwood tells the tale of The Road To Cairo. This rambler’s motto, ‘You’ve got to take more than you give,’ is a far cry from The Beatles’ inane meditation on the love you make/take (it’s closer to Richard Thompson’s ‘Take a heart and break it while you can’). That being said, Ackles’ drifter is so ashamed of his choices that he feels unable to return to his former wife and ‘children poor as sin’. It is no coincidence that the song was also released in a French-language version; a distinctive influence on Ackles’ work was the tradition of chansonniers like Jacques Brel.

This is pretty bleak material to be sure, and during one of his performances Ackles told his audience cheerfully that razor blades would be handed out when his set was finished. Yet this comment shows the darkly humorous side of his temperament as well, which also appears on Laissez-Faire. This ‘topical’ song against tax-paying is sung by a destitute character who declares, ‘I just got one roll-away bed, that they want to roll away’.

There’s many more stories to tell about both David Ackles (1968) and the subsequent three albums: the ambitious Subway To The Country (1969), the masterpiece American Gothic (1972), a ground-breaking exploration of American dreams and nightmares once hailed as the ‘Sgt. Pepper of Folk’, and the varied final song collection Five & Dime (1973). And if we’re playing the comparison game, I could suggest that among 60s/70s singer-songwriters, Ackles’ mature and literate compositions bear perhaps most similarities to the songs of a Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen.

I could also go on about Ackles’ use of musical influences from Aaron Copland to Kurt Weill, or his way of incorporating different voices and choruses to tell his dramatized stories. I could cite Love’s Enough and House Above The Strand as nearly perfect in-love songs, Waiting For The Moving Van and One Good Woman’s Man (that melody!) as the most heartbreakingly beautiful of farewell ballads, and the epic narrative of rural nostalgia called Montana Song as one of the most ambitious – and, to my mind, successful – things attempted in popular music to this day.

But in the end, it’s Ackles himself who tells his tales best. His unique blend of classical and theatre music with rock, folk and jazz sensibilities, his intimate yet resonant baritone, are the perfect medium for his message.

Ackles’ greatest gift is his genuine love and compassion for the troubled characters that populate his dark vision of America: the ramblers and gamblers, native Americans and Puritans, lovers and loners, Vietnam veterans and escaped convicts. All are caught up in that great whirlwind of changes we call the twentieth-century, struggling with the trials of the times and their own hearts.

As Ackles puts it on his final album: ‘All you have to do is listen!’.

David Ackles official website

David Ackles Facebook fan group

David Ackles Chords – lyrics and music

David Ackles biography (iTunes)

American Gothic in full on YouTube

Postscript: In 2007, a two-disc compilation featuring David Ackles’ three Elektra albums (along with several outtakes) was set to be released on Rhino Records. There Is a River: The Elektra Recordings, as it was titled, was unfortunately withdrawn shortly before its actual release, so fans and the general public are still waiting for a reissue that does justice to the full range of his recorded output. KN

TopperPost #117


  1. Stephen
    Nov 5, 2013

    A brilliant summary and inspired choices. His Name is Andrew is the only song I would have included.

  2. Stephen Lawrence
    Nov 5, 2013

    Great piece by Kasper whom I’m familiar with from the David Ackles facebook page & who puts a lot of effort into making sure David’s music is not forgotten. Fine selection of songs but, like Stephen, I would have “His Name is Andrew” in any Ackles top 10. I feel this track is the best example of the alienation that runs through David’s music, many of his characters seem to be at odds with the world & their place in it (“Candyman” is perhaps the most extreme example). A pity so few people know this wonderful singer/songwriter & thanks to Kasper for trying to change this.

  3. Rob Millis
    Nov 5, 2013

    Ah, the organ playing of Michael Fonfara. A talent as sadly oft-forgotten as Ackles himself. Lovely piece, a great read.

    • Kasper Nijsen
      Nov 5, 2013

      Thanks. He played on the entire album didn’t he? I must say, there’s some amazing organ playing on there.

      • Rob Millis
        Nov 7, 2013

        Yes, if I remember rightly. Rhinoceros are sometimes derided as being a bit plodding and lumpen; I’ve always thought many bands were far worse and get away with murder and would be nowhere near as effective in a “house band” role. Didn’t the guitarists join Iron Butterfly? Now THERE is lumpen!

  4. Peter Viney
    Nov 5, 2013

    I’m trying to work out why no one has mentioned Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and the Trinity yet. Their version of Road To Cairo must be the best known track, or is it just me?

    • Kasper Nijsen
      Nov 6, 2013

      Ah yes, I did mention that one but cut it out for space (and because I find her vocal a bit too shrill for my taste). There’s a few other covers that would have been worth mentioning: His Name Is Andrew by Martin Carthy, Blue Ribbons (originally written for Cher!) by Louisa Jane White, Subway to the Country by Harry Belafonte.

  5. Merric Davidson
    Nov 6, 2013

    Scary. Am just listening to Martin Carthy’s excellent 1971 album Landfall which contains said, His Name Is Andrew. Spooky too!

    • Ian Ashleigh
      Nov 6, 2013

      Who is brave enough to tackle a TopperPost for Mr Carthy?

  6. Merric Davidson
    Nov 6, 2013

    I think, Ian, you just may be that brave man!

    • Ian Ashleigh
      Nov 6, 2013

      No pressure then 🙂

  7. Peter Viney
    Nov 6, 2013

    I know what Kasper means about Julie Driscoll, but I’d state it as “icy” rather than “shrill.” Actually, there were a few female singers who could touch “fingernail on blackboard” sensations in me … Joan Baez particularly. Now I find they’re fine … Joan’s voice has dropped obviously. But a producer explained it to me differently. Everyone loses the highest registers with age, and he said “You just can’t hear the highest bits anymore.”

  8. Dave Stephens
    Mar 30, 2023

    Out of the blue, I suddenly asked myself “I wonder if anyone’s done David Ackles on Toppermost?”, so here I am. Can I go on record with a big thanks to Kasper for putting together an excellent Topper and remark that it’s great to see from the Comments that David has certainly not been forgotten. I have to add my name to the list of those who miss “His Name Is Andrew” but it’s not just that track, it’s the whole debut album which continues to fascinate after all these years (though I wouldn’t downplay the others unduly). That’s not because of the presence of “Cairo” and “Down River” – if anything these are among my less played numbers– it’s the other tracks which continue to work their spells. One that I certainly would have included is “Blue Ribbons”. While it might be that magnificent slab of tumbling melody which appears when what I’d guess you’d call the chorus arrives– though that word just doesn’t have the right ring about it – or my continued pondering of those intriguing lyrics or just the manner in which David and the ensemble put it all together so beautifully, I know not, but for me it’s a masterpiece. Thank you again Kasper for reminding me again of the great David Ackles, an unclassifiable musical genius.

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