Alan Jackson’s “Little Man” is an expression of his frustration towards corporations driving out small businesses in small town America and also more generally a frustration with a changing world and the loss of the way things were. The difficult personal circumstances Jackson was going through and the climate of the country music industry were key to the creation of the song as well as its success with audiences. It is evident that this period of change and loss was the impetus of “Little Man.” Upon examination of the structural and stylistic elements within the song parallels can be drawn from the story and themes within the song to events in Jackson’s life and his relationship to audiences and the industry. These themes of loss, change, and corporatization are conveyed through his choice of “verse-chorus” pattern as well as a refrain that changes slightly throughout the song.
The circumstances of Jackson’s personal life prior to the release of this song are important in further understanding it and they are surprisingly drama-filled considering that Jackson is typically known as being a shy and low-key individual. The inspiration for writing this song came during a five month separation with his wife while driving home after finding himself in Florida. On the road home, “Jackson drove through little southern towns where Wal-Marts and Home Depots have replaced local businesses” (Patterson). Jackson was not only dealing with the loss of his wife but was witnessing the remnants of dead communities as well. Understanding the different types of loss Jackson was going through gives insight into the types people who resonate with this song. Those who grew up in small communities, and who long for the days of the past will most likely connect with this song and because that requires past experience to long for those people are probably older.
A second major contributor to the climate around Jackson at the time was Jackson’s relationship to the country music industry as well as audiences. The relationship of the “Little Man” is to large retailers like Wal-Mart are similar to that of Jackson’s own relationship with the industry and radio. The year prior to releasing his song “Little Man,” Jackson was upset with the way that Nashville had been treating the old greats like Merle Haggard and George Jones, and made a stand during the 1999 CMAs. In the middle of his performance of his latest song “Pop a Top” Jackson stopped and played a portion Jones’s comeback hit “Choices”. Once the audience realized what was happening, “applause rang out in the hall. By the end the audience was on its feet, giving him a standing ovation,” showing that the older way of country music is something that audiences still want (Strauss). Jackson notes that radio programmers might not like “Little Man” because, “the Haggard-style lament… critiques the way that big retail chains like Wal-Mart have put so many mom and pop shop-owners out of business,” similar to Nashville throwing older country styles to the wayside in favor of something new (Friskies-Warren). Jackson’s push against Nashville put him in the favor of audiences were thirsty for more “traditional country”, and “the kinds of records that George, Merle, and other singers… have made,” (Alan Jackson). Furthermore, the demographics of people longing for more traditional music relate to a song about the loss of small town cultures to large corporations.
Now that the circumstances and inspirations behind “Little Man” are understood, and Jackson’s themes of loss and fondness to the past have been defined, knowing in what ways those themes are communicated is important. The general “verse-chorus” structure of the song is one of the most significant factors in conveying the themes and emotions in a relatable way. The song opens with two verses followed by a chorus and repeats that pattern again. In the first verse an image of how the town used to be is created in the listener’s mind through Jackson’s lyrics and nostalgic tone. The following verse then fast forwards to the present where the memories in the previous verse are spoiled by the current reality. The chorus then comes in and drives home the theme of the song. This pattern is highly effective at creating nostalgia for the and disdain for the present. This pattern does not continue throughout the rest of the song, and this change in pattern is especially effective at allowing the theme of the song to hit home with the listener. Instead of following the second chorus with a verse, it is followed up by and instrumental. This allows the listener to project their own experiences onto the lyric-less section creating a deeper connection to the song. This verse-chorus structure pattern that is set up and then broken effectively communicates the theme and promotes emotional connection.
Finally, a unique aspect of this song that Jackson expertly uses is a refrain that changes when used in the verses but remains the same when used in the chorus. In the chorus the refrain is, “And killed the little man / Oh the little man,” while the verses swap out “and killed” with other actions like “There goes” and “God Bless”. The refrain is used in the chorus to show the end result or the product of the changing world: the little man is dead. Every time the chorus is repeated and ends in the refrain the listener is reminded that the story told in the verses didn’t have a happy ending. The purpose of the the refrain at the end of the verses is different. They show different stages of the slow and eventual death of the little man. In the first verse the action of the little man is “were”, it is past tense but still a “to be” verb. As the song progresses the actions get progressively less optimistic, the progress from going to being forgotten and eventually getting killed. The final refrain that concludes the song is a little different, it is Jackson speaking directly to “The Little Man”. Jackson sings, “Long live the little man / God bless the little man.” In these two lines Jackson conveys a multitude of emotions and says a lot with very little. He is paying his respects like one would to a dead person, and there is a palpable sense of finality to the death. There is however a glimmer of hope in Jackson’s voice, as if, with God’s help, the little man might escape the lion’s den and make it out of the desert in spite of it all, or at the very least won’t be forgotten.
The theme of loss is present across Jackson’s album “High Mileage” especially in his song “Little Man” where he wistfully laments the loss of small towns to big money. Jackson’s personal circumstances influenced him to create such a powerful song and the conflict between Nashville and those missing how country used to be meant audiences were thirsty for the type of song that Jackson felt compelled to put out. In conveying these themes Jackson used some stylistic and structural elements in creative ways. He made a pattern of verses and chorus to create nostalgia that he later broke to allow the audience to project. In addition Jackson utilized a changing refrain to represent the different stages of the death of the little man. These very apparent themes allowed not audiences from small towns to relate to this nostalgic song but also people nostalgic for days past. As a whole “Little Man” by Alan Jackson is an exemplum of how inspiration, timing, and artistic skill can combine to convey sad themes such as the loss of a community effectively to a variety of audiences.
Friskies-Warren, Bill. “Back in the Ode Country.” Http://www.washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post, 28 Nov. 1999. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
Strauss, Neil. “A Lot About Tradition (and a Little ’bout Independence).” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Jan. 2000. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
Patterson, Jim. “Hard Year for Alan Jackson Translates into Strong New Album 10/13/98.” Amarillo Globe-News. 13 Oct. 1998. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
1999 CMA Music Awards. CBS, Nashville, 23 Sept. 1999. Television.