For The Sake Of The Song: Joan Armatrading “All The Way From America”

Kittitian-British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading’s ‘All The Way From America’ was the second single from her 1980 album ‘Me Myself I.’ The album, like the artist, was difficult to classify and may have come along too early for her to achieve the rock star status she deserved. Born on Saint Kitts and raised in Birmingham, England, Armatrading taught herself to play guitar on a cheap pawn shop guitar, since she was forbidden to play her father’s. She started out as a folk singer, with her first album released in 1972, and by the end of the decade was the first black British female songwriter to achieve international success. Although the world had already been introduced to Sister Rosetta Tharp, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotton, Bo Diddley’s Duchess, and Barbara Lynn, Armatrading stood out in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as a powerful guitar player and singer.

‘Me Myself I’ was stylistically mixed, with rock, blues, jazz, pop, folk, New Wave, country, and reggae thrown together. Although ignored by mainstream radio in the US and UK, it was a substantial college and indie radio station favorite that year. Music critics loved it. ‘All The Way From America’ may not fit in with the rest of the album’s tracks, with its twangy, mournful country guitar, plaintive vocals, and lyrics about geographical and emotional estrangement. It is about an exasperated woman in a long-distance relationship with a noncommittal lover in America who keeps promising to return. The lyrics perfectly capture the emotions and challenges of maintaining a connection across such a vast distance. She knows when to stop hoping for a future that never arrives and to move on. Armatrading sings, “You called all the way from America / But my heart couldn’t stand the pain of that promised love…I stayed all alone and I waited ’roundFor you to knock at my door / But the knock never came and no ring at all / And now I sit and wonder why / You made that first call.”

The song is from the pre-internet age when it took about a week for a letter to cross the Atlantic. Shockingly expensive overseas phone calls often had a randomly iffy quality with delays, static, and extraneous noise that made a conversation challenging. Even timing a call so that the five- to eight-hour time difference could work out required military-level planning. A long-distance relationship with so much unavoidable silence and expense was not for the faint of heart.

A notoriously and unapologetically private person, Armatrading has only provided a sliver amount of information about the song’s inspiration. The subject’s identity has never been divulged. She told Songfacts,That song was somebody who was in America who was trying to persuade me to go out with them and would call all the way from America when I got back to the UK.” She added in another interview, “He would phone…nice bloke, but obviously just going to be a friend.”

Producer Richard Gottehrer brought in New York session musicians and well-known artists for the album, including Clarence Clemons from the E Street Band, Chris Spedding, and Paul Shaffer, Hiram Bullock, and Anton Fig who would all go on to play in ‘Late Night With David Letterman’ house band. 

Armatrading has performed and delivered keynote addresses at americana festivals in recent years, and I have often wondered why there has been such a dearth of artists covering her songs. Luckily Joanne Shaw Taylor did a fabulous version of ‘All The Way From America’ – one very true to the original – in 2023 and introduced the song to a new generation.

About Kimberly Bright 85 Articles
Indiana native, freelance writer specializing in British, Canadian, and American music and cultural history, flyover states, session musicians, overlooked and unsung artists. Author of 'Chris Spedding: Reluctant Guitar Hero.' You can contact her at kimberly.bright@americana-uk.com.
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