Play That Song Again || Geography, family history and what it really means

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February 24, 2016

“There’s a place/Where I can go
When I feel low/When I feel blue…”
— Lennon and McCartney

This week I’ve been pondering songs about specific places. There are so many classic songs—think “Free Man In Paris” or “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” These are transcendent, captivating works of art. When done badly (I’m looking at you, “The Night Chicago Died” and “Feelin’ Groovy”) there is nothing more cringe-worthy. In previous blog posts, I’ve written about Texas, and magical musical moments that take you away, but let’s go on a real road trip, shall we?

Pack up your sunscreen, comfortable shoes and travel gear. Welcome to the Top Five, All-Time Songs About Places.

Number Five
“Mexico” by James Taylor

james taylorMore an idea than a real travelogue, I love this because it touches on longing, the pull of a place, the feeling it gives you.

Oh, Mexico
It sounds so simple I just got to go
The sun’s so hot I forgot to go home
Guess I’ll have to go now

It’s an open invitation to leave the mundane, day-to-day behind, and it’s revealed near the end that it really is just an illusion—a dream of what could be. Life is hard, pressures mount, the “baby’s hungry and the money’s all gone,” but…

Oh, Mexico
I never really been so I really don’t know.

Number Four
“Levelland” by James McMurtry

james mcmurtryIf you’re looking for the next John Steinbeck, look no further than James McMurtry, son of noted author (“Lonesome Dove,” “The Last Picture Show”) Larry McMurtry. Cinematic, heartfelt, this song takes us from the early Texas settlers to the modern day life in “fly over” country:

Flatter than a tabletop
Makes you wonder why they stopped here
Wagon must have lost a wheel or they lacked ambition one…

So they sunk some roots down in the dirt
To keep from blowin’ off the earth
Built a town right here
And when the dust had all but cleared
They called it Levelland

Take all the modern country music, any glossed-over saccharine lyrics of heartland values and throw them right out the window. Baritone guitar, four-piece rock and roll band, and the best depiction of small town life you’ll ever hear:

Granddad grew the dryland wheat
Stood on his own two feet
His mind got incomplete
and they put him in the home

Daddy’s cotton grows so high
Sucks the water table dry
His rolling sprinklers circle by
Bleedin’ it to the bone

From the grandparents to the parents, and the desperation of modern life:

Mama used to roll her hair
Back before the central air
We’d sit outside and watch the stars at night

She’d tell me to make a wish
I’d wish we both could fly
I don’t think she’s seen the sky
Since we got the satellite dish

So many details and specifics, I was surprised to hear (on the excellent “Live in Aught-Three” album) that it’s not really about Levelland, it’s about the nearby town of Floydada, Texas. “But,” McMurtry says, “Floydada didn’t fit the meter.”

Number Three
“Talk To Me of Mendocino” by Linda Ronstadt

Ronstadt_Linda_164.jpgIs that a cello crying to set the mood in the intro? You bet. The cello is, as we all know, the sexiest instrument ever. (Close second: saxophone.)

Once again, the idea, the longing for a deeper connection—

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes, I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow?
Won’t you say, “Come with me.”

This one takes us—literally and emotionally—from the east coast to Indiana and over the Rockies to the California coast. This song came back to me as I was winding north on the California coast a few summers ago, getting nearer and nearer to the small, beachfront town, singing full volume inside my motorcycle helmet, leaning through the curves on Highway 1.

And speaking of musical instruments setting the tone, check out those tin whistles and accordions in:

Number Two
“Dirty Old Town” by The Pogues

ThePoguesComing from everyone’s favorite Irish party band, I just assumed the “Dirty Old Town” was Dublin, or Cork. Not so. Written by Ewan MacColl in the late 40s, it was about Salford, Lancashire. Apparently the line “smelled the smoke on the Salford wind” did not sit well with the Salford town council, who wanted it changed to “smelled the spring on the smoky wind.” Sorry, folks, no can do. Most covers left the original line.

The detail and realism portrayed in the lyric is both laser-beam specific and completely universal. This song takes the grim, Dickensian view of an industrial town and injects it with some bittersweet romance:

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
Kissed a girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

And, as rarely happens today, “Dirty Old Town” does not shy away from the hard truth and ultimate degradation of the working class:

I’m going to make me a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree
Dirty old town
Dirty old town

Interestingly, and maybe only to keep one from crying in one’s Guinness, the song doesn’t end there, it repeats the romantic first verse again, suggesting a hopefulness, a willingness to look beyond the smoky skies and industrial wreckage.

And now, the Number One, All-Time Best Song About A Place:

Number One
“Walking In Memphis”by Marc Cohn

marc cohnRight off the bat, focused detail and a sense of a deeper story within the narrator:

Put on my blue suede shoes and
I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

W.C. Handy
Won’t you look down over me
Yeah, I got a first class ticket
But I’m as blue as a boy can be

As with the other songs on this list, it’s really a masterful combination of the real place; you can close your eyes and picture it and, if you’ve been there, it’s familiar. It’s also a story of what the place means, how it resonates in the hearts of people. And that’s what seems to be the common thread—we sing songs to commemorate a certain place, to mark a memory or to explain how that place makes us what we are. It might be a dream of Mexico, it might be your family history in dusty west Texas, a coal mining town in England or Beale Street in west Tennessee. You can go to that place. It speaks to you.

Now, they’ve got catfish on the table
They’ve got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green, be glad to see you
When you haven’t got a prayer
But boy, you got a prayer in Memphis.

Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and once ordered catfish in Memphis, only because of the Marc Cohn song.

Erik Christensen Band plays at The Taproom at Bayview Corner from 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1, the Penn Cove Musselfest from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 12 and Front Street Grill in Coupeville from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30.


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