By the time I get to Phoenix

Galveston, Alberquerque, Amarillo……. the sublime Wichita Lineman

What is it with place names in American music?

This is a question that has been exercising my mind for a long time. Whatever music you like, it cannot be denied that place performs a function in American music that is not replicated on these shores:.

We could visit five places in New England and take in the  Appalachian Spring

Meet  in  St Louis or dance the Harlem shuffle

And there are entire songs that revolve around place and street names – from  the appalling ‘What did Delaware?’  , to New York New York, Manhattan( arguably the greatest of all place name dropping songs) , Chicago, Route 66…..

Songs that let us know of exotic never to be visited places like Tacoma, Winnemucca, Lake Charles, Mendocino

And did you ever go to San Francisco ? Or back to Massachusetts? Crossed the Wainsborough County line on the way to Darlington County?.

Been frozen out on 10th avenue or danced on 42nd street?

There have been songs that are simply tributes to whole states: California girls, sweet home Alabama, that’s the way the girls are from Texas, oh Atlanta, carry me Ohio, Michigan, Colorado.

I could go on and on …Ill leave you to guess the songs. Feel free to suggest more but believe me – the list is very very long!

I’ve thought long and hard about our paltry contribution to this phenomenon. Too often trite, with misplaced humour – think of Winchester Cathedral or Billericay Dickie.

Sure we’ve had the Streets of London, left old Durham Town and caught the ferry cross the Mersey. Squeeze took us Up the Junction and we heard tell of the Hersham boys (with their rolled up corduroys!).

The evergreen and dependable Richard Thompson has made an effort to ground his songs in place – think of the Cooksfeery Queen, the free and fey heroine of the sublime Beeswing picking fruit in Kent or living on the Gower and that unforgettable Lightening Black Vincent 1952 taking Box Hill in its stride!

Manchester bands Doves have given us the M62 and Shadows of Salford, while Villiers Terrace was immortalised by Echo and the Bunnymen.

There is of course a distinct English/British folk and pastoralist tradition that has its root in places and villages, but so often the places depicted do not in themselves add colour or suggest a mood to the listener in the way of the American tradition. Rather the place simply acts as a label.

Of course I don’t want to over egg the pudding .There have been some real gems such as Waterloo sunset, Penny Lane and Guns of Brixton where the character of the place evoked by the song is central to its theme. And of course the heartfelt poetry of Housman set to music by Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, but it could be argued that’s cheating as the lyrics come from a literary and not a musical tradition.

I don’t want to suggest we Brits are not aware of place. But feel I am on strong ground in proposing that for our American cousins it’s a whole different ball game!

Why should this be the case?

Is it maybe because the States is such a vast continent compared to this little island of the North West coast of Europe and this allows the distinctiveness of each place to stand for something? Does place do for American music what class or accent does for ours?

I have no firm conclusions to offer just yet.

But one day I am going to compile a definitive list of all the places name checked  in American music and wager that  I can find a song for every state and major city and a fair few towns along the way. And that’s before I get to streets and avenues. Just going back over the Springsteen and Dylan catalogue will take some time!

Then I’m going to cross the pond, rent a Winnebago (or maybe a Cadillac) and visit some of them. If can persuade my old friend Richard (a great photographer and a music aficionado) to come with me even better. And I’ll get to the bottom of this phenomenon. And while we’re waking up to a Chelsea morning, catching the A train to Coney and eating Baloney,  or figuring out what they do on State Street that they don’t do on Broadway, we’ll also think about why Hull, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds don’t have a firm place in the language of song in England.

By the way, if there are any publishers out there that maybe want to advance me a few bucks to get the project underway (we can leave the TV rights to later), do give drop me a line!.

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2 thoughts on “By the time I get to Phoenix

  1. Mary says:

    Oh I don’t know Michael. Rusholme Ruffians and Cullercoats to Whitley Bay (rock away rock away) and Handsworth Revolution conjure up of a very 80s sense of place albeit in respect of smaller towns or districts. Bristol Song is more of a rap but I can’t find anything interesting about Hull either. Didn’t Paul Heaton hail from there. He’s almost a neighbour so perhaps he’s immortalised the place. As for Leeds!!

    Good luck with the road trip. Start with the ‘Apple stretching and yawning’ and be there when the ‘sun comes up on Santa Monica Boulevard’.

  2. Matt Smith says:

    I think we’ve a fair few songs about places. We just don’t necessarily put them into the title. What about Jimmy Nail’s “Big River” A memory of old Newcastle Quayside. “On the 303” by Kula Shaker which allegedly relates to travelling to and from Glastonbury.
    Maybe “It’s a long way to Tipperary”? Not really about Tipperary, but equally Tony Christies’ “Road To Amarillo” was about some girl he had the horn for rather than the town – exactly the same can be said of “By the Time I get to Phoenix” and probably a lot of others you’ve been thinking of. Maybe “She’s a Lassie from Lancashire” would be more comparable.

    Oh, and I mustn’t forget Spinal Tap’s “Stone Henge” 😛

    Also, our “paltry contribution” sometimes includes Brits writing songs about the USA. “Hey Manhattan!” by Prefab Sprout for example, or The Pogues’ “Thousands are Sailing”.

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