Reporter's Notebook

Your Favorite Songs About a Place
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Readers select their top track about a particular place and share their reflections on it.

Show 2 Newer Notes

Track of the Day: ‘Flint (for the Unemployed and Underpaid)’ by Sufjan Stevens

A reader has trouble picking one song for the series:

I like Beirut’s “Santa Fe” and Weird Al’s “Albuquerque.” (I grew up in New Mexico.) There are so many good answers to this, but I think most of Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinois is amazing, even if I have no personal ties to that region.

Sufjan’s other state-based album, Michigan, is nearly as good as Illinois, and I do have personal ties to Michigan—I was born in Alma and my dad now lives in East Tawas—but I haven’t live there much at all, let alone Flint. So if any Flint natives want to reflect on your city, especially in light of the horrible water crisis, drop me a note and I’ll update.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A reader in Massachusetts writes, “As a displaced Angeleno in New England, this song takes me back to L.A. in every way.”

The video below presents a version of the song remixed by Diplo and illustrated with various scenes from Wattstax. What’s Wattstax?

It was a benefit concert organized by Stax Records to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 riots in the African-American community of Watts, Los Angeles. The concert took place at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 20, 1972. The concert’s performers included all of Stax’s prominent artists at the time. The genres of the songs performed included soul, gospel, blues, funk, and jazz. The concert was filmed by David L. Wolper’s film crew and was made into the 1973 film titled, Wattstax. The film was directed by Mel Stuart and nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Documentary Film in 1974.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

From a long-time reader in Bend, Oregon:

For your Track of the Day series about specific places, I respectfully submit a song about West Berlin: “Heroes” by David Bowie and Brian Eno. It is, as everyone knows, beautiful and inspiring. The West Berlin lyrics:

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

Reader Sam suggests a number of cover songs, but my favorite is a bit more fitting for our location series than our cover series:

The Toots and the Maytals version of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” you posted [along with a wistful Japanese-language version] is magnificent (and I love the substitution of “West Jamaica/mountain mama” in the lyrics). But I also find it hard to beat Mike Doughty’s version (with Rosanne Cash on backing vox) from his album The Flip Is Another Honey. That album also included his reinterpretation (can’t really call it a cover) “Sunshine,” with a great John Denver sample from “Sunshine On My Shoulders.”

Houses on Penny Lane in Liverpool, England (Wiki)

One of my other favorite cover songs is when Elvis Costello covered his friend, early producer and label-mate Nick Lowe’s song “When I Write The Book,” interpolating his own “Everyday I Write The Book.” The best version I’ve heard was his last appearance on Letterman, but I haven’t found it online anywhere. This version is almost as good.

Elvis does a wonderful job with cover songs; his version of “Penny Lane” at the White House is masterful, with a beautiful trumpet solo by MSgt Matthew Harding of the USMC band. [Embedded above]

The cover that's been occupying a lot of my attention lately has been Shearwater’s full-length cover of David Bowie’s Lodger album. They did it for the AV Club and have just released a very limited-edition vinyl copy. Really nice. They also did a covers album a few years ago, covering artists they’d toured with. Their version of Xiu Xiu's “I Luv The Valley OH!!” is great.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

The song isn’t about the city itself, but rather a train called City of New Orleans, which travels overnight between Chicago and NOLA:

A reader in Houston, Dan, knows that train well:

My father and mother met on a train in Louisiana in 1941. My father, a 25 year old from Appleton, WI, was in the army (yes, pre-Pearl Harbor) and was coming back from his mother’s funeral. My mother, a 16 year old from Franklin, LA, in St Mary’s Parish, was introduced to my father by the nuns she was traveling with.

They corresponded throughout the war (my father saw much combat in Europe with the First Special Service Forces) and he proposed in a letter. They married when he returned in 1946. My grandfather said he knew the Civil War was over when his daughter married a Yankee.

Ah, but that is not the City of New Orleans.

The train in 1964 (Wikimedia)

During my childhood my family spent every summer in Louisiana and every winter in Wisconsin (there was something wrong with that picture). In 1963 I was five years old and my oldest brother was 14. Our mother was already in Louisiana with two of my siblings, and for some reason, the folks decided it would be a good idea for my brother and me to take the train down—just the two of us. We took the City of New Orleans. And instead of getting a roomette (I can hear my father say it would be a waste of money to get a roomette for those kids), we just had second-class seats.

We made it to New Orleans, complete with a change in depots in Chicago. At one point I got mad at my brother for trying to make me eat Jell-O with fruit in it. I got so mad I walked back from the dining car to our seats on my own. I am still not quite sure how I found the seats; I was 5, for crying out loud!

It was a fun trip. AND I get to tell anyone who cares that I rode on the City of New Orleans.

Update from a reader, Greg (who might not have seen our previous TotD linking to the Guthrie and Goodman versions):

I have a low opinion of Willie Nelson’s recording of “City of New Orleans.” I don’t detect any modifications to Arlo Guthrie’s interpretation (which is substantially different from Steve Goodman’s original) that he may have made, save for changing “Good night, America, how are you” at the end to “Good morning.” Hell, I wonder if Nelson changed that lyric simply because it’s a downer if it’s interpreted metaphorically.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A regular Notes contributor, Diane, adds to the most popular location in our series so far:

You posted “Lake Shore Drive” [and “Dennehy”], but a more representative song for the real Chicago is one by Steve Goodman about the “Lincoln Park Pirates,” which was really a sardonic take on a notorious towing company called Lincoln Park Pirates. (Goodman is also known for “City of New Orleans”—made famous by Arlo Guthrie—and for a Cubs song [“A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request”] that is on the minds of many this year.)  I believe his ashes were scattered at Wrigley Field after his untimely death. Oh, and the towing company still exists.

If any NOLA residents have a good memory of “City of New Orleans,” drop us a note.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Dylan is the latest reader to add to our placed-based series:

My closely guarded secret is that I grew up in West Virginia not really liking John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” This is sacrilege. The song is deified in the Mountain State. It’s the official state anthem. (This is odd because the lyrics actually invoke geography—Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River—that actually describes the Commonwealth of Virginia, not West Virginia.)

Nevertheless, for the past 29 years, “Country Roads” has permeated my life. My first grade class performed it in the lunchroom, even accompanying it with sign language. During our high school trip to New York City, Jamaican steel drum players heard where we were from and ecstatically chimed out the tune unprompted. After moving out of state, it has become a common reference point when I was asked where I’m from. And every West Virginia wedding I go back for ends in everyone forming circle on the dance-floor, arms intertwined and singing, “Take me home, to the place, I belongggggggggg.”

But the song eventually caught up to me. Maybe it’s the charm of a gorgeous melody sung with quavering loneliness. Maybe it’s the lyric “almost heaven,” which recognizes the feeling of living somewhere that is simultaneously beautiful and undeniably impoverished. Maybe it’s the magic of a song that ushered me into adulthood, whether I liked it or not. Whatever it is, it worked.

For a few fantastic covers of that country song, check out our note featuring a reggae version from Toots and the Maytals and a German-language version by Dieter Dornig. Bring mich nach Hause!

Update from reader Jeremy, who can relate to hearing the German rendition up close:

All you Chicagoans out there can probably relate to reader Max:

So, I’m a transplant to Chicago, and am sure that you will be inundated by songs about New York (my real hometown) and Los Angeles (where I spent my late 20s). While I don’t think any song can accurately capture a city in its totality, I think Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” captures the feeling of driving on the iconic roadway in Chicago, at a particular time in the past. The blue lights and the concrete mountains all speak to the place as it was in the ’60s and ’70s. The blue lights are gone, replaced with bright yellow lights that produce the worst light pollution in the world (We’re #1, We’re #1). The area they were driving to is the Gold Coast, now called the Viagra Triangle … someone should put that in a song.

Or a web series:

Max adds:

Skip Haynes redid “Lake Shore Drive” after the Blizzard of 2011, which snowed in LSD. Love his version too.

Those lyrics are below:

As someone who’s lived in four Brooklyn neighborhoods, I’m getting a bit maudlin over this first pick from reader Doug:

“Tourniquet” by Hem and “I and Love and You” by The Avett Brothers evoke a very specific time and place for me during the six months I spent living in Brooklyn interning in the winter and spring of 2013. Both of these songs were released around then, and they served different purposes for me: “Tourniquet” was a song that put names to all of the neighborhoods surrounding me that I was coming to know. “I and Love and You” felt dead on to me, because that was very much what I was looking for at the time: a city to take me in.

If you have any nostalgia bound up in a song based on a specific place, please drop us a note and we’ll post.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Reader Doug tosses out another song for the series, and this one is based on two places really:

A little bit of a curveball, but after four years living in West Philly, I feel like this might be one of the closest connections between a location and a song (among people of a certain age). EVERY time you mention West Philly to an ’80s/’90s kid, there’s almost a 100% chance they start quoting the Fresh Prince theme song back at you.

Even if you watched the show religiously, as I did, there’s a good chance you haven’t heard the full version of the song, embedded above. Here’s the uncut version of the show’s intro, which is a few scenes short of the one that aired every episode. For a different kind of bonus track, here’s one of many examples of someone getting prank-called under the guise of the Fresh Prince:

That same Christian show actually got Fresh Prince’d a second time. And then there was C-SPAN.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A choice recommendation that’s already stuck in my head, from reader Lucy:

Hands down, my favorite Chicago song is the bouncy, over-the-top track “Dennehy” by local rapper/alternative hip-hop persona Serengeti. He’s singing in character here—the character of a blue-collar, thickly Chicago-accented local sports superfan “Kenny”—but the slapstick performance doesn’t poke fun. Rather, it’s a toast to working-class men in boring, off-the-tourist-map neighborhoods all over Chicago who love their wives, love their pickup softball games, and truly, truly, love the city of Chicago.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A reader recommends the stirring hymn, “Partly because I’m from Africa, but mostly because it is just a beautiful song.” The version above is sung by a massive crowd led by Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Paul Simon. Here’s some background for “Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika”:

[It’s] a hymn originally composed in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, a Xhosa clergyman at a Methodist mission school near Johannesburg [South Africa]. The song became a pan-African liberation anthem and was later adopted as the national anthem of five countries in Africa including Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe after independence. Zimbabwe and Namibia have since adopted new national anthems. The song is currently the national anthem of Tanzania and, since 1994, a portion of the national anthem of South Africa.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)