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 None Newer Notes

Track of the Day: 'Twin Falls' by Built to Spill

A long-time reader, Adam Feiges, floats an idea:

I have a suggestion for a new theme for Track of the Day: songs that celebrate a specific place. (This theme would also dovetail with the America by Air series.) Two suggestions to kick things off: “I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman and “City of Immigrants” by Steve Earle.

Both songs are unabashed, upbeat, and unironic love songs to these iconic American cities. In a time when we are constantly bombarded by messaging that signals that somehow this country is something less than it once was, it is nice to be reminded that we are, in fact, the sum of all of our parts—and that the parts are actually (as Fallows points out) pretty great.

P.S. I only recently noticed the timing of the daily song release ;)

Great picks, though “I Love L.A.” was already featured in TotD (in our series of songs about complicated patriotism) and “City of Immigrants” doesn’t seem to be about a particular city. So I asked the discussion group of Atlantic readers known as TAD for further picks. But first, one of them begs to differ with Adam:

As a proud Angelino, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” is a sort of theme song and also the soundtrack of all of our many sporting achievements, but I’d hardly call it an “unabashed, upbeat, and unironic love song.” It’s very much a satirical take on the city. It includes lines like, “Look at that bum over there, man, he’s down on his knees.” Newman has said in interviews that he does in fact love L.A., but that song has deeper layers than it what it first appears to be.

Let’s go with “Twin Falls” for the first song in the new series, recommended by a reader in TAD:

I didn’t grow up in Twin Falls, Idaho, but I know it, and I grew up in a town just like it. Built To Spill’s nostalgic song about nostalgia gets it good.  

Listen and reminisce for yourself:

If you have a favorite song about a specific place, please send it along with a short description of why you love it so much—and perhaps the place as well: Update from Adam:

I re-listened to “City of Immigrants” and it is true that Steve Earle never actually mentions a specific place, but it is about NYC; it was on Earle’s album Washington Square Serenade, which is (mostly) an extended love letter to the Big Apple.

Regarding “I Love L.A.,” I always took the line about the bum to be a warts-and-all kind of reference.  As a teenager stuck in the heartland, that song represented the Los Angeles that I knew from the movies and pop culture.  Maybe to the locals it was a theme song, but for this Iowa boy, it was aspirational.

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

To get our new series going—songs about a particular place—here’s a classic pick and a wonderful memory from Jackie in Leonard, Maryland:

Georgia is my home state, and nobody, but nobody, could sing “Georgia on My Mind” as Ray Charles could. Charles was born in Macon, and I heard him sing the song live in Columbus, Georgia, in June 1962, right after I graduated from Baker High School. My date and I were the only white people there; Georgia was a segregated state then. But everyone there was cool with it, especially when they saw that we knew the words to all the songs and could dance well. The whole joint was rocking. It was a memorable night; I still have the program.

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

Yesterday we had Georgia on our mind, and in today’s track, from Otis Redding, he “left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay.” Here’s a reader in San Francisco, Doug:

For me, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” captures so much of the San Francisco experience (or at least the SF experience I’ve idealized): carefree, sitting overlooking the water, relaxing and listening to some amazing music. But as you can see from this playlist I made when I was moving back to California a few years ago, songs about California are kind of a dime a dozen (and I barely scratched the surface) …

If you have any reflections on a song about a specific place in California (real places—no Hotel Californias), drop us a note. Update from a reader in Oregon, Brian:

As an unabashed Pearl Jam fan, I have always been partial to their version of “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” from several different live shows. (As a matter of fact, they do some other fantastic covers you should consider as well.)

From another reader:

As a former San Franciscan, I’d like to point out that “Dock of the Bay” is not a San Francisco song but a Sausalito song—another city on the “Frisco” Bay. Although neither city name is mentioned, just the Bay. (And the City and County of San Francisco is named after the Bay, not the other way around.)

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

A song of longing from a reader in D.C., David:

“Galveston” is another in a line of lush, cinematic songs by songwriter Jimmy Webb. The original, iconic version by Glen Campbell was released during the Vietnam War, but the last few years make lines like “I clean my gun and dream of Galveston” as topical as you can get. Here’s the original version [above], as well as a cover by David Nail and Lee Ann Womack (the female harmony adds depth to the longing and fear of a young man at war).

Update from a reliable reader, Mike Kludt:

Speaking of Glen Campbell, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” has three places by itself. He also had “Wichita Lineman,” and I suppose you could count “Southern Nights” as a song about a place. The man was (is) an immense talent.

(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.)

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.)

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.)

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.)

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:

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:

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.)

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.)