Songs of Place

Some months back I heard Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Southern Cross” on the radio. I had not heard it before, and it caught my fancy.  The first two verses go: “Got out of town on a boat goin’ to Southern islands
Sailing a reach before a followin’ sea
She was makin’ for the trades on the outside
And the downhill run to Papeete

Off the wind on this heading lie the Marquesas
We got eighty feet of the waterline nicely making way
In a noisy bar in Avalon I tried to call you
But on a midnight watch I realized why twice you ran away.”

I’m not really thrilled with the main bulk of the song, aside from the tune, but the opening reminded me of so many of the songs I grew up with. And when I found a recording on Ewe-Tube, the next song it cued up was the Eagles’ “Seven Bridges Road.”

“There are stars/ In the Southern sky
Southward as you go
There is moonlight/ And moss in the trees
Down the Seven Bridges Road”

I love the close a capella harmony in the opening and closing, and I love the opening words. I can see the live oaks and heavy dew of far southern Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana in the words.

“Southern Cross” reminded me how many songs of place I listened to, and memorized, growing up. Gordon Lightfoot was always singing about the sea, about railroads crossing the land, and I loved singing along with “Ghosts of Cape Horn” and “Christian Island” and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” DadRed grew up salt-water sailing with his brother, and the sea chantys on DadRed’s recordings, and the ballads MomRed sang as lullabies were about the sea and place. “Farewell to Nova Scotia” was one of the first songs I ever performed in public, in Nova Scotia, to friends of the family. I was three and a half, and memorized the whole thing. (I think, at that point, my parents realized they were doomed to have another generation of music in the family.) Later Ian Tyson’s ballads caught my ear. There are other songs of place, ballads, tributes like Alabama’s “Song of the South,” which describes the hard-scrabble 1930s.

Songs of going out, of coming home, of wishing for home, or swearing never to go back. They are work songs, love songs, bitter, bitter ballads like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (by Brad Paisley, sung by Patty Loveless) that talks about a family who thought they’d escaped the mountains and hollers, until the Depression sent them back to work as miners on land they’d once owned as a farm. Songs of harvest and happiness.

Last year for a concert I sang “Across the fields,” that perfectly fits late summer, and the long, cold autumn days of the northern Plains. The composer was from Minnesota, and I could hear in his music autumn near Morehead, MN, there on the edge of the prairies.  (There is a better recording of this on EweTube, but it is link-locked).

I’m not certain why songs of place stick with me. Maybe it is because I tend to be drawn to landscapes, to the “why” of the land and the people living on it. And perhaps it is no more than nostalgia for what I grew up with.

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6 thoughts on “Songs of Place

  1. I get the nostalgia aspect. My family used to have a boat and we’d go out on summer days and crank up the local country music station. There’s still songs that I remember as “boat songs” whenever they come on the radio.

  2. All storytelling works by resonance. Songs and poetry (and ad jingles) work really, really hard on it because they have so much information and emotion they want to convey limited by so few words (helped a lot by instrument, style, voices, etc.) Since “place” has a strong emotional component for you, songs that resonate with “place” will be more attractive for you.

    I’ve noticed that most songs that resonate strongly to place, though, are trying to tell a story around it: the made-for-pop country songs that just want to hit a bunch of locations for broad market appeal rarely have any staying power. Southern Cross, Seven Bridges Road, Hotel California, You’ll never Leave Harlan Alive, Strawberry Wine, Walk on the Ocean. Beloved (VNV Nation’s version)… they’re hitting at least on other strong emotional component. Love, loss, nostalgia, horror…

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