How we see it

Dec 16th, 2008 | By | Category: International

Tennessee was the best piece in the jigsaw; much more interesting than the great bulk of Texas or the curve of Florida.  The jigsaw must have covered only the lower 48 states, or maybe it was so old that it pre-dated the time when Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union.  In the memory, there was a jigsaw piece for each state, but maybe some of the New England states were combined, otherwise Rhode Island and Maine would have been very quickly lost by primary school children passing wet dinner times in a tiny rural school.

The cities had a poetry of their own.  They were the places from the series on our black and white television; thousands of miles apart, they became an amalgam called “America” in our minds.  In fact, America had no television existence outside of the cities.  Rural life was an undiscovered country; the only time anything not urban appeared was in cowboy films, and they were very predictable.  Rural life could have been presented in any way that anyone wanted and, we would have been none the wiser

The television images were reinforced by the songs.  Americans sang about where they lived; these were not just folk songs, not just pub songs, these were major hits.  Massachusetts, California, New York, West Virginia – place after place took on a romantic hue.

Last night someone arrived at this site from Wichita, Kansas.

Knowledge of Kansas on this side of the Atlantic would not extend much beyond The Wizard of Oz, and Glen Campbell, whose words make Wichita a magical place. Where else in the world would the maintenance of cables inspire a song that makes the list of the best pop songs of all time?

I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire, I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.

I know I need a small vacation but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.

What chance would there be of someone singing about driving around Co Offaly for the Electricity Supply Board having a hit?

Places in Ireland just don’t have that same resonance.  If songs are sung about Irish towns or cities, they are about those places in the past – Molly Malone, The Rare Auld Times, On Raglan Road – and they always include one or more theme from love, death, drink, and the land.

In England, perhaps there is even less association between places and hit songs – anyone ever heard a song about Birmingham?  A BBC report once featured a singer who was singing about Northampton, arguing that if American singers could sing about places like Galveston, then why couldn’t English singers write songs about their own towns and cities?  The song was not a success.

There is something in American culture that can make the most prosaic of places into poetic locations.  We achieve the reverse, taking poetic places and making them the most prosaic of locations.

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  1. The first thought that came into my mind reading this was “Route 66” – How many tourists have travelled to California to drive that road, all because of a song, or a movie. I was going to say that we’d never have a song about a road in Ireland but I’m wrong – the Sawdoctors did N17, but it doesn’t make you want to drive to claremorris (as beautiful as it is!)
    I heard about a documentary about the movie Ryan’s Daughter and how it changed the area and the people of that area (Dingle – I think?) I don’t know if the programme has been on yet, I probably missed it as in the battle of the remote in this house Spongebob Squarepants wins every time.

    You’re having an “American phase” in your blogging Ian, I’m enjoying it.

  2. Aww I dunno . . there was Penny Lane,Winchester Cathedral, I Belong to Glasgow, Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner, Didn’t we Have a Lovely Day, the Day We Went to Bangor! Erm, perhaps you’re right . . not quite the soulful epics that eminated from the US.

  3. How about Durham Town, The Streets of London and a few others besides the joke songs like Ilkley Moor and Widecombe Fair, or is it because our culture is much older

  4. Waterloo sunset, anyone? Still brings up a romantic haze, though I must have spent years of a previous life waiting there for missed trains!

  5. Maria,

    The colour of your passport wouldn’t affect your preference would it? 🙂 I have never heard The Saw Doctors N17. They are great craic.


    Not quite ‘California Dreaming’ are they?


    I think it’s also about self-confidence and the English culture of begrudgery. I was delighted the Olympics team did so well, for once the begrudgers were silenced.


    ‘Waiting for missed trains’? There is something of Samuel Beckett in that!

  6. N17 – I think it’s about the road out of Galway. But it could be a bus route! Anyway it’s a good song about immigration and living away, could come back into poppularity if the present economic trend digs in.

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