Tuesday, March 1, 2011


I'll confess: this entry will be a little bit of a cheat. Songs about specific states in some regions are few and far between, and I managed to find one that dealt with both Alabama and Arkansas, so I'm going to more generally on the South. We'll be taking a look at the aforementioned states through some very old and very new songs, one from the 2009 debut album of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and one recorded in 1936 by blues legend Robert Johnson.

Edward Sharpe is the brainchild of singer Alex Ebert, but it's actually a musical collective of Arcade-Fire-rivalling size. Arguably their most famous track is 'Home,' the country-tinged duet between Ebert and Jade Castrinos that has been featured everywhere on TV since its release. The most immediately noticeable thing about Sharpe's debut album is its genre diversity; 'Home' is a self-consciously country track among more grandiose takes like 'Om Nashi Me' and 'Kisses Over Babylon' and the spartan acoustics of 'Simplest Love.' As such it's almost a parody of the genre, from its down-home whistling intro to the folksy spoken interlude. The lyrics suit this purposefully simplistic take on songwriting, a straightforward exchange between Castrinos and Ebert in down-home personas:

Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my Ma and Pa
Not the way that I do love you

Holy moly, me oh my, you’re the apple of my eye
Girl, I’ve never loved one like you

Man, oh man, you’re my best friend, I scream it to the nothingness
There ain’t nothin’ that I need

Well, hot and heavy, pumpkin pie, chocolate candy, Jesus Christ
There ain’t nothin’ please me more than you

Ahh, home
Let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

The fact that the songs is so cheerful sets it apart from most of the music that has appeared in this blog. The sense of connection and contentment-- between Castrinos and Ebert as well as between them and their-- obviously-- home. "Home" for them is associated not only with one another, which bundles the concept of home with that of love and belonging, but with everyday objects. Another trademark of Southern music is a lyrical focus on relatable topics, fostering a sense of connection between musician, audience and place. As we saw in 'Yankee Bayonet,' the relationship to home in Southern music is substantially different and more positive than in music about other regions, where the desire to escape or progress reigns supreme. Musicians writing about the South embrace the everyday there in a way that reflects genuine affection for the region. Individual lyrics here don't really say a lot about our locations for this week. Why? Because Wikipedia tells me that the album that includes 'Home' is "about a messianic figure named Edward Sharpe. According to Ebert, Sharpe "was sent down to Earth to kinda heal and save mankind...but he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love." I don't even know where to start with that. Instead, the important part about Sharpe's adoption of Southern stereotypes is how fondly they're embraced instead of rejected in favor of progress.

Some of the connectivity between artist, audience, and place in the South might stem from the importance of local music production there-- a topic which brings us to our other musician, Delta blues legend Robert Johnson. All the known recordings of Johnson's work were recorded in two sessions, one in San Antonio in November 1936 and another in Dallas the following year; he died at 27 just a year later during a stint of concerts in Greenwood, MS. Little is known about Johnson's life or death and most of his recordings weren't even released during his lifetime, but his song 'Terraplane Blues' became what one writer has described as a "regional hit" in the South-- it's this track, which name-drops Arkansas, that I'll focus on.

Johnson has been described as one of the most profoundly influential musicians for rock artists, and 'Terraplane Blues' illustrates the best of his work, as well as its most frequently mimicked characteristics. Like 'Home' nearly 80 years later, 'Terraplane' is about two relatable subjects: a car and a cheating girlfriend (lyrics). 'Terraplane' was about topics that people who lived near the artist would understand and it was largely performed in local venues. Johnson's music-- the dialect, the incredibly distinctive Delta sound-- captures a time and place with great specificity, fostering a strong audience connection. Southern music today has a similar tendency toward regionalism and close-knit, dedicated fanbases. The South has long been the source of some of America's most iconic music, perhaps because artists are so inspired by the places they live.

A crucial element of lyrics about the South is often a connection to the past. Whether literally songs about the past, like The Decemberists' 'Yankee Bayonet' or simply the adoption of more innocent ideals as seen in 'Sharpe,' these tracks return again and again to their predecessors, expressing a reverence for Southern history and ideals. This focus on history draws together all the threads of Southern music-- the value of home and insularity, the theme of the everyday and regional. Southern musicians focus not only on the simplicity and history of earlier times in general, but display a deep reverence for their musical predecessors. The influence of Johnson and his blues contemporaries on music across genres, from the earliest rock in the 50s to a cadre of musicians, like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Robert Plant, who are legends in their own right. Along with Edward Sharpe, other groups like The Avett Brothers and London-based Mumford & Sons are bringing bluegrass out of the South and into the mainstream. Maybe this expansion of Southern style music reflects a desire to move away from the cynicism that characterizes a lot of modern releases here and in the UK. The simple values of 'Home'-- family, day-to-day life, a sense of belonging and place-- hint at a nostalgic desire for these values, so succinctly expressed by Southern musicians, even in those with no connection to the South. That's a powerful endorsement for the lyrical and thematic strength of music about the region.

Don't let all this talk about innocence and nostalgia mislead you. There's also a sharp(e)ness to a lot of Southern music that belies the "aw shucks" simplicity of the vocals. Take another look at Johnson's lyrics--you'll be surprised how racy they are for 1936. But there is a refreshing lack of cynicism in Southern music that separates it from the rest of America. The warmth and depth of emotion in tracks about places like Alabama and Arkansas reflects a desire to connect with one's place and past, to preserve history rather than progress from it. It's an outlook that diverges from what we commonly think of as the American dream, and an unusual one to find in a place that's often considered the most powerfully influential region for American music.

Terraplane Blues

I again recommend Marcus' Mystery Train for more on the enigmatic Robert Johnson. Also, check out this interesting article on the controversy over the recording speed of Johnson's few surviving tracks.

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