Sunday, March 6, 2011


I started this post in a bad mood on a rainy day, and the songs I had initially chosen for Ohio were suitably negative and critical. First of all, I didn't know a lot of songs about Ohio. The two that came to mind were Drew Carey Show intro 'Cleveland Rocks' and Bowling for Soup's 'Ohio (Come Back to Texas).' Great, I thought bitterly, prime stuff right here. Even one of the bands can't wait to get out of Ohio. Though I will include these songs, I quickly realized that I couldn't make a very substantial post out of them by themselves. It was hard to admit to myself that my music knowledge might be less than encyclopedic, but I bit the bullet and plugged 'songs about Ohio' into Google. The top hit was this post from Paste, which was mostly about the overwhelmingly sad quality of songs about the state. I've chosen Sun Kil Moon's 'Carry Me, Ohio' as a representative sample. Though I am allowing some seriousness to infiltrate the post, I couldn't resist this cartoon from Ohio native Natalie Dee:

We'll start with the least serious song from the trio above, Bowling for Soup's 'Ohio (Come Back to Texas).' I want to establish something up front: I'm not endorsing this as a quality song. At all. It's a TERRIBLE song. Only listen to it once so you understand this blog entry, then never again because it's profound awfulness will make your brain pour out of your ears like pancake batter. It's really bad. I've warned you. Let's take a glance at the opening lyrics to get a sense of what we're dealing with here.

She said she needed a break
A little time to think
But then she went to Cleveland
With some guy named Leland
That she met at the bank

There's nothing wrong with Ohio
Except the snow and the rain
I really like Drew Carey
And I'd love the Scene, the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame

This is definitely the track Natalie Dee was thinking of when she drew her cartoon. Some definite themes, if such a serious term can be used to describe the topics addressed by a song that rhymes "Cleveland" and "Leland." Apparently the only things of note in all of Ohio are Drew Carey, Cleveland, and how much it sucks to be there. Bowling for Soup's song, along with the Natalie Dee cartoon above, illustrate an unusual phenomenon about art that discusses the Midwest-- a baseline level of mockery. We all know jokes about the midwest, Fargo is basically one that goes on for two hours. Bowling for Soup do it with much less panache and artistic viability than the Coen Brothers, but the same sentiment is there: don't take the midwest too seriously, it's a little silly and backwards and not quite like the population centers of the coast.

Fargo, however, is usually understood as a rather affectionate portrayal of the people who populate the center of America. Songs like "Come Back" suggest that Ohioans are in on the joke, and despite the catalogues of things they find wrong with their home state. In fact, Ian Hunter wrote "Cleveland Rocks" in 1979 to say just that. The version that appeared on "Drew Carey" is actually a cover by The Presidents of the United States of America, but Hunter wrote and performed the song because he believed people should know there's a "lotta heart in Cleveland." Hunter sings:

Mama knows but she don’t care
She’s got her worries too
Seven kids and a phony affair
And the rent is due
All the little chicks with the crimson lips go
Cleveland rocks, cleveland rocks...

I got some records from world war two
I’ll play ’em just like me grand dad do
He was a rocker and I am too
Oh Cleveland rocks, yeah Cleveland rocks

It's kind of a gimmick song, and the lyrics are actually sort of a downer about economic depression there at the beginning. But underneath the layer of slight comedy, there's an actual warmth for Cleveland. Hunter seems to admire the city for its working class roots, and he embraces the past through references to his mother and grandfather, reflecting a pride in his roots rather than the desire to escape that many musicians express. His reflections on parents and grandparents also hint at the family values central to midwestern culture, although the portrayal of his mother doesn't follow the most traditional path down the road of that theme.

Finally, let's transition to the most serious of our three songs, Sun Kil Moons 'Carry Me, Ohio' to consider the other end of the midwestern spectrum, the rich, genuine spirit of the region. Maybe it's because it's less flamboyant than the surrounding regions, but the Midwest seems to inspire a quiet affection and straightforwardness that's mirrored in Sun Kil Moon's depressingly emotional lyrics. The band reflects fondly on Ohio's Tuscarawas River and returns to a theme common among songs about rural areas of America-- homecoming and connection to home. 'Carry Me, Ohio' seems to be about the death of a loved one, and like North Carolina's 'Yankee Bayonet,' it focuses on the return home in death. States that are marginalized in the American cultural consciousness as less cultured or significant, especially southern or midwestern ones, are often associated with this theme in music. Mark Kozelek sings, "Children blessed/ gather round the home she will rest/ so poor and cold in their Midwest..." Even when the state is "poor and cold," it is "theirs." Ohioans embrace their home, strengths and flaws alike, with a long-suffering earnestness that isn't found in tracks about, for example, New York.

It's a little cliché to talk about Middle America and wholesomeness, but a lot of the jokes in the first two songs covered here are clichés too. Midwesterners embrace the best and worst of their states, the constant jokes and cold, windy winters alongside the values of hard work and family, with consistent warmth and humor. And with this honest, straightforward outlook, they also achieve moments of emotional clarity like 'Carry Me, Ohio' that are untainted by the bitterness of jaded states like New York and California.

Ohio (Come Back to Texas)
Cleveland Rocks
Carry Me, Ohio

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