Is this the Way to Armadillo?

Is this the Way to Armadillo?

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (June 2006)

 

I touched on this briefly once before in the blog.  Why do the lyrics of American popular songs feature US cities by name when English popular songs rarely do?  And do the US cities named sound so romantic (in the broadest sense) to US ears as they do to ours?

 

I’m leaving aside older standards like New York New York or I left my Heart in San Francisco and A Nightingale sang in Berkley Square to concentrate on the genre pop/rock/folk of the last 45 years, ie my listening lifetime, and in England because that is what I know best.

 

This seems to be a modern phenomenon.  Old English folk songs like the Hexhamshire Lass, still performed by Fairport Convention, are firmly rooted in place. 

 

Hey for the buff and the blue
Hey for the cap and the feather
Hey for the bonny lass true
That lives in Hexhamshire

Through by the Saiby Syke
An over the moss and the mire
I'll go to see my lass,
Who lives in Hexhamshire

 

The first song of America which springs to mind is the classic rock and roll song Route 66.

 

Well if you ever plan to motor west
Just take my way that's the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66

Well it winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than 2000 miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66

Well goes from St. Louie down to Missouri
Oklahoma city looks oh so pretty
You'll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona don't forget Winona
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino

Would you get hip to this kindly tip
And go take that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66

And I’ll come back to Amarillo later.

 

By the time I get to Phoenix he'll be rising
He'll find the note I left hangin' on his door
And he'll laugh when he reads the part that says I'm leavin'
'Cause I've left that man so many times before
By the time I make Albuquerque he'll be workin'
He'll probably stop at lunch and give me a call
But he'll just here that phone keep on ringin'
Off the wall, that's all
By the time I make Oklahoma He'll be sleepin'
He'll turn softly and call my name out low
And he'll cry just to think I'd really leave him
Though time and time I've tried to tell him so
Oh, he just didn't know
I would really go
I would really go

 

Oklahoma again. There was a whole musical about Oklahoma. As I’m making my first draft of this Bruce Springsteen is in concert on the television singing My Oklahoma Home. There’s Walking in Memphis, Are you going to San Francisco? and California Girls.  While staying with friends in DC I dragged my husband on a day trip to Baltimore on the strength of a Bob Dylan lyric.  I’m even writing these songs in a font called “Tahoma”

 

We really don’t do it anything like it.  The best we can manage about the highway and the great open road (which in truth we don’t really have) is Chris Rea and the lament to the M25 round London (rather like the Washington Beltway, but busier)

 

The Road to hell Part II

 

Well I'm standing by the river
But the water doesn't flow
It boils with every poison you can think of
And I'm underneath the streetlight
But the light of joy I know
Scared beyond belief way down in the shadows
And the perverted fear of violence
Chokes the smile on every face
And common sense is ringing out the bell
This ain't no technological breakdown
Oh no, this is the road to hell

And all the roads jam up with credit
And there's nothing you can do
It's all just pieces of paper flying away from you
Oh look out world, take a good look
What comes down here
You must learn this lesson fast and learn it well
This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road
Said this is the road
This is the road to hell

 

The only English song I can think of that conveyed the joy of travel and the open road (in England) is Driving Away from Home by Its Immaterial.  Don’t worry if you have never heard of it. It wasn’t a hit and I’m the only person I know who liked it. As one of my friends said “They almost make the M62 out of Sheffield sound exciting” Almost, but not quite.

 

Even Englishmen write travelling songs about American towns and roads. When Tony Christie had a modest hit with (Is This the Way To) Amarillo in 1971 I thought he was an American.  It wasn’t until last year when he re-recorded it with Peter Kay for Comic relief and had the hit of 2005 that I realised that he is English. And now he has recorded a World Cup version, Is this the way to the World Cup.  Last year several soldiers in the Royal Dragoon Guards serving in Iraq made their own spoof version , Is this the Way to Armadillo? 

 

English songwriters do a little better with songs with a sense of place, in a quirky sort of way. Ian Dury with Billericay Dickie for example,

 

Good evening, I'm from Essex
In case you couldn't tell
My given name is Dickie
I come from Billericay
And I'm doing very well.

 

or Plaistow Patricia which I am not going to quote.  And London Calling by the Clash

 

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared - and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls

 

But the best example of the contrast between the song about travel and place in England, and American comes from Paul Simon, from the same period of his career, 1964.

 

Paul Simon spent quite a lot of time in the mid 60s living and working in England. First he lived in London, then Brentwood in Essex, a town I know well.  He went out with a local girl, Kathy Chitty, and wrote several songs about her. I have been to gigs, seen my friends perform at the same folk clubs where he played. He wrote Homeward Bound during, or inspired by, a train journey from the North West of England back south and Widnes Station claims to be the station in question.

 

I'm sittin' in the railway station
Got a ticket for my destination
On a tour of one night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And every stop is neatly planned
For a poet and a one man band

Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home, where my thought's escaping
Home, where my music's playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me

 

I’m sitting on Widnes BR Station doesn’t sound right. In or on? We say on. Then he wrote this, whether about a real or an imaginary journey in America with Kathy I don’t know.

 

"Let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together"
"I've got some real estate here in my bag"
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America

"Kathy," I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
"Michigan seems like a dream to me now"
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I've gone to look for America

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said "Be careful his bowtie is really a camera"

"Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat"
"We smoked the last one an hour ago"
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They've all gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
All gone to look for America

 

“It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw” The English equivalent, “Took me 3 hours to get off the Accrington Ring Road” doesn’t seem quite right either.  It just does not work. Greyhound Buses are not National Express coaches. National Express only inspires bad novelty records.  British Rail, post age of steam, post privatisation, doesn’t even merit that.

 

But the tunes are all good. And we can dream.


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