Every city has its own unique ambience, so that just hearing its name can evoke a certain type of emotion. Perhaps this is why some cities are used in song lyrics. Paris, for example, is associated with love and romance, while Vienna seems to call musicians to her streets. And some US cities are so firmly characterized that many songwriters have used their names over and over again to pull the listener into the desired mood.
creativecommons.org/ Carol VanHook
Music, right? And not the country twang of Nashville - but sultry, bluesy notes with a faint hint of cicada. Deep in the south, Memphis was a major slave-trade centre and the Africans who came through the town brought their soulful and sorrowful songs with them.
When mixed with the banjoes and pennywhistles of the country musicians, the sound of Memphis became its own: a powerful mix of music that didn’t just touch the soul; it pulled the soul free to join with the notes. The pull was strong enough to draw music from names like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Al Green and Aretha Franklin - although that list is woefully short.
More than 1,000 songs have been written about Memphis, making it the most written about city in the world. From Chuck Berry’s Memphis to Paul Simon’s description of the Mississippi Delta in Graceland, the ambience of Memphis has been immortalised time and time again.
creativecommons.org/ Kathy Kimpel
Mournful and intense but with a bright note of defiance describes New Orleans’ musical style to many. Gripping jazz, steamy romance and more than a dollop of mystery make up the rest of the city.
A lot of music about the city reminds listeners of the lonely, independent life of the musicians trying to make their living on the streets and the power that music has to bring people’s lives. Mr Bojangles (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Boy from New Orleans (Louis Armstrong) and Dance Back from the Grave (Marc Cohn) span decades, but they share the thread of music that runs through the people of the city.
Other songs grab the thrill of Mardi Gras and bring the celebration to life, and some, such as The House of the Rising Sun (The Animals) capture the melancholic undertones of the city’s complex past. Voodoo Charm (Willy DeVille) and Moon Over Bourbon Street (Sting) remind listeners of the haunting questions that lurk just below the veneer of respectability and civilization.
Creativecommons.org/ Jerry Ferguson
This is the city firmly in the present - with nowhere to go but up. When you hear New York in a song, you think of big, busy - and maybe a little intimidating – but not much. It’s a name that demands action and purpose, and it’s so well known that even the street names identify where you are. Wall Street! Broadway! 42nd Street! They all mean the same thing – the Big Apple.
Whether you’re Brooklyn Bound, Coney Island Dreaming or just an Englishman in New York, you’ll never Escape from New York because you are Already Home.
The Broadway Theatre District has dozens of theatres, recording studios and television studios, so it’s no surprise then that a lot of tunes come from musicals that are set in the city. Babes on Broadway, 42nd Street, Billion Dollar Baby and A Broadway Musical are just a few. Wall Street, home of the New York Stock Exchange has inspired a dozen or so songs, including the lively Wall Street Rag by Scott Joplin. Even the New York subway system can be found in song –Subways are for Sleeping is an entire musical about the transportation system.
Creativecommons.org/ Jamie McCaffrey
Less in the international spotlight than New York, Chicago is more grounded. In its position as a major hub between east and west, life in Chicago was fast enough to bring in excitement-seekers, but not so fast that it drove away sensible businessmen and builders. Beneath it all, a seedy undercurrent kept enough of the bad guys around to make life interesting.
The music written around Chicago touches different elements of the city. The roughness of the town can be found in songs like Bad, Bad Leroy Brown by Jim Croce, while The Night Chicago Died (Paper Lace) is about the terror Al Capone inflicted on the city. Elvis Presley showed the world the human side of gang warfare with In The Ghetto, and Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town) highlights the plucky, ‘can’t keep ‘em down’ spirit of the city that has survived the bad times.
Creativecommons.org/ Bill Damon
One of the oldest cities in the US, Boston was founded by Puritans, built by the American Revolutionaries and grown through the brilliance and innovation that echoes around its many institutes and universities. Boston is graceful and proud; a city that embraces strength and understanding surrounded by the knowledge that it will succeed - whatever the challenge.
Way back in 1966, The Standells wrote about some of the less pleasant aspects of the city in Dirty Water, talking about the Charles River that runs alongside the city. Other musicians sing the virtues of The Fenway, Massachusetts Avenue and even Bunker Hill. Dave Loggins begged his sweetheart to Please Come to Boston for the springtime; Kenny Chesney knew She’s From Boston and even the Byrds sang about a girl waiting in Boston. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones know all the tourist sites in They Came to Boston and Vampire Weekend dreams of Boston (Ladies of Cambridge).