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A Place by any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

New -- 1 May 2008

One of the really clever ideas of creating one's own reality is to sing about it. Lift your voice in song... or just hum and grin! Adding emotion, rhythm, and perhaps even a bit of dance can do absolute wonders, while doing it with others can intermingle realities in a most delightful manner... cheek to cheek, so to speak. Music not only hath charms to sooth the savage breast (and/or beast), but the right combination of music and lyrics can also capitalize upon all the various forms of nostaglia, good feelings, and wistful longings that only the right song can engender.

If capitalizing on such things may seem a bit crass... never let it be said that the right song by the right singer cannot yield fabulous riches.

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Love songs are of course pretty much obvious choices upon which to rhapsodize or wail. In such cases, however, one assumes (or hopes) that there are sufficient buyers who want to be constantly reminded of the bliss, pain, rapture, anguish, and general all around emotional turmoil associated with such endeavors.

From a purely capitalistic point of view, there is also the rather ideal situation of singing about a place -- a country, city, locale, bus station, et al. One can actually predict the potential marketability of a song based upon the demographics of the place for which the melodious (or deafening) interlude depicts in all of its vain glory. In other words, one can virtually have a guaranteed audience. Who wouldn't want to be reminded of those yesteryears when life was so much simpler, delightful and filled with great expectations for the future? Such place-ments can then be expanded by socialistic, nationalistic, parochial, and political reasons in order to market a song... and by extension a place. Music can in the gentlest fashion extol the charms and delights of the place where you and many, many others may have taken their first steps, discovered the downside potential in seesaws, and/or first lost your virginity... or just a massive amount of money at life-roulette.

A critical factor here is the need to ensure that the locale's name is included in the title... so as to avoid loss of revenue, reverence, or reveille (not to mention a certain degree of reverberation). This is particularly true for those who can't remember what they're supposed to sing while standing at the beginning of the local sports' event. There can still be a certain amount of confusion, of course, in that a song that uses, for example, "America" in the title may well be talking about the United States, even though the term applies to two entire continents with a dozen or so sovereign nations. Fortunately, most sports' enthusiasts have learned to tolerate this problem.

In order to grasp this idea of naming songs after places, it is worth the effort to consider several examples. We can, for example, begin with the title songs of nations, those countries who had the good sense to ensure that their name could be immortalized in song in the simplest possible manner. For our purposes, we will consider the music and lyrics -- mostly the lyrics -- of such stalworths as: America the Beautiful and Finlandia -- i.e., two of those countries whose name actually appears in the song title (and which I happen to know).

America the Beautiful, for example, is often reputed to be the citizens' choice for national anthem -- in lieu of The Star Spangled Banner. [Another candidate is "This Land is Your Land" -- albeit being promoted as a national anthem by the less conservative contingent of said citizenry.] On the one hand, The Star Spangled Banner is difficult to sing, is basically a war song, and is harder to adapt to new orchestrations than other challengers. On the other hand, America the Beautiful is an impassioned plea of fantastic one-liners:

"purple mountain majesties,"

"fruited plain,"

"alabaster cities," and

"sea to shining sea".

The latter phrase has the distinction of being plagiariazed to the point of becoming an idiom.

There is also the potential for political statement in singing America, the Beautiful... for example, the third verse shown in the Wikipedia article:

"O beautiful, for heroes proved
"In liberating strife,
"Who more than self their country loved
"And mercy more than life!"

Ray Charles even went to the point of singing the third verse first (followed by the first verse) when he performed at Super Bowl XXXV. Apparently, he was either attempting to make a bold political statement, or else he couldn't read the lyrics. Certainly, one or the other.

Yet another candidate for "America's song" is... Duh... "America", this one recorded by Neil Diamond -- or as commonly entitled, "Coming to America". This is a great song, with fantastic lyrics. For example:

"Far
"We've been travelling far
"Without a home
"But not without a star

"Free
"Only want to be free
"We huddle close
"Hang on to a dream

"On the boats and on the planes
"They're coming to America
"Never looking back again
"They're coming to America"

...

"Everywhere around the world
"They're coming to America
"Every time that flag's unfurled
"They're coming to America"

This sounds really good, describing a very desirable place for which others might aspire. Unfortunately, recent politics have tended to negate the sentiments in this particular song. The fact is America (i.e., the United States) is currently building walls, mobilizing the border military, and threatening deportation on a massive scale, just in order to keep such immigration to a manageable influx. Or shut it down entirely. So we may have to put this candidacy for national anthem on hold for the present... or until we return to the 19th Century.

It is in part because of such political considerations that America -- most specifically, the United States -- is not always viewed with the glorious descriptions that song writers can use to increase the popularity of their creative works. On the less positive side, for example, America the Beautiful has been subjected to more than one takeoff, including George Carlin's (partial) lyrics:

"Oh beautiful, for smoggy skies, insecticided grain
"For strip-mined mountain's majesty above the asphalt plain.
"America, America, man sheds his waste on thee
"And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea!"

I told you there was a political side of place songs! What is intriguing is the fact that the same song is dealing with some very distinct, but intermingled realities. What is really amazing is that such place songs have such power to disarm and disuade.

On the other side of the coin... and on the other side of the Atlantic, whereever.... there is Finland. It's "title song" is Finlandia, a song of particular note in that it also does not foolishly limit itself to a single set of lyrics. On the other hand, most all of the lyrics written for Finlandia have a common theme (and with 'never a discouraging word' or phrase).

As can be seen from the Wikipedia page, Finlandia has no less than ten sets of lyrics and in a variety of languages! The first of these constitutes one of the most important national anthems of Finland, but like America, it is not the de-facto national anthem. It's just a favorite. Meanwhile, the music has invaded Wales (without firing a shot) and has a set of lyrics in Welsh -- "Dros Gymru'n Gwlad ('For Cymru, my Country')." In the Welsh case, it too ranks as a 'second national anthem'. The idea of using the same music for two important national songs of two different nations is certainly something to be appreciated.

In fact, one of the more impressive things about Finlandia -- besides the incredible music written by Jean Sibelius -- is that the lyrics are inevitably about peace, love, and tolerance. Consider, for examples:

"A world united in its love for freedom,
"Proclaiming peace together in one song"
"We would be one as now we join in singing,
"Our hymn of love, to pledge ourselves anew."
"But other hearts in other lands are beating,
"With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine."

Can you imagine? National song preaching love and tolerance? Astounding. Somehow, Sibelius' music lends itself to such incredible feats of lyricism. Why this is true is not altogether clear.

Nevertheless, from these two limited examples, one can begin to see the problem: There are few places on the planet that are sufficiently inhospitable that there have not been dozens, if not hundreds, of songs written about them. Take, for example, a ramdomly selected smattering of cities, to wit: Paris, Chicago, New York, Transylvania, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Granada.

The City of Light has been incorporated into roughly 400 songs, of which no less than 40 songs include "Paris" in the title. Admitedly, one of the latter is about Paris... are you ready for this? It's about... Paris, Tennessee. Some of the lyrics are:

"I may not have a whole lot of money
"But I got enough girl for you and me
"I’m takin’ off won’t you come with me honey
"Gonna take you all the way to Paris {...long pause...?} Tennessee."

Makes you wonder if the singer occassionally mumbles the last word, leading his lady to believe she's on her way to France, when it fact she's really on her way... well... wherever. Meanwhile, other song writers are clearly more enamored with the French capital with such songs as "I Love Paris." You can even get the latter in a ring tone!

Back across the Atlantic (how many times can we make this trip?)... Chicago has at least 200 songs written about it, and with perhaps 50 that have Chicago in the title -- thereby edging out Paris in at least one category. And no, Frank Sinatra's "My Kind of Town" does not include Chicago in the title any more than Brian Wilson's "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" does... although the latter is pretty clear as to its locale. To top it all off, there is the singing group Chicago, who can include in their rather large list of hits, the song, "Africa." (Back across the Atlantic? Nope.)

Songs about New York number roughly eight hundred! Their titles include the name, "New York" in as many as 150 songs (provided, of course that you include "NYC"). The number with reiteration (i.e., "New York, New York") numbers at least 13, of which one goes to the point of naming the song: "New York, New York, New York". How else can one distinguish their song from the mass of others?

Clearly the Paris-New York-Chicago axis is well aware of the potential for making money singing about one's dear old neighborhood. And the bigger the population, the bigger the market!

On the other hand, how many songs does any locale really need?

Take, for example, the case of Transylvania. One might initially assume that there are no songs about Transylvania... or at least those readily available in English. And one would be wrong. There are in fact at least two, to wit: Welcome to Transylvania and Transylvania Mania, both of which are currently being sung on Broadway in... obviously... New York City. These two songs are not quite in the same mode as I Love Paris, but they're a start.

[BTW, there are other songs about Transylvania, but these do not apparently have Transylvania in the title. This is Rule 1 for this essay: The song must contain the name of the place in question to qualify for detailed and exhaustive analysis. Also... Rule 2, according to our market research department, is that the song with the place in the title must also be about the place in order to qualify for discussion herein. For example, Sweet Georgia Brown is not included. Rule 3, incidentally, is that Rules 1 and 2 can be ignored in cases of someone's favorite song being neglected. This is for emergency use, however, and should only be done by professionals.]

Then there's Phoenix. (Arizona.) About the only songs that readily come to mind here are "Braindead by the Heat" by the Senile Six and "By the Time I get to Phoenix." Curiously, the latter not only avoids describing the city, but actually refers to it as only a milestone in a lover's effort to escape the tribulations of California.

One can in fact be assured that the song does indeed describe something about "tribulations" in that going to Phoenix from Los Angeles, California (the songwriter's home) inevitably involves using Interstate 10. However, the next logical pit stop on the trip, Albuquerque, is much further north on Interstate 40 and could have been much more easily reached by taking I-40 from the outset. Clearly the traveler is either driving without a map, or is too emotionally upset to be aware of road signs. The third milestone, Oklahoma, is indeed on Interstate 40, but in order to reach the edge of Oklahoma in the time frame of the song would require speeds of roughly 120 to 150 miles per hour... with no stops! Clearly we're talking about a very emotionally distraught person! Not exactly the kind of thing we need in our efforts to market Phoenix!

Besides, once you arrived in Oklahoma, there would be the song, Oklahoma -- a catchey little tune which became the state song within a decade after its debut on Broadway... again... New York! (I suppose we should be thankful that New York City is turning out songs about places other than the Big Apple. Sigh.)

One other song about Phoenix... but unfortunately with no lyrics -- stems from the connection between the Phoenix and its alternative title, the Firebird. That would be Stravinsky's The Firebird. Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with Phoenix, Arizona. It is mentioned here only to give the essay a bit more class. Incidentally, The Firebird's music / ballet is based on Russian folk tales of a magical glowing firebird that is both a blessing and a curse to its captor. The latter is a common affliction, both in Russia and elsewhere. The Valley of the Sun in Arizona is certainly no exception when it comes to being cursed.

Meanwhile, Albuquerque (New Mexico) has its own problems -- in addition to being just a lunch stop on a jet-propelled cross-country escape. Its most noteworthy song -- okay the only one I know -- was written by Weird Al Yankovic. Running for a record time (for Weird Al) of 11 minutes and 22 or 23 seconds, the song nevertheless fails utterly to convey any complimentary passages concerning the city... other than perhaps the fact its Holiday Inn has oh so soft fluffy towels and its Sizzler Restaurant occasionally has grease fires.

Then there's Granada, the original inspiration for this essay. In fact, all of this can be said to have been derived, initiated or Russian cursed from my innocently mentioning to a friend that "Granada" was one of my favorite songs. This friend was initially amazed that I had even heard of the song, as it was something he had learned on his Russian grandfather's knee.

Okay... they're probably not the same song. It turns out that my favorite Granada song -- i.e., music by the Mexican composer Agustín Lara and (English) lyrics by Australian lyricist Dorothy Dodd -- had such romantic inclinations as:

"Granada, I’m falling under your spell,
"And if you could speak, what a fascinating tale you would tell.
"Of an age the world has long forgotten,
"Of an age that weaves a silent magic in granada today.
"The dawn in the sky greets the day with a sigh for granada.
"For she can remember the splendor that once was granada.
"It still can be found in the hills all around as I wander along,
"Entranced by the beauty before me,
"Entranced by a land full of flowers and song..."

From the Wikipedia site, it is clear that this Granada is one popular song, having been recorded by some 55 different artists, from Luciano Pavrotti to Frank Sinatra to the Red Army Chorus.  Unbelievable!

Meanwhile my friend's version included music by Victor Berkovsky and lyrics by Mikhail Svetlov, translated from the Russian by Sol (the latter two who just happen to spell Grenada slightly differently).

We rode slowly or we galloped into battle,
And always the "Yablochko" song was in our mouths.
Yes, that song is even today still kept sacred.
By the new young grass, the malachite of the steppes.

But a different song about a far-away land
My friend carried with him in the saddle.
He sang, while gazing at his own native land,
"Grenada, Grenada, oh my Grenada.

...

He's slow to answer, the Ukrainian dreamer.
"My brother!  I found Grenada in a book.
A very high honor, a beautiful name.
The struggle for Grenada goes on in Spain.

I left my own home, and went off to war,
To give the land of Grenada back to the peasants.
Goodbye my family, goodbye my friends,
"Grenada, Grenada, oh my Grenada."

...

Obviously, my friend's Grenada song is not the same as my Granada song. In fact, going from romanticism to a patriotic feaver to travel from the Ukraine to save the peasants of Grenada is always something of a stretch. It does, however, illustrate a current problem with songs about places... how is one to tell one song from another simply by its title? No way. Clearly, this is a marketing, copyright infringement problem, but one upon which others will have to deal.

Meanwhile, in addition to Lara's Granada (and its numerous variations in lyrics), there is also Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909) who has a Granada in his repetoire as well.  I seem to recall, but have been unable to find a reference, whereby Albeniz is the one credited by 101 Strings for the music (obviously they don't bother with the vocals). Then there is the Cuban, Ernesto Lecuona, who also wrote Malaquena and The Breeze and I (the latter two also being personal favorites).  Lecuona also has a Granada to his credit, and in one site Granada is listed as being written by Lecuona.

Is there something about the City of Granada we don't know?  Could be.

Meanwhile, other locations with music and lyrics... and which more or less readily come to mind include: Deep in the Heart of Texas, Arizona Home, One Night in Banghok, The Night it Rained in Georgia, Private Idaho, Halucinating Pluto, and Mesopotamia. Obviously the latter three probably don't have a lot of former residents quequing up to buy the latest song about their favorite locale... despite in two of the cases some great lyrics by the B-52s, including e.g.,

"...There's a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia
"Six or eight thousand years ago
"They laid down the law
..."

and

"Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo
"You're living in your own Private Idaho
"Living in your own Private Idaho
"Underground like a wild potato.
"Don't go on the patio.
"Beware of the pool,
"blue bottomless pool.
"It leads you straight
"right throught the gate
"that opens on the pool..."

The first line of the latter song should serve to forewarn you... but if you're really in for some fun, check out the complete Private Idaho lyrics.

The latter examples remind us that money is to be made selling songs about places that suggest in the simplest terms..."Get out of that state, get out of that state you're in." So much for nostaglia. There may be songs extoling a place's contributions to our histories and memories, but there are also those laughing themselves all the way to the bank while deriding certain locales. This, of course, is one of the beauties of capitalism: one can exalt or demean and make money in both cases. One can in effect capitalize on music and lyrics that inspire and rain nostalgia upon our heads, or simply point out the awful truths about some places and collect money in the process.

Ultimately, one must ask themselves why music derives such power from taking us back to places we know, remember, imagine, want to avoid like the plaque, or simply find fascinating... particularly from a distance. (Get too close and we inevitably encounter the unsightly slums and so forth!)

Clearly the three most important attributes of real estate are location, location, and location. But why should location be so important in music... particularly when it becomes obvious that one's new residence is probably far superior in every respect to the place from whence you came? And if it's isn't, why aren't you heading back, or just heading for terra incognito?

Perhaps part of the problem is that there are probably a million people on the planet who can play and compose music, write lyrics, and record any and every thing under the sun that passes for a song. There being a finite number of words (places, emotions, and bus stations) in the various languages, it comes down to the fact that it's easier to remind someone of something -- like a place -- than create from scratch a whole new idea, concept, or world.

Musical lyrics, like so many other things, must for efficiency's sake always start with a known entity, and then take its flights of fancy from there.

You can see what such flights of fancy can lead: Multiple Choices, Multiple Universes and Multiple Timelines.  Itís like the advantages of a multiplex theater with ten to twenty different blockbuster movies available with great seating -- all with great music to hum.  You can choose whatever grabs you, and quickly find yourself in another reality, participating in all of the movies shown on the screens which surround you.

Sol has said, for example, that one means of a Shamanic Path is to imagine oneself in a different place, and one of the best ways to do this is playing, singing, or dancing to a song all the while concentrating on the lyrics. The Dances of Universal Peace is a prime example of the effectiveness of this idea. Virtually any genuine or even amateur "sensitive" can travel into whatever the song is about, sweeping themselves into whatever fantasy is most appealing. Obviously, such musical travel in and between worlds can open up fantastical possibilities. Certainly beats the snot out of any capitalistic motivations.

Besides... how else would one get to visit Pluto without perhaps Hallucinating Pluto? Buy a ticket?

 
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