Masterton writer and music fan Karl du Fresne went on a pilgrimage to some of the places celebrated in American pop songs.
Few visitors to America penetrate what might be called the Heartland. They go to Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and perhaps New Orleans. But in the course of three road trips criss-crossing 13 states while gathering information for my recently published book A Road Tour of American Song Titles, I learned that these colourful, dynamic cities represent only one aspect of a vast and diverse country.
In the South and Midwest, there’s a different America – in fact several different Americas if you take into account variations in culture, history and landscapes. It’s a quieter, more conservative America, but still emphatically American.
I wanted to see some of the places that had been made famous in songs. My road trips with my wife Jolanta took us to 24 towns and cities, from Mendocino in the west – an enchanting, other-worldly place on the wild north coast of California – to Nashville in the east and from Saginaw, Michigan, in the north to Galveston, Texas, in the south.
Each chapter of my book is devoted to a different town and the song associated with it. Some of the song titles (like Bowling Green, El Paso and Saginaw, Michigan) will be remembered only by diehard 60s pop fans, but others – Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa, Wichita Lineman – will be familiar to any Classic Hits radio listener.
Some of the smaller places we visited were the American equivalent of Wairarapa towns, but I daren’t explore that comparison too far or I might get into trouble. Suffice it to say that Muskogee, Oklahoma (celebrated in the country hit Okie from Muskogee) had superficial similarities to Masterton.
Sadly, many small American towns have been bypassed by the interstate highway system and are dying a slow death. If you want to imagine what America was like in the 1950s and 60s, you need only visit Abilene, Kansas – the subject of a hit song for George Hamilton IV in 1963.
“Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town that I’ve ever seen,” went the first line. In fact there’s nothing exceptional about Abilene. The songwriter chose the name because he’d seen a Western movie called Abilene Town starring Randolph Scott, and liked the sound of it.
Like many of the places we visited, especially in the Midwest, Abilene has seen better days. Even Greyhound buses don’t go there now, despite the fact that it’s the site of the Dwight D Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum (President Eisenhower having been buried there, in the town of his birth).
Abilene is only one of several towns in my book that had a song devoted to it even though the songwriter had never been there. On the other hand, the great lyricist Hal David knew what he was writing about when he created the words for Do You Know the Way to San Jose? because he had been based there during the Second World War.
David’s nostalgic lyrics were based on his memories of San Jose as a sleepy place where the biggest employer was the Del Monte cannery, which processed fruit and vegetables from the surrounding orchards and farms. The irony is that San Jose has experienced the reverse fate to that of Abilene: now the heart of Silicon Valley, it’s bigger than nearby San Francisco and has an eight-lane highway slicing through it.
A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis, published by Bateman, is available at all good book stores. Price: $39.99.
Photo by Brendan McGuigan