by Karl Du Fresne
Amarillo, Muskogee, San José, Wichita, Galveston ... these American place names are so ingrained in our cultural cache, even here in New Zealand.
In A Road Tour of American Song Titles – From Mendocino to Memphis, author Karl Du Fresne takes a literal road trip through the towns and cities that feature in some of the most recognisable songs of the last century.
He asks the question most of us have probably not thought to ask – why are so many songs written about or after places in America? He concludes that it’s three-fold. Firstly, in some cases, it’s as simple as the place name rhyming with a key word in the song title – Amarillo, pillow – but also, that some of the places are really quite off the beaten track and therefore lack the glamour of the classic tourist destinations of say, New York and Los Angeles (and indeed, Du Fresne covers five places in the state of California, none of them the expected pitstops). In fact some of the towns evoke a sense of isolation, decay, desolation which make fantastic material for songs. Thirdly, Du Fresne explains that there’s an “indefinable” mystique to these places, perhaps a kind of romance, even though not all of the songs have happy endings.
The premise of a road-trip travelogue is not new, but what this book offers differs a little from the usual eating-and-drinking travel extravaganza. The author's research is impeccable and it’s hard not to become absorbed in the depth of this even from the first chapter, “Walking to New Orleans”. Here, as an example of that contextualising of the music, the author covers the influence of French and African culture on this city, and its proximity to the Caribbean too. The surprise fact in all of this is that the rock and roll (or thereabouts) music of Fats Domino pre-dates that of Bill Haley, who is widely accepted as the having performed the first rock and roll song. Du Fresne is also able to describe musical styles and instrumentation in some depth, but if that becomes all too much for a reader, he also describes some of the eateries and local fare and there's plenty of historical referencing too. There's also plenty of biographical detail about the artists.
Du Fresne has given the book a real emotional centre – he loves these songs. He also hooks into the idea that aspects of American culture, and the lowbrow, anti-intellectual nature of the songs, reveals a really attractive, folksy side of an America that we don’t often see promoted.
Who would like this book? Certainly, music buffs, or budding ones at least. Music, the writers, and musicians are the core of this work. Secondary to that it would appeal to would-be travellers who were keen to stay out of the main centres. It would also appeal to readers who want a fresh perspective on some of the greatest songs ever written. The overarching tone of the book is 'wide-eyed', as the author drinks in what make these songs tick.
Author: Karl Du Fresne