Some of my favorite music is the kind that tells a story about a place, or in some cases, not just a story but a whole novel. In that latter category I put Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland,” which ranks with Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in its ability to evoke a city with its depravities, deprivations, and transitory beauties all jumbled together.
Other music is less specific in its description, relying more on sound than on lyrics to call up a picture of a place. U2’s The Joshua Tree instantly takes me out West, and I know that’s largely because of the album title, but it’s also in the music itself. As proof of this, I don’t picture the southern California location of the actual Joshua Tree National Park when I hear this album; I actually think of somewhere more like where Nevada meets Idaho. (N.B. My brother recently said that U2’s music is more American than John Mellencamp’s. Harsh but true.)
Two of my favorite composers are Aaron Copland (his “populist” works) and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music would strongly suggest their respective countries even if they didn’t incorporate famous national folk tunes. I just read something interesting on Wikipedia: Copland didn’t actually call his famous ballet Appalachian Spring; someone else gave it that title later. His goal was just to write “music for an American ballet.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Copland#Popular_works) This probably explains why I don’t picture the Appalachians when I listen to it; I think of someplace flatter (hence bigger), like Oklahoma. The point is that I definitely think of America.
One of my favorite things to do in the whole world is to listen to music while driving–any music will do, but the best is music that fits the place I’m driving through. I love to turn on my Avett Brothers Pandora station while I’m driving back to Lynchburg, VA, after visiting my family in Pittsburgh, PA. My route stays just east of the Appalachians, in the foothills, pretty much the whole way. The Avett Brothers are actually from North Carolina (which is close enough), but the kind of music that comes up on the station is more broadly country–and here I don’t mean that extremely popular genre that comes out of Nashville; I mean from the country, the part of America that used to be the frontier back when all the fancy people closer to the coast were creating the United States of America on paper, although now it’s usually just lumped in with the East. I grew up hearing this kind of music and didn’t appreciate it then. Now I think it’s so beautiful it sometimes makes me want to cry.
Then there’s the whole category of music that I associate with a particular place not necessarily because of anything in the music itself, but because I had an early or memorable experience with that music in that place. I still like to listen to my Coldplay library when I’m on an airplane (which is a type of place, right?), because on my first truly long flight, to the U.K. in 2009, I listened to their albums on my iPod all night, coming in and out of sleep to hear Chris Martin’s familiar falsetto.
I could go on, but I’ll turn it over to you. What songs, albums, or artists make you think of places, because of either the lyrics, the music, or some association personal to you?