Mixtape Mondays | Songs About Cities

Monday, June 05, 2017 1 Comments A+ a-

A post by Charlie Hole,
a.k.a @charliehole

“Oh my God, New York can talk
Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers”
                         - Elbow, New York Morning

I’ve always been fascinated by cities; the way they move and change, the way they rise and fall, live and die, and seem to exist beyond the people who occupy them at any given time. 

I remember walking around London one night just thinking about the secrets it held, the stories it could tell and all the people it must have seen pass through it over the years. It’s impossible to walk through a city like London and not be completely overwhelmed by the sheer history of it. I always wonder about whose footsteps I could be walking in at any given time.

Elbow are not alone, New York itself has inspired so many songs it could have it is own playlist

One of the things that interested me most about cities is the relationship each of us has with them, and how we all interact with it in different ways. When I wrote The City, I imagined London as a person, who could make or break me at will, she could "promise me the world" or "trample on my dreams"... I wanted to show the city as a living and breathing organism, with a personality and defining characteristics, who could make me suffer and struggle or show me success beyond my wildest expectations. She was this omniscient presence looking over everyone. Or at least that’s how it felt sometimes.  

Ray Lamontagne wrote about the dark side of the coin, the way a city can break a man and how it can suffocate you to the point of exhaustion in New York Is Killing Me

"I get so tired of all this concrete / I get so tired of all this noise"

Cities can be relentless places, they don’t ever stop and when your luck is down you can fall through the cracks fast. The overwhelming abyss of buildings and concrete brickwork extending all around can box you in. And you’ve just gotta get out, to come up for air, escape to the countryside and breathe. 

But cities also offer all the opportunity any ambitious person could ever need, as Billy Joel wrote in Vienna.

"But you know that when the truth is told,
That you can get what you want or you just get old...
Vienna waits for you"
It’s all yours to have if you want it, the glory is all there waiting for you somewhere in the city, you’ve just gotta dig it out somehow. Use the city before the city uses you. Too many people go to a city and expect it to all come to them: the fame, the money, the success... They’re waiting for the city, when the truth is the city’s waiting for them, just go and get it.

The other thing I was interested in was how cities stitch stories into the fabric of all of us, creating shared events that bring us all together. In Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927 he tells the story of the flood which left 700,000 people homeless and laments the reaction of the government, which largely left many poor black communities stranded. The song was later used in a campaign for the people of New Orleans after a similar event in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. "Louisiana, Louisiana / They're tryin' to wash us away"

Steve Earle wrote about how cities can tell more personal stories in his heartbreaking tribute to his friend and songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who had recently passed away. We associate memories or people with certain cities or places that have left a stain on us in some way and we leave our mark everywhere we go.

"And every place I travel through I find
Some kinda sign, that you've been through"
To understand the real power of this song you’ve got to watch the live version where you can see singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith crying next to Steve as he sang the song.

Above all, cities show us the best and the worst of life, the extremes of humanity and an honest reflection of ourselves. Cities are the only places we live on earth which is completely our own creation, we built them from scratch to provide our every need as human beings. That’s what I love most about cities, they show us where we’ve come from, who we are, and who we can be, all at the same time.