Music defines much about our culture and sense of community. It moves us in many ways. We associate songs, bands and record albums with place, where we grew up, the homes in which we were raised, and the schoolyards of our youth. As a Southerner and Florida kid, that's probably a big reason for my devotion to all things Allman Brothers.
Music is a mental map of our lives. It carries vivid imagery and other senses of touch, taste and smell. What songs remind you of a special place or activity, some lingering association that puts your mind into clear focus? Others have compiled lists of the best planning songs, which is a good topic for debate, but not really my point.
What songs give you a sense a place? What music captures the sense of a city, town or neighborhood; a street, railroad, airport or highway; a park, a river, a beach? Jazz and the Blues, the roots and very essence of American music, clearly tell the stories of our communities and places where we gather. "Take the A Train" and "'Round Midnight" are jazz standards that put me in a sophisticated urban mood, inside some packed nightclub, a martini at ready. Otis Rush's "So Many Roads" puts me in a desolate and distant crossroads of roads and rail lines, desperate to get someplace else.
Preserving society for me and for you
There's no better band for broad themes about places and planning than north London's own The Kinks. Their 1968 album, We Are the Village Green Preservation Society covers a panoply of small town and rural community themes in a time of great societal transition, starting with the first song of the same title. It continues through other songs like Last of the Steam Powered Trains, Monica, Picture Book, Big Sky, Animal Farm, and Village Green, making this the quintessential small town planning concept album:
We are the office block persecution affinity God save little shops, china cups and virginity We are the skyscraper condemnation affiliate God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards Preserving the old ways from being abused Protecting the new ways for me and for you What more can we do God save the village green.
Power, politics and ego-maniacal moral authority define another Kinks concept album, Preservation Act 2. The 1974 album is a bit uneven, but its dead-on lyrics nail current national themes involving the political influence of money, class conflict, and corruption that mirror issues in the last Presidential election. "Scrapheap City" evokes a sterile place devoid of diversity, culture and beauty:
They're digging up all of the flowers Because they look pretty And erecting identical Concrete monstrosities.
Coal miners and carnival workers
More recently, The Horse Flies' album, The Ocean, is rich with a sense of place. Its signature song, "Veins of Coal," is a haunting tune that's been put to video in a way that helps tell the story of life as a Kentucky coal miner through the eyes of his grandson. But my favorite story about place on the album is the song, Carnival Lips, about the oddities of circus performers, and who really is "normal." Carnival Lips clearly evokes the unincorporated town of Gibsonton, Florida, just south of Tampa. In high school and then in college, before the completion of I-75 through Tampa I drove US 41 - the Tamiami Trail - from Sarasota to Tampa or Gainesville and back hundreds of times. Along the way, we'd pass Gibsonton, the winter fishing destination and residence of carnival performers known as "Showtown U.S.A" and home to the "Lobster Boy."
It's a funky little beaten-down town on the eastern shores of Tampa Bay along the Alafia River, made up of mobile home and trailer parks, aging retail buildings, cheap marinas and weatherbeaten docks, and now some newer suburban residential communities. There was always a sense of mystery and intrigue to the place, from its rich history in the media and with the Hillsborough County sheriff's department. The Horse Flies' song not only brings back my memories of driving through Gibsonton, but like all good songs it resonates in my own mind about the insecurities we all sometimes have.
What song or album is your sense of place?