An anonymous friend of ours — let’s call her, um… Lynn — sent me a recent Washington Post article titled “The states that Americans sing about most,” a subject that naturally piques my interest.
It describes the work of a data scientist who set out to answer the question of which states are more or less frequently mentioned in contemporary music. Her results are summarized in the article and also are presented in map-like images called cartograms. Not surprisingly, California and New York stand out as winners, with Georgia and Texas not far behind. I shared the article with Sylvia and we discussed the results, concluding that it wasn’t especially surprising to see California in the top spot. California is likely to retain that honor with many tribute songs in memoriam long after it falls into the ocean.
Offering no specific song titles in the article as examples, I was moved to view the study from a different angle. I asked myself what three songs in which a state name is mentioned come to mind first. So, I’m guilty of reducing a well-conceived and very interesting scientific study into something like a column heading on Jeopardy.
In the spirit of quasi-scientific inquiry, I asked Sylvia which songs mentioning states were the first three that popped into her head. Sure enough, her first response was Hotel California by the Eagles, further support for having no reason to think California shouldn’t claim the top honor.
Interestingly, Sylvia named Georgia on My Mind, a Hoagy Carmichael song, as number two. Georgia is among the top states mentioned in song. Of course the definitive version of Georgia on My Mind performed by Ray Charles also happens to be Georgia’s actual state song, qualifying it as a sort of Daily Double. John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High came in third with its lilting reference to Colorado. It was surprising to learn from the study that Colorado isn’t mentioned more often.
Then it was my turn to respond and three song titles immediately came to mind. The first one was California Girls by the Beach Boys. Again, easy to see why California comes out on top. Depending on your age or your taste in music, you might have named Dani California by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a catchy tune and even mentions two or three states in addition to California!
At first glance, Montana doesn’t appear to be among the top states mentioned in song until you look more closely at the data. For its size and population, Montana is mentioned rather frequently in song lyrics. That in mind, the second tune popping into my head was Frank Zappa’s Montana. I wondered if anyone else counted “Going to Montana soon, gonna be a dental floss tycoon…” among their top three memorable song lyrics. Even now it’s the only song about Montana I can recall, though I’m almost sure the Sons of the Pioneers sing about it.
By the looks of the data, our home state of Wisconsin is woefully under-represented. Not counting the official state song, On Wisconsin, one might be hard-pressed to think of anything outside of a beer ad jingle that mentions Wisconsin. For example, “I’m from Wisconsin, and I oughtta know…” But the challenge was answered when I thought of an obscure tune by Midwest folk duo Lou and Peter Berryman, whose song Up In Wisconsin earned a place in the musical nostalgia folds of my brain. With a chorus that goes, “Up in Wisconsin… the weather isn’t very nice. Up in Wisconsin… they gotta fish right through the ice,” it doesn’t paint the rosiest picture of our home state. On the other hand, it isn’t far from the truth.
On a final note (pun intended), Lou and Peter cover all the bases in another of their songs, aptly titled Your State’s Name Here. It should make folks from states like Connecticut, who register a low number of mentions on the cartogram, feel much better about themselves.
With a keen interest in further research, and with no requirement to answer in the form of a question, what three songs that mention states do you recall first?
(For the curious, here are links to YouTube videos of Lou and Peter Berryman singing Up In Wisconsin and Your State’s Name Here. Just click on the song titles.)