Music is something that can be passed from generation to generation, but that can go both ways.
That’s the approach we’re taking this month.
Alyssa Bump, our summer intern, is a 20-year-old junior at SUNY Fredonia, where she’s editor of the campus newspaper and a big music fan.
Your JAM editor, Elmer Ploetz – aka me – is a 62-year-old journalism professor and local music historian.
So what we decided to do is swap playlists. I gave Alyssa a playlist of 10 Americana-related songs for her to listen to and comment on; she gave me a playlist of 10 songs from her music world to do likewise. The results are below.
Let us know (via email at firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like to see more of this or see it become a series. And do you agree with our comments, or not?
The editor’s playlist (with Alyssa’s comments):
- Hank Williams, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”
I could envision myself playing this in my car after a bad day of high school. The lyrics of the song were originally meant to be spoken rather than sung. With poetic verses, such as “The moon just went behind the clouds / To hide its face and cry,” the song gives a deep sense of … well, loneliness, and is reminiscent of a really hard day. Although I am not a huge country fan, this song paired with Williams’ voice is moving. It’s one of those songs that make you feel isolated yet comforted at the same time. I think nearly everyone who has felt a similar sense of misery can relate to these lyrics.
- Joe Ely, “The Road Goes on Forever”
The beginning of this song gives me the impression of a small town similar to where I grew up — little bits of information that build into how each individual is perceived. I didn’t expect the story to go the way it did, but it definitely kept me intrigued. The song captures how it would feel to be on the run with lyrics like, “The road goes on forever and the party never ends” repeating throughout. I’m happy Sherry got her Mercedes-Benz at the end.
- Guy Clark, “L.A. Freeway”
Perhaps L.A. isn’t what it’s cracked up to be after all. For Clark, it seems he was best suited somewhere with fewer buildings and more grapefruit trees. To be fair, L.A. does seem like a pretty weird place to be — everyone there seems to be on a mission for some sort of recognition or fame. It seemed like there wasn’t much keeping Clark in L.A., but the loss of the sweet fruit from “the prettiest little grapefruit tree” seemed to be the last straw. The harmonies within the chorus feel nostalgic as Clark drives back home, giving a sense of relief after being somewhere you don’t belong.
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Orange Blossom Special” (with Vassar Clements)
This song makes me feel like I should go grab a tambourine and start dancing. It makes sense that the song is about a passenger train with the way it chugs along from one note to another. It gives me a burst of energy, but part of me wishes there were some lyrics within the tune (as with the Johnny Cash version). This is something I would love to listen to live, but I wouldn’t choose to play it on my way to work or while I get ready in the morning.
- Loretta Lynn, “Fist City”
At first, I really enjoyed Lynn’s voice and the vibe of the song. However, as I listened to the lyrics, I realized that this song reeks of internalized misogyny. I would’ve enjoyed the tune much more without the lyrics, “I’m not a sayin’ my baby’s a saint / ‘Cause he ain’t / And that he won’t cat around with a kitty.” Those lines show that Lynn may be aware her husband is a cheater, yet she enables it through focusing her hatred on the other woman. It’s a no from me.
- Iris Dement, “Sweet Is the Melody”
This song gives a bit more of a country-twinge vibe than I am used to. I can listen to it, but it’s definitely not something I’d choose to play often. I think it’s one of those songs that I would like better if it were covered by someone else. I just don’t really enjoy Dement’s voice much as it reaches for those breaks. Despite this, I still respect the unique, imperfect sound she creates with voice. Maybe her voice would work better in a different song.
- Bill Monroe, “With Body and Soul”
I find it interesting how upbeat this song is despite the very depressing lyrics that lie within it. Monroe speaks of a great loss, yet he chooses to focus on the beauty that once was. Only once does the singer choose to acknowledge how this loss affects him, as he sings, “My teardrops are fallin’ like rain.” I think the lyrics are beautiful, especially with the figurative language used to describe Monroe’s significant other.
- Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Country Girl”
This song makes me wish I could experience the south for a little bit, or at least some of their food. The vivid descriptions from the “dandelion wine” to the “sweet potato pie” make my stomach growl. In some ways, it does remind me of the little town I’m from, where all there was to do was play in the yard and appreciate the countryside. However, I am one of those people that hates my hometown, so this song isn’t necessarily my cup of tea. I find it to be a cute song, but once again, it isn’t one I would choose to listen to in my free time.
- Flying Burrito Brothers, “Sin City”
I first would like to say that I love the name of this band — I got a good laugh out of it. Regarding the song itself, I love what the lyrics represent. Recognizing the worries of being swallowed up by sin and greed is a fear I have had myself. I think it is also reminiscent of how our society works, where we may have someone rise to the task of making our world less corrupt and a bit less insane, but nevertheless, they are pushed away.
- Roseanne Cash, “Runaway Train”
I did not realize this song is by Johnny Cash’s daughter, or that his daughter even recorded music for that matter. I love how this song feels as though sparks are flying — encapsulating the moment you realize you are falling for someone. The song feels like you are on the runaway train yourself as it speeds up into oblivion. The lyrics, “I have been here before this / And now it’s with you,” show that Cash may have experienced a similar feeling with someone else, which may scare her. Yet the artist closes with, “Our love has turned into / A runaway train,” showing that she couldn’t have helped but been swept off her feet by this riveting love.
Alyssa’s playlist (with the editor’s comments):
- Los Retros, Someone to Spend Time With
This one made me think of Trini Lopez, the ‘60s folkie who turned “If I Had a Hammer” into a pop hit in 1963. Los Retros – aka Mauri Tapia — records in a sort of lo-fi approach in his parents’ home near Los Angeles and consciously pays tribute to Latin American and American soft pop (according to his record company), so that connection makes sense to me. If you like Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” you may like this song.
- Rod Stewart, Maggie May
Ah, the music of Alyssa’s parents’ life – or is that grandparents’? I don’t usually think of Rod Stewart as Americana, but this song carries its share of folky overtones. Of course, Stewart also did “Mandolin Wind,” so he did have that phase. This song is also guaranteed to get 60-somethings up and dancing almost as much as Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.”
- Dr. Dog, Nellie
The song is “Nellie,” not the performer (so no, not to be confused with rapper Nelly). The sound here is in a Beatles/Badfinger mode, with some mandolin and harmonica sprinkled in (I think). Laid back listening for the end of a day from their 2013 album, “B-Room.”
- Pavement, Harness Your Hopes (B-side)
Curiously, this 1999 song (released more widely on a 2008 collection) seems to currently be Pavement’s most popular on Spotify with 48 million (yes, million!) plays. Relaxed indie rock/lo-fi vibe with quirky lyrics (“Show me a word that rhymes with Pavement and I will kill your parents” for one couplet?). A song for singing around the campfire while perhaps a little bit stoned.
- Harlem, Someday Soon
Not to be confused with the Ian Tyson song/Judy Collins hit from 1969. Again, lo-fi sound (rattling, sloppy drums and guitars that sound like they might have paper slid between the strings for a certain sound) from an indie band. This one rocks a bit in a garage rock/pop tradition through a modern lens. The band was from Arizona and eventually Austin and would have been perfectly at home on the stage at Mohawk Place.
- Vashti Bunyan, I’d Like to Walk Around In Your Mind
Speaking of Judy Collins’ kind of music, this is a classic obscurity from 1965. Nice find! Bunyan was managed by Andrew Loog Oldham, and this song was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It’s a delicate piece of British folk pop that still holds up well today.
- Hotel Ugly, Shut up My Moms Calling
This one is the kind of modern mixup that tries its best to defy description. Light hip-hop feel. A little jazz, a little soul. This one’s from 2020. For somebody who hasn’t listened to a ton of pop music in the last 20 years, this one isn’t offensive but it doesn’t grab me either.
- Joy Again, Looking Out for You
This is a 2016 track from the Philly-area indie band. It makes me think of the Stampeders’ ‘70s hit, “Sweet City Woman,” I think because of the chunk-a-chunk sound of … is that a banjo? Or just jangly guitars? Whatever, it’s pleasant and loosely folky.
- Bright Eyes, First Day of My Life
This song is a reminder that a lot of indie rock sounds an awful lot like 1970s folk rock! But, in this case, with a slight Jonathan Richmanesque sound to the vocals. It’s pretty much just a guitar, vocals and some really sweet lyrics that would be perfect for a neo-hippie wedding.
- The Lumineers, Flowers in Your Hair
The Lumineers are probably the most popular band on this list (well, other than Rod Stewart in 1971), showing where folk fits into pop charts in 2021. I just wish this song didn’t end so quickly; it’s the kind of song I’d like to just keep chugging along. I guess that’s what the reload button is for. … Also, not to be confused with the Scott McKenzie song from the ‘60s about San Francisco and flowers in your hair.