Port of call: Opelousas!
Port of call: Lawtell!
Port of call: Frilot Cove!
Somewhere between “Route 66” and James Brown’s “Living In America,” the joy went out of reveling in American place names in song. At least the geographic joy did. Name-checking American cities and states is still a fun thing to do at the level of syllables (and let it be said, James Brown does a great “Raleigh, North Carolina!” in his “Night Train”). And “don’t forget the Motor City” comes back to me at many odd moments thanks to “Dancing In The Street.” But there’s little song-sense any more that we live in or travel to any particular place.
Some place-naming songs are serious enough about rootedness that it’s unfair to class them with “Route 66.” “Sweet Home Alabama” tries hard but doesn’t actually work very well for that (except in its Birmingham reference). “Willin’” takes us through the great desert patch of Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah, but it’s much more about words than places. I find one of the most meaningful uses of place names in Arlo Guthrie’s “City Of New Orleans” where “Kankakee,” “Memphis,” and “Mississippi” do descriptive and thematic work, conducting the great train to its own dissolution.
But now forget Guthrie’s thesis and let the train take us to a still-vibrant southern Louisiana, the setting for a song that renews my faith in American place-naming, Sonny Landreth’s “U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile” (on Levee Town). It’s about the young Landreth and his pals tooling around from show to show in a huge ’82 Oldsmobile 98. Instead of trafficking in “Looziana,” by now a cliché commodity like a lot of other state names, Landreth drops down a couple of geographic levels to little places you’d otherwise never hear of. Opelousas? Well, you may have seen a sign to Opelousas from Baton Rouge or Lafayette. And Lawtell is on the map, barely. But Frilot Cove? Try looking that up in your Rand McNally! Yet we discover that these names are just as singable as “St. Louie” or “Philadelphia PA,” and superb in sequence: the opplety Opelousas, the drawl of Laaaw-tell, the free fling of Fri-lot Cove.
Exuberantly announcing these hot spots, magnifying them in their small world, places us with the Cajun kids—rock-places us, dancing at will, in a charmingly heavy take on accordian stomp, Landreth’s super-lively slide guitar slinging us along.
Maybe Route 66 is just too big. Maybe it can’t matter much to hit Amarillo if you’re on your way to L.A. Maybe L.A. can’t mean anything very definite if you’re starting out from Chicago. There’s supposed to be a romance in all this American space: but the scale needs to be adjusted. Stick to South Louisiana, where you can be out on some true high seas between your beloved ports of call Opelousas, Lawtell, and Frilot Cove.