Most of the great American cities have anthems. Everybody knows New York is the city that never sleeps and that, in his own snarky way, Randy Newman loves L.A. Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, while Bob Wills (or more accurately, Tommy Duncan) kissed lips so sweet and tender, like petals falling apart, on that moonlit path beneath the Alamo. Sweet home Chicago toddles to its two signature tunes, while New Orleans figures in too many rollicking numbers to mention.
Even podunk burgs like Muskogee, Oklahoma, and Allentown, Pennsylvania, have standards or semistandards to call their own. Lesser metropolises in the Lone Star State, like Waylon and Willie's "Luckenbach, Texas," Marty Robbins's "El Paso," ZZ Top's "La Grange," the cowboy standard "Streets of Laredo" and George Hamilton IV's "Abilene," own anthems that dwarf anything written about the mighty Baghdad on the Bayou. Then there are songs like Steve Earle's "Fort Worth Blues" and George Strait's "Amarillo by Morning," which while not exactly redolent of the cities they mention, do affix the title towns with the ghost of Townes Van Zandt and the spirit of the struggling rodeo cowboy, respectively. While Austin is not mentioned in the title of Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues," the song's quarter-century run on Austin City Limits has hopelessly intertwined the tune and the town in the minds of a nation.
Also, Jimmie Dale Gilmore portrayed Dallas as "a rich man who tends to believe his own lies," while Billy Joe Shaver's brand-new "Leavin' Amarillo" kicks two colors of crap out of the Panhandle city. Kinky Friedman successfully rhymed "asshole" with "El Paso" for another municipal musical uppercut. Houston, meanwhile, for all its bad press, lacks even a memorable slam.
What gives? Where is Houston's anthem? How can we ever become a "world-class city" without one?
The simplest explanation lies with the fact that the word "Houston" doesn't sing very well. When compared to mellifluously named towns like Chattanooga, Chicago, San Francisco, San Antonio and the Shakespearean-sounding Abilene, Houston's front-loaded accented first syllable crashes off the tongue like a lead balloon. Austin and Boston are cousins in this department, but the Standells got around the clunkiness of their hometown's name by simply chanting "Boston you're my town" on their Beantown anthem "Dirty Water."
Hmm, dirty water, Houston's only geographic feature of note It's surprising that no artist has written a Buffalo Bayou tune. A place-name with across-the-board poetic value, Buffalo Bayou has yet to find its champion praise-singer. Houston could perhaps glom onto CCR's "Born on the Bayou" or the Neville Brothers' "Fiyo on the Bayou," but such a step smacks of a desperation beneath the dignity of any city that purports to hold international status. So does the suggestion put forth by two local music insiders that Glen Campbell's "Galveston" is, in fact, a Houston anthem in disguise.
Not that there aren't songs that mention Houston. Ronnie Milsap ("Houston Solution"), Larry Gatlin ("Houston, I'm Coming Home") and even Dean Martin have each racked up such hits. But none exuded Houston-ness. In each, the city figures as a sort of Anytown, USA.
African-Americans have written the lion's share of songs about Houston as a specific living, breathing city. The most enduring and famous of these is undoubtedly Leadbelly's "The Midnight Special," though his take is not one that today's chamber of commerce would trumpet, even if it may have in 1936. ("If you ever go to Houston / You know you better walk right / You know you better not stagger / You know you better not fight / Because the sheriff will just arrest you / You know he'll carry you down / And you can bet your bottom dollar / Oh Lord, you're penitentiary bound.")
Neither were the lyrics of Weldon "Juke Boy" Bonner altogether flattering. He warned listeners that "You Better Stay Off Lyons Avenue." The Fifth Ward, Bonner's stomping ground and later a favorite topic of the Geto Boys', is almost certainly the most sung- and rapped-about hood in town, usually but not always with brutality as the theme. Suffice to say that those concerned with Houston's image were not knocking down Bushwick Bill's door in 1990 to ask permission to use his "City Under Siege" for an ad campaign.
The Third Ward also has its poets. Lightnin' Hopkins took microscopic stock of his Dowling Street environs, composing songs like "Mr. Ditta's Grocery Store" along the way. Surprisingly, though, given Hopkins's feats, the finest of all songs about the Third Ward, and among the greatest about any Houston neighborhood, was by Johnny Copeland. His "Houston (Won't You Let Me Come Home)," with its nostalgic name-checks of Shady's Playhouse, "me and Lightnin' and the boys" and the Missouri Pacific train tracks, is the "London Homesick Blues" of an elder generation of the Bayou City's African-American community.
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What comes across in the music of African-American Houstonians is a vibrancy (and a menace) utterly lacking in Anglo songs. These tunes evoke palpable senses of community and place, whereas offerings from the likes of Gatlin and Milsap seem to take place in a vacuum. Two Anglo works that definitely break this mold fail the anthem test for different reasons. Steve Earle's "Telephone Road" is about bygone times, not the eternal truths of Houston (whatever they may be). Rodney Crowell's The Houston Kid is a far too personal view of his native city, though his own "Telephone Road" evokes childhood haunts at least as well as Copeland's tune did, and can serve as an anthem for the mostly bygone eastside blue-collar Anglo districts of the pre-sprawl, pre-gridlock days.
A life spent in clotted city arteries is poorly suited to creativity. Great songs about places come from intimate knowledge of their nooks and crannies, the sort that can be attained only by walking and thinking. Stewing on the Katy Freeway in a stagnant sea of SUVs does not allow for the leisure of thought necessary to compose a municipal anthem. Great songs ride on shoe leather, not steel-belts, unless the writer's car is on the open road.
It was just such a traffic jam, though, that gave rise to a memorable song condemning Los Angeles. And now -- irony of ironies -- Guy Clark's "L.A. Freeway," written in 1972 by a then-homesick Houstonian about his longing to escape L.A.'s urban horrors back to the Bayou City's bucolic charms, perhaps best sums up the Houston of 2001. I proposed this to Clark recently. "You know, I never thought about it that way," he said with a laugh. "When I wrote the song, I was living in L.A. and wanting to get back to Houston. There may be a Houston vibe in the song, but it was specifically about L.A. But then I will tell you this: I'll never live in Houston again. It's just crazy down there. You know, I always thought Townes summed it up for me when he wrote, 'It's bad news from Houston, half my friends are dyin'.' "
Whatever Clark's intentions at the time, his song's references to copious concrete, irritating landlords and traffic jams have to strike a chord with many here now, even though the gibes were slung at L.A. It's just too bad that the song that could serve as a local anthem was written about another city, one that Houston is bent on becoming.