Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Songs About Infrastructure

Musician Sufjan Stevens, inspired by the landscape and industry of cities, wrote an album in 2003 about his home state of Michigan. The song Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!) seems a poignant soundtrack for the city in light of the hijinks of embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
Once a great place,
Now a prison.
All I can say,
All I can do.
People Mover: Bad decision.
From suburban,
Now a prison...
This first album inspired him to do more, and Stevens has said that he will write albums honoring all 50 states. According to his label's website, he was "galvanized by tourist brochures, road atlas maps, and the spirit of Walt Whitman. He began to intimate at other songs for other states, the American Dream, the national anthem, the continental rigmarole, the Delaware shuffle, Florida flamenco, California swing, all dramatized in song, the great epic symphony, in 50 movements, in 50 years! Lord help us!"

Stevens recently honed in on infrastructure, completing a symphony about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). Before its premier last November in Manhattan, New York magazine interviewed Stevens about the unusual subject matter:

This is a piece about one of the ugliest roadways known to New Yorkers, a road every outer-borough navigator hates with an instinctive passion. Think about the BQE, and you think of decaying tenements, boarded-up warehouses, grime-encrusted retaining walls, and pothole-pocked pavement. You think of smog, congestion, and poor urban planning. You think, Get me out of here! What you probably don’t think is, Wow, this would make a great symphony!

Yet Stevens, who lives in Brooklyn, says the decay was part of the allure. “The movements each have a way of evoking images, sounds, and sensory information based on experiences on and around the BQE. But it’s taking those sensory experiences—which in reality are very mundane and urban and sort of uncomfortable—and romanticizing them, exaggerating them in some ways, so that they become more sublime and beautiful. It’s a beautification of an ugly urban monument.”

For the love of a highway. Stevens films the BQE. Photo by Denny Renshaw.

I often think about how cities can inspire songs. My brother has noticed that most of the songs about Baltimore include rather dire outcomes. People die in most of them, as in Lyle Lovett's song named for the city itself:

And a woman lies upon the bed
I think she must be dying
And I recall the words she said
As she began to cry

She begged son please don't go to Baltimore
And leave me where I'm lying
For you will son but I no more
Walk among the living

Stevens's symphony made me wonder if infrastructure itself served to inspire other musicians. That's how I found Richard Weingroff, an employee with the Federal Highway Administration. Weingroff writes histories about public roads (including a piece or two about roads in Michigan; perhaps he should meet Stevens).

Since 1996, Weingroff has maintained a website titled Some Road Songs. The site catalogues songs dedicated to highways and includes an alphabetized list of hundreds of them along with links to the key lyric about the road in question. Weingroff accepts submissions and suggestions from anyone, but he does have some ground rules:

1. Songs about musicians being "on the road" don't qualify unless they actually mention roads.

2. Songs about cars, rather than roads, also don't quality.

3. A song can qualify if it mentions a highway even if the rest of the song is about something else.

Referring to rule #1, I assume, then, that Jackson Browne's song Stay would not qualify, because it is about roadies and travel, but not so much about the roads themselves:

But the band's on the bus
And they're waiting to go
We've got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
or Detroit, I don't know
We do so many shows in a row

I emailed Weingroff to ask him about the site, and have been routed through a communications staffer at the Federal Highways Administration. So if I get through to Weingroff himself, I will update you on his asphalt soundbook.