50 songs for 50 states: Indiana

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Not too many great songs about Indiana. There are lots of Mellencamp songs about Indiana, but like I said…not too many great songs about Indiana. Anyways, I’m rescued from having to go with “Small Town” or something by the wonderful David Mead album about the state.

It’s one of those great works that manages to convey both what people love about a place and what outsiders hate about it simultaneously. Mead’s Indiana is the ‘middle of nowhere,’ which the singer has to trek through on an endless tour, to little acclaim. But it’s also portrayed as beautiful in its own quiet way. As you travel through, you only experience the loneliness, but you can sense that it really does count as home for all these people that you pass along the way. And in some ways, that makes it hurt just a little bit more.

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50 songs for 50 states: Illinois

chicago white city

Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream – Sufjan Stevens

Plenty of great options for Illinois—including but not limited to: Wilco, Common, Sinatra, Sun Kil Moon, The Mountain Goats, and Kanye—but c’mon people, I was never going to not pick Sufjan here. Illinois is his masterpiece and produced a dozen or so tracks that I could have gone with.

But in the end, it’s this one. Not my favorite song on the album (though it’s close), but the one that most fully evokes the feeling of the place. The first half is an eruption of spirit: the majesty, the excitement, the bustle, the inspiration, and the sadness. Oh great white city! And then it eases into the glorious beautiful of the second half, when Carl Sandburg visits him and wonders ‘are you writing from the heart?’ God, it’s just so beautiful.

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A nation built on slavery

Today’s episode of ‘you can’t be serious’ is provided by Sean Wilentz in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. Willentz is arguing that Bernie Sanders is wrong to say that the United States was founded on racist principles. His evidence:


THE Civil War began over a simple question: Did the Constitution of the United States recognize slavery — property in humans — in national law? Southern slaveholders, inspired by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, charged that it did and that the Constitution was proslavery; Northern Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, and joined by abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, resolutely denied it. After Lincoln’s election to the presidency, 11 Southern states seceded to protect what the South Carolina secessionists called their constitutional “right of property in slaves.”

The war settled this central question on the side of Lincoln and Douglass. Yet the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.

Yes, that’s really his argument.

Okay, so let’s set aside the fact that there is a whole of lot of room for ‘racist principles’ to wreck havoc on lives over the centuries that doesn’t even include the bare fact of slavery, and just focus on the simple question of slavery.

Willentz is arguing that the Constitution rejected the principle of racial human bondage, and rejected it so firmly that…a war had to be fought to enforce the question, and three new Amendments had to be written and jammed through in order to protect those rights.

Sometimes I just can’t even…

(By the way, if you want some good history on the relationship between slavery and the founding, I found Mark Graber’s Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil to be pretty good.  Dred Scott was an evil decision, but it’s hard to show that it was ‘wrong’ according to the standards available at the time.

It’s a terrible and ironic truth about our nation’s founding that Calhoun–an evil man espousing an evil position–in many ways had the most clear-eyed perspective on what the Constitution demanded.)

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A word on civil disobedience and Kim Davis


I want to talk a little bit about Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who has just been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. In particular, I want to talk about the way that a lot of liberals have attacked her position. Here’s a good example, from Daily Kos:

daily kos kim davis

I have very little patience for Argument By Hypocrisy in most circumstances, and this is no different. My question is: what happens if we reverse the terms?

That is: just how many of those mocking Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses based on her religious objections would similarly mock Martin Luther King Jr. calling for public officials to refuse to enforce Jim Crow laws based on his religious objections? And how many would mock Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes to a state that permits the continuation of slavery? And how many would mock a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War?

My point is emphatically not to say that Davis is right in her position, but instead to resist the form through which her principles have been attacked. Because these are principles–terrible principles, yes, but principles nonetheless–and we do a disservice to ourselves if we reduce this to simply an assault on the very notion of principled resistance.

In short, I am troubled by the way that the very idea of morally-grounded civil disobedience has come under attack in these comments. Because that isn’t the real issue at all. The problem is much simpler: it’s the content of her moral beliefs, rather than the principle that moral beliefs can, under some circumstances, provide a counterweight to the pure rule of law.

Let’s go back to our Thoreau, to see what he says about the relationship between liberal democracy and religious objectors:

I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves abolitionists should at once effectively withdraw their support, both in person and “property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait until they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough that they have God on their side, without waiting for the other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.

How about Martin Luther King, Jr.:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”

Again, I do not think that Davis should be allowed to deny licenses. I don’t think she should be permitted to continue in her job if she won’t perform the duties that it requires.

But I do think she has the capacity, as a moral being, to raise these objections without categorical dismissal. Just as we have the capacity, also as moral beings, to disagree with her interpretation of the ‘higher’ law. Which, again, is precisely the terms on which King made his own arguments against segregation:

How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. … Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.

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50 songs for 50 states: Idaho

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Twin Falls – Built to Spill

In many cases, the best song about a place is really a song about getting away from that place.  But escape is never pure. The place is part of us, and its memories fill us. To get away may be necessary or good, but we can’t help but feel a sense of loss, too.

That’s true for quite a few of the songs in this project, but I’m not sure there are any examples more poignant than “Twin Falls.”

It’s about the romance that never had a chance to be. Childhood friends in a small town in a rarely-traveled corner of Idaho. The details are just perfect: playing 7-Up, or sitting under a parachute in elementary school. Promises being made that everyone was far too young, too innocent to actually understand.

But he left, rescued by his mother who moves them away in high school (“My mom’s good she got me out of Twin Falls, Idaho / Before I got too old / You know how that goes”).

And she continued on without him. Got married, had kids, lived her life. So she’s resigned to the realm of memory, where she can represent the innocence of childhood that we hold close to our heart without really wishing that its promises had been fulfilled.  Because to wish for that would be to accept everything else that Twin Falls stood for.

The tension there is particularly acute when you think about the two alternate ways that Martsch sings the song. The recorded version ends:

Last I heard was she had twins or maybe it was three
Although I’ve never seen
But that don’t bother me

But played live, he often switches it:

Last I heard was she had twins or maybe it was three
Although I’ve never seen
Except for in my dreams

Because the second one is true, he has to sing the first one. Because he can’t bring himself to look too closely at what it would mean if it did bother him.

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Gotta put an ocean between him and me

Whiskey – Tamara Laurel

A little bit pop in the progression and harmonies, a little bit country in the twang, a little bit folk in the setup, all held together by the sort of affable rock production that just fills me with nostalgia for the mid 90s.

Now that I’ve written that, I realize it basically sounds like I’m describing Sheryl Crow or Lisa Loeb. But, you know what? I kind of dig Sheryl Crow and I freaking love Lisa Loeb. So yeah, I like this song.

This is the first song out from Tamara Laurel‘s debut album Runway, coming soon.


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50 songs for 50 states: Hawaii

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride – from Lilo and Stitch

One of the easiest calls in the whole project. This song is awesome, and I will not listen to anyone who tries to argue otherwise. What else was I going to pick, Blue Hawaii? Come on. Lilo and Stitch is a fantastic movie and this song perfectly captures why. It’s fun, it’s lively, it’s warm. It’s something the whole family can love.

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Wander out into the forest, like some Grimm’s fairytale tourist

Fairytale Tourist – The Corner Laughers

One of my favorite records so far this year is the wonderful Matilda Effect by The Corner Laughers. It’s got the strong melodic spine of northern soul, the effervescent delight of your favorite Sarah Records bands, and the joyful vibe of every great jangle-pop song you’ve ever heard. And, within this general recipe they manage to discover quite a few diverse sounds and tones. A twinkly beat here, with a rousing gallop to follow, and then a sweeping guitar solo, all topped off with endlessly clever lyrical turns. And the electric ukulele has never sounded so good!

I particularly love “Fairytale Tourist” – all strident pace and quintessential backbeat, surrounded by a perfectly realized harmonic jangle, and lyrics that cover the range from Hansel and Gretel to Cleopatra to snuggling up with your cats at night. And hey, why not some ‘ba-ba-ba’s to tie everything together?

Another highlight is “Queen of the Meadow” which opens by noting that “Henrietta Leavitt never got the credit for measuring the stars.” Leavitt, for those who don’t know, provided some of the key studies of variable stars that helped confirm the existence of other galaxies. And then there’s the stately march of “Midsommar” which evokes the midsummer of Oberon and Titania, of rousing dances around a summer bonfire while gazing up at a sky full of stars.

But honestly, there’s not a dud in the bunch. It’s a mark of a great band that they can take a relatively simple formula and find consistently interesting and innovative ways to deliver the melodies. On that front, The Corner Laughers deliver in spades. If you like your music dark and lugubrious, this band won’t be for you. But if you’ve got any sort of sweet tooth, you’re in for a treat. Matilda Effect is out in June, and will be the perfect record to usher in the summer.

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50 songs for 50 states: Georgia

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Going to Georgia – The Mountain Goats

Oh Georgia, how can I choose only one song about you? There is such an embarrassment of riches. Starting with “Georgia on My Mind” which is one of the very few official state songs to even be worth considering. Of course, there’s the classic version by Ray Charles. But Louis Armstrong also provides an excellent take, as does Willie Nelson. It kills me not to pick it, but in the end there can be only one.

I’m also gutted to leave off “Midnight Train to Georgia.” When I posed the question about which Georgia song is best a while back on social media, I got some pushback on this one – since it’s really a song about LA. But I’m going to stick up for it’s Georgia-ness, because it’s ultimately a song about figuring out what matters most to you. And for all that Georgia represents giving up on ‘her world’ it also represents the power of love.

But in the end, there could only ever be one choice here. This is my favorite Mountain Goats song, and that’s saying something. It’s so simple, so impossible to resist, so unbearably sad and hopeful and painful and generous all at the same time. And: “The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you, and that you’re standing in the doorway.” Shivers.

p.s. – The Devil Went Down to Georgia! Outkast! Killer Mike! So much great music!

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50 songs for 50 states: Florida

A musical celebration of the 50 states. One song each week over the course of the year.

Miami Nights – Wale

It was surprisingly difficult to pick a song for Florida. Despite a fair number of great artists hailing from the state, none of them ever wrote any particularly Florida-centered songs. Arguably, you could go with Petty’s “American Girl” which mentions highway 441), but c’mon, that song is about L.A. And there has been plenty of great rappers from there, but very few songs that are specifically about the place. It’s possible that I’m just completely missing some Latin classic that’s never crossed my radar. But I dug a bit and didn’t find anything obvious.

So anyways, we end up with a perfectly cromulent Wale song about strolling along South Beach, taking in the sights (strip clubs, fine restaurants, and a whole lot of different types of women), and casting a little bit of shade. I’m not saying it’s the best song in the world, but you could certainly do worse.

And no, I did not consider the theme song from Miami Vice. I have standards.

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