Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why American place names "sing" and British ones don't

American place names work in songs in a way British place names don't, which is often attributed to the geographical charisma and new-world associations of the former.

I wonder if it's also because a lot of American place names end in a vowel and hardly any British ones do.

Thirty-two of the united states have names ending in a vowel, including euphonious regions like Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee. Many have Spanish names such as Sausalito, Amarillo and El Paso. Others, such as Takoma, Tallahassee and Tampa, are native american in origin. Many of them have the additional benefit of beginning with a T, which is how Lowell George came to sing of going from "Tucson to Tucumcari, Tahachapi to Tonopah" in Willin'. On the other hand a huge number of British place names end in "n" or "r".

I asked songwriter Boo Hewerdine if the terminal vowel made the word "sing" in a more open, appealing fashion. He agreed that multi-syllable words ending in a vowel "sing very well". One of the few songs to make a success of invoking a British place name is Waterloo Sunset, which involves a word that isn't English and finishes in a vowel.

I asked Boo to name the best British place name to sing and he came back with Piccadilly. "It's perfect. Four syllables. Hard-soft, hard-soft."

It also derives from the Spanish word "picadillo" so I'll consider my theory proven.


  1. I sort of agree but surely New York has more songs than any other city.

    Texas, Memphis, Las Vegas and New Orleans are also popular

  2. Anonymous9:39 am

    This probably explains why the best song about a British location is Waterloo Sunset

  3. My favourite English example of this is Oliver's Army - "...the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne..."

    OK, not place names, but try "...the boys from Liverpool, London and Newcastle..." or even "...the scousers and the cockneys and the geordies..." ;-)

  4. New York is used in quite a few, quite good songs?

  5. You may be biased by the sense of 'otherness'. I'm particularly taken by 'Guns of Brixton' and picked Watford as my 'football' team to root for from the states because of 'Watford Gap' (only to find out it's 60 miles from Vicarage Road - oh well, too late).

  6. Hence the singalong popularity of 'Amarillo'.
    But not 'Galveston'.


  8. It's because you're not American.

  9. I think Reno is a good place to shoot a man just to watch him die.

  10. Well, it's a nice theory, but counterexamples include Billy Bragg's A13 Trunk Road To The Sea and, um, an awful lot of Half Man Half Biscuit songs.

  11. I'd like to say a word for Noel Coward in this debate. "London Pride" captures the capital in wartime beautifully and "There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner" heads off across the entire country with an almost deranged humorous urgency. This is only the first verse...

    They're out of sorts in Sunderland
    And terribly cross in Kent,
    They're dull in Hull
    And the Isle of Mull
    Is seething with discontent,
    They're nervous in Northumberland
    And Devon is down the drain,
    They're filled with wrath
    On the firth of Forth
    And sullen on Salisbury Plain,
    In Dublin they're depressed, lads,
    Maybe because they're Celts
    For Drake is going West, lads,
    And so is everyone else.
    Misery's here to stay.