Monday, November 1, 2010

My Little Town

This is an odd choice for a reunion song. It is a sad and hurt song, full of anger and frustration.

The song does not seem to be autobiographical; are there "factories" in Queens? Rather, it seems to be a song about growing up feeling pent-up in, perhaps, a steel town; compare the song to Billy Joel's "Allentown" or Springsteen's "Youngstown." The images of factories and guns are later combined in John Gorka's number "The One That Got Away: "I grew up beneath the trees/ Not far from the refineries/ Aimed at the sky like smoking guns/ I learned to walk; I learned to run away."

Gorka, a folksinger-songwriter, is the laureate of leaving. He has over a dozen songs in his catalog on the subject, with titles like "The Gypsy Life," "Out of the Valley," and "You're On Your Way." But even he would be hard-pressed to come up with a leaving song as completely bitter as "My Little Town."

The song's anger is all the more shocking when one realizes that the subject is a child. The song's events and impressions are related by an adult remembering the claustrophobia-- both physical and emotional-- of his "little" town. The adjective is key-- the town is not just small, but small-minded.

The song begins with an unwanted prayer at school. "God" watches "us all," but he is especially oppressive to the speaker: "He used to lean upon me."

Then there is, of course, the Pledge of Allegiance. Only instead of pledging to a flag, the speaker pledges to "the wall." Perhaps his desk is by a wall, so he can't even see the flag clearly from his seat; he might as well be pledging his allegiance to that hard, blank surface. Or perhaps the school itself is a "wall," as in the Pink Floyd image of education: "Teacher, leave those kids alone/ All in all, you're just another brick in the wall."

The next images are of grim dinginess. There are the "factories" spewing the pollution that makes for a "dirty breeze" to hang clean "laundry" in. There is the black rainbow. The pall of grayness spewed by the smokestacks captures the "lack" of "imagination" the speaker feels in his surroundings, discoloring even a rainbow.

(The image of an all-black rainbow, Simon reveals in the Still Crazy liner notes, is Ted Hughes': "a black rainbow/ bent in emptiness.")

Only on his ride home does he engage in metaphor, as he "flies" his bike home. Only alone, in between the school and home, is there freedom. Yes, there is the omnipresent factory. But at school, he pledges allegiance to a wall, while on the ride home, he "flies" past restrictive "gates."

And what is waiting at home? A mother doing laundry, and a father who-- like everyone else in town-- defines the speaker in his terms, and his generation's: "I never meant nothin'/ I was just my father's son."

But then alone again, perhaps in his bedroom, he "dream[s] of glory." And he doesn't just dream, he plans, by "saving [his] money."

All the while, he is as ready to explode as a "gun," waiting until he is 18, or perhaps just old enough to drive, to leave. On his stereo, he might even have the (also 1975) LP of "Born to Run," with the rallying cry in its title track: "Baby, this town rips the bones from your back... We gotta get out while we're young."

Now an adult, he has no nostalgia for the place whatsoever. He regards those he left behind as "dead and dying." We imagine he means the latter term not literally (although, with that pollution...), but in the same way Bob Dylan did in his observation: "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Considering the negative emotion that caused the breakup and then followed it, this song would be a strange reunion song for any other duo... but perhaps not this one.

IMPACT: Simon included the track on his Still Crazy After All These Years album, which would go on to win a Grammy, and Garfunkel placed it on his album Breakaway. Both albums came out in 1975. The song went to #9 and the do performed it on Saturday Night Live.

Some Thoughts on Simon's S&G Material:
While Simon is primarily thought of as a serious and even somber folk songwriter, his S&G work also pulls a great deal from the lighthearted and innocent work of '50s pop. Further, while his world-music phase is often thought to start circa Graceland, we see a constant exploration of sounds outside the American sonic landscape even very early on.

Had Simon never written another song after the breakup, his legacy as one of the premier songwriters of all time would still be assured. Lucky for us, he kept going... and still is.

[If any reader knows of a S&aG track I have missed, skipped, or forgotten, please let me know. Next week starts Simon's post-S&G solo material. Those who "only" like music from this era of Simon's output are encouraged to stay and explore this fascinating series of albums, which is still unfolding.]

Next Song: Mother and Child Reunion


  1. Great analysis here and very excited I found your blog.

    I just want to add that I'm particularly inspired by the music of this song. I can't say I fully understand the theory behind it, but Simon seems to use some pretty unique harmonic changes. I find it amazing that, though the changes look complex on paper, listening to the song sounds so simple and easy to digest. I would love to hear someone's analysis of the music who has a stronger background in theory than me.

    I'll start with this thought though: the intro of the song is clearly in E major and right after they sing "In my little town," the chord changes to E minor and they're like..."gotcha."
    I think the tonal center ends up being Bm, but would be interested in hearing other thoughts about the theory behind this one!

    1. A bit of a belated reply, sorry lol.

      Anyways, many of the chord progressions in this song are fairly standard, with two main exceptions.
      The song plays with the relationship between Major and Minor. Over the very first line, an E chord moves to Em, an unusual move which is repeated several times throughout the song. This provides several key changes, as well as a general feeling of instability.

      The other unusual chord is that augmented chord that appears at the climax of each verse (As I pledged allegiance to the wall, for example). This C+ chord is really just an extension of the E7 chord that appears immediately afterwards. The C+ shares two of its three notes with the E7 chord (E and G#) and the C resolves down by half step to a B. Contextually, this is just a really crunchy, dissonant chord that helps accentuate the frustration present in the lyrics.

      Hope this answers your question! I'd go into more detail, but that would require a chord-by-chord analysis that doesn't really work in a comment section.

    2. Anon-- Yes, the piano line of the song starts low and then immediately goes lower, as if to say, "Wait, it gets worse." Also, you expect a sad/angry tune to be in a minor key, but as you say shifting between major and minor as to the discordance, shall we say, felt by the character. Thanks so much for the insight.

  2. Jonathan-- Thanks! I do not, as I explain elsewhere, have a music theory background. But there is a Paul Simon website that has tabs for his songs, and I am sure they are readily available online, especially for a hit like this one.

  3. I know you wrote this while ago, but thanks for this blog!

    I was thinking of the pledging allegiance to the wall, and I know that sometimes flags just hung against a wall. Maybe a poorer school couldn't afford for every classroom to have its own pole or fixture - maybe it was just easy to hang it from hooks against the concrete wall. Hell, maybe it was a picture or mural of a flag that some class long gone painted as a project in lieu of budgeting a bunch of flags.

    Anyway, just some random brain trawl. Great stuff - thanks again!

  4. Michael-- Thanks, and yes, many schools-- especially ones in depressed areas such as the one depicted in the song-- would have the flag tacked to a strip of cork on the wall instead on on a proper pole.

    1. I always understood that line as the singer mocking the fact that he's pledging allegiance to something hanging on the wall that has no deeper meaning for him. Note that it immediately follows his skepticism about the nature of God - it's not that he doesn't think He exists, more that he doubts His goodness. Similarly, when he lives in a small, poor, polluted factory town, the promises of America can seem kind of empty.

    2. Greg-- I agree. The Flag was to him as worth as much as the blank wall it hung from. Alternately, the "wall" may be the same one as meant in the Pink Floyd song about The Wall, in the song that equates "education" to "thought control."

  5. This song was not intended as a reunion song. Paul wrote a "real nasty" song for Art, because all his songs were sweet. When he had finished the song he said to Art he would sing it with him.
    Art realized that Paul would regret it when it was just on his record. So he suggested to put it out on both of the records. P: "You're right. Thanks a lot".

    Indeed, odd couple.

  6. Anon-- Thanks for the backstory. Post-Paul, Art could have had anyone write songs for him-- Randy Newman, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon-- or he could have explored the vast range of Tin Pan Alley songs, or Broadway, or doo-wop, even blues. Instead, he chose a different path with Jimmy Webb.