Speaker: Listener supported WNYC Studios.
Jad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.
Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.
Jad: This is Radiolab. Our topic today is songs that get stuck in your head and won't unstick.
Robert: Now, in the last section, we talked about people who were invaded by music and couldn't get the music out of their heads. Now let's switch and talk about people who desire more than anything to get a tune, a melody into their heads. Specifically, people who are professional songwriters like Pam.
Bob Dorough: Hello, my name is Bob Dorough and I'm visiting here with Radiolab. Is that it? What is it?
Jad: It's Radiolab.
Robert: Not everybody is completely aware of our program, but then again, not everybody would be necessarily aware of Bob Dorough, but you may know this.
If you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, which I, by the way, did not knew, so everything that we've just heard, I never heard before, but you've heard that your whole life.
Jad: Oh my God, I've heard these.
Robert: You know Schoolhouse Rock!,-
Robert: - and you have Bob Dorough to thank for all the songs that will not leave your head.
We invited Bob over to my apartment to sit on my piano to talk a little bit about--
Robert: That's right. What makes a song so sticky for your head? How does that happen?
He told us a story of getting a call, this was back in 1972 from a fellow named David McCall.
Bob: He was an advertising executive, the president of a small advertising agency, and he simply said, "My little boy can't memorize the time's tables, but he sings along with Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones and gets their words, why can't we put the multiplication tables to music? We'll call it multiplication and rock, what do you think?" Looking at me and I said, "Yes."
Robert: Did you say, "Yes" with confidence?
Bob: Then I did some research. I looked in the math books that I had in my library, and then it just came to me as a title, Three Is A Magic Number.
Hey, that's good.
Do you want to hear more?
Bob: Then I went to look in the Bible, and I looked everywhere. It is one of the magic numbers, and then I thought of Buckminster Fuller.
Robert: Why Buckminster? Because of that GDZ film thing?
Bob: The triangle is the strongest shape that can be because it can't bend, a square can sag and become a parallelogram or something, but a triangle is fixed by its very triangularity, right?
Robert: As you can hear from these remakes, three really is a magic number.
In any case, at the end of the conversation, I asked Bob Dorough to think back way back before you did Schoolhouse Rock! before you became a jazz musician, back to when you were a kid, do you remember the first time you got a really good musical idea when a melody that popped into your head? He said, "Of course, I do. Let me play it for you."
Robert: That's all there. That was your first song?
Bob: Not a bad melody, huh?
Robert: Not bad.
Bob: Terrible words. [laughs] I made it up plowing. I was helping uncle John on the farm, I was writing a [unintelligible 00:05:03] Herro.
Robert: I don't care what you were [unintelligible 00:05:05] writing.
Robert: What I care is, so right off the bat.
Bob: That's a pretty good hook, ain't it?
Robert: What I care about is, where did that come from?
Bob: From hearing pop music, you pick up the phone. Even though unschooled, I would say I knew something about songs, subconsciously formed.
Robert: Because it's the architecture of all those other ones.
Robert: Do these things, like when you hit the right one, do they shout, "I'm the one"?
Bob: They do. I'm not going to forget it, now I can go to town and shop for groceries, go to a movie, and the next day, it'll still be there because it identifies itself almost.
Robert: It feels like it suddenly has weight, I suppose.
Bob: Yes, it has weight and identity and there it is. It's there, sometimes I get the melody, and then it's just sheer labor to make the words spit.
Jad: Where does the melody come from?
Bob: Melody comes in the muse.
Robert: Have you ever met this muse?
Bob: [laughs] A lot of people are visited by the muse and they don't recognize her.
Robert: When you were plowing that day, way back--
Bob: I had a muse, yes.
Robert: Did you know that you had one or did you just think it was just something like new shoes?
Bob: I thought it was something that just came out of the air to me. I wonder if I stole it.
Robert: That would worry me, I guess.
Bob: Yes. Oh, that's one of the songwriter's main objectives. When you think of a melody, you say, "Am I stealing that?"
Robert: See, that's how mysterious this is. You don't know whether the idea was originally yours or whether you heard it in some earlier part of your life and it belongs to someone else, you don't know, so the muse is a tricky goddess. Do you know where it really gets extra tricky? Imagine if you write a tune and it has weight for you and people begin to enjoy it where you live, and then very mysteriously, it begins to circle the world and people who don't share your language, don't share your tradition, your culture, share your tune. That is really mysterious.
Jad: With that in mind, I got one for you.
Speaker: Here is a delightful English artist. England's popular young recording star Petula Clark, so let's have a very fine welcome to her, won't you?
Jad: This is a tune that was written by a British guy who came in New York sang by a Parisian who everyone thought was American, and what they made, everybody knows
Speaker: One of my favorite records is by Petula Clark.
Speaker: This particular record has special memories for me. Bits of sweet memories, if you like, because I'll pull the record out of the case here. There we are, this is the original single that I would have bought at the time. High records, no scratches, always looked after, Petula Clark, Downtown, written by Tony Hatch.
Tony Hatch: I didn't write Downtown specifically for Petula Clark.
I'd been to New York in October 1964. I stayed on Central Park, turned left from the Essex House, and walked down Broadway, and by the time I got down to Times Square, I thought that it was strange that there wasn't a song called downtown.
Petula Clark: When you are alone and life is making you lonely, you can always go downtown. Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose?
Tony: It had different meanings in different places, but for me, on that first trip there, it was the center of life. It was a great place to be, and even though I was on my own, I didn't feel lonely, and that's the first line of the song.
I brought the idea back to the UK, and in those days, in between recording sessions and mixing down the recording session, I used to have about an hour in the recording studio, and I would go and sit in the studio and just doodle around it. It's a good time after a three-hour recording session, the mind was very active and the music was flowing very freely. I actually then wrote the tune, To Downtown and that was it, I left it.
Petula: I remember when Tony Hatch came to the apartment in Paris, that's where I was living at the time, I had moved on to France, I'd married a Frenchman, already had two small children and life was great. This was, I guess, in '63 or '64 and I said, "I'll tell you what, I'll go make a cup of tea and you play something to me on the piano."
Tony: I played her The Bones of Downtown, the outline of it, and the few words that I had, and put the word downtown into wherever it was going to go.
Petula: I was in the kitchen making tea when I first heard the music for Downtown, and I absolutely adored it. I came back with a tea and I said--
Tony: That's the one I want to record. That could be a fantastic song and a great record.
Petula: We were in the studio maybe a couple of weeks later and recorded a monster.
Jad: Now, here's the interesting thing. As the song grew, something happened; the meaning began to change a bit. Here's a song that was initially a celebration of the city, you go downtown, you see the bright lights, you're with people, you'll never be alone. After a while, Petula Clark and some of the people who sang it expanded the song to include the exact opposite meaning. Instead of comforting, the city is now a haunted place and you are now more alone than ever. The same song, completely new flavor.
Tony: It's got a lot of character and a lot of different angles you could take on it. The one that sprung to mind for us was a blade runner. Like a much darker picture of what it's like to go downtown.
[singing] Because I always thought with the original that it presented a very happy bright lights thing, but you always had this sense of shallowness that if you were on your own and you went downtown, you probably stay on your own and get quite depressed actually watching lots of people having fun around you.
Petula: Just being out on the street being with other people and seeing the lights.
There's a slight desperation in that, I think.
[singing] The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. I like that line, the lights are much brighter, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your care. You can't actually, but you can go out and try. It takes your mind off stuff.
Don't hang around and let your problems surround you. There are movie shows downtown. Maybe you know some little places to go to where they never close, downtown.
Jad: Thank you to Alan Hall and the BBC and Falling Tree Productions for that piece. Do you know what I think?
Jad: If a question right now is like when a song falls from song heaven, why does it find an audience, sometimes a global audience? I think it's not really the music, in this case, it's catchy, sure, but the experience of going downtown in New York, and you're excited, you want to see the bright lights, you want to be with people, and you get there and it still sucks. You're still lonely. I think people in Shanghai understand that feeling, people in Bombay, everybody knows that feeling.
Robert: Yes, it's like migration music.
Jad: In a way, yes.
Robert: Moving from one place to a new place.
Robert: There is interestingly precedent for this 50 years before they wrote Downtown, this was already happening on a much bigger scale than I had ever imagined. I learned about this from this guy.
Aaron A Fox: I'm Aaron A Fox.
Robert: He is a professor of musicology at Columbia University in New York.
Aaron: A damn good country and Western lead guitar player. Country, not that rock and roll [censored]. One, two, three [singing] I hear that train coming, it's rolling round the bend.
Robert: Country music is a genre we normally associate with Kentucky.
Jad: West Virginia.
Robert: A particularly part of America.
Jad: Cowboys pickups.
Robert: Yes, but it has spread, he says, to the most unusual places.
Aaron: Some examples of that, and there are quite a few, include the extreme popularity of American country and Western music over the last 50 or 60 years with Aboriginal Australians.
Robert: You mean Hank Williams would be recognizable to somebody somewhere in Western Australia?
Aaron: Dolly Parton being another one.
Robert: Dolly Parton?
Aaron: Dolly Parton is this international global star of the world's music especially in Southern Africa, she's revered like a saint.
Yes, it's true, Zimbabweans love Dolly Parton. You can fill a venue with a band playing Dolly Parton's songs and everybody will know all the words.
Dolly Parton: That was fun, yous doing good, yous into that rocky top.
Aaron: Most universally involve Don Williams.
If Don Williams were to go to Dar ES Salaam or to Zanzibar or to Kenya or someplace and book a club, Don Williams has actually gone to Zimbabwe where he has filled a soccer stadium with 40,000 people twice in a row.
Robert: Imagine 40,000 Zimbabweans crammed into a big stadium, and down here in the center in the lights is Don Williams?
I just wonder like, what exactly are they hearing?
Aaron: I have asked Canadians, St. Lucians, Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Norwegians, Germans, Russians, Chinese, Native American, Aboriginals Australians, Thai, [gibberish] "Why do you like country music?" and the first answer is virtually always something along the lines of it's the stories.
Jad: As in the stories in the lyrics?
Aaron: [singing] I was drunk the day my mama got out of prison
and I went to pick her up in the rain, but before I could get to the station in my pickup truck, she got ran over by a damned old train
Jad: That doesn't sound very Aboriginal to me.
Aaron: You know how many Aborigines are actually run over by trains? Thousands actually, that's not what Professor Fox is saying. He says ignore the details and listen for the larger story, which has to do with moving, with migration, and with regret. You're lonesome for something and the thing you're missing is--
Tom Jones: The old hometown.
Aaron: Or the green, green grass of home.
Tom Jones: The green, green grass of home.
Robert: Aaron Fox says you can boil much of this music down to just this feeling. You look-
Tom Jones: Look around me.
Robert: - you long for something simpler, something that you left behind.
Tom Jones: I realized that I was only dreaming.
Robert: What would be the best couple of examples you can think of of I miss the farm, I miss the cricket.
Aaron: Oh, where do you start? The first hit country song was a nostalgic reverie for, "
Fiddlin' John Carson: The little old log cabin in the lane.
Aaron: The little old log cabin in the lane performed by Jimmy Rogers and Phil and John Carson.
Robert: The song was recorded in 1927, and that happens to be the moment-
Aaron: If you look at the US Census,-
Robert: - as he will tell you when--
Aaron: - the United States crosses the threshold from more than 50% agrarian and world dwellers to more than 50% urban dwellers.
Robert: In other words, country music really exploded, and this is not an accident, when most people no longer lived in the country.
Aaron: Country music is born when the country becomes a nostalgic idea.
Aaron: So in America anyway, suddenly there was this dreamscape of country places that no longer existed except in heads and the music started just then. If people in Los Angeles and in Chicago heard country in their minds, it seems just as logical that people who move from the country to the city in Asia, in Africa, and Australia might have exactly the same experience.
Jad: These songs are sung in English. If these people in these far-away places don't speak English, what are they hearing?
Robert: It's important to understand English and the real enthusiastic around the world are English speakers. However, one explanation for its popularity elsewhere is that even if you don't speak English, the message is literally in the music itself. There is grammar here. In the vocalization, the singers, this is a very normal country Western thing, they actually make up a croaky sound that is very distinctive.
Jad: It's that [singing].
Robert: It's [singing].
Aaron: One of the principle vocal articulations is what country singers call a cry break.
In my book, by parts, the cry break into dozens of different specific articulations.
Robert: It's not just the voices, by the way, says Fox, it's the instruments. The instruments seem to be crying.
Aaron: In fact, the steel guitar is the signature sound of the country because it's recognized as iconic of a crying human voice. It's called the crying steel.
Robert: You can hear the lonesomeness and what seems to come roaring through is things just aren't what they were before. All over the world where people are leaving from the country to the city, there are enormous numbers. This is a story all kinds of people can understand.
Aaron: Country is just as much Canadian music as it is Kentucky music. It's just as much Hawaiian music as it is West Virginia music.
Robert: When you feel a football stadium with Dolly Parton listeners, are we saying that they're there in part because the song she's singing are their stories too?
Aaron: Yes, this is our music.
Dolly Parton: I've written a lot of songs about the smokey mountains where I grew up. We had a good laugh back there in the hills.
Aaron: We're all going through some version of 100 to 200 or 300-year change from being essentially peasants to being moderate.
Robert: Professor Fox has a book on this subject, Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture.
Jad: You can find more information about that on our website, radiolab.org.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.