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Name-Checking Houston in Song

Houston has inspired musicians for many years – both in developing new genres of music, and as an ever-present backdrop to tales of love, loss and American dreams. However, it’s not just artists from Space City – such as Beyonce and ZZ Top — who call upon it to fill their lyrics; songwriters across the musical spectrum have found a place for it in their melodies. Sometimes the town is referenced as a throwaway, but often it is as if the composer spent time on the city’s streets.

One of the most famous Houston songs is “Midnight Special,” popularized by the blues artist Leadbelly. It has its origins as a traditional folk song, and was published by poet Carl Sandburg in “The American Songbag” in 1927. It did not originally have any Houston connection – that is, until Leadbelly recorded the song at Angola Prison in Louisiana in 1934. For this version, he inserted several stanzas relating to a 1923 Houston jailbreak:

“If you ever go to Houston, boy, you better walk right,
And you better not squabble and you better not fight.
Benson Crocker will arrest you, Jimmy Boone will take you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar that you are Sugar Land bound.”

Another memorable Houston tune is “Fannin Street,” by Tom Waits. The song, which takes its title from an actual street in Houston, describes a depressed and desolate part of town “where the sidewalk ends.” The song’s narrator is filled with regret over the choices he’s made – choices he associates with the title boulevard:

“There’s a crooked street in Houston town,
It’s a well-born path I’ve traveled down.
Now there’s ruin in my name, I wish I never got off the train,
I wish I’d listened to the words you said.”

One of the all-time great Houston songs is “If You Ever Get to Houston (Look Me Down),” written by Houston native Mickey Newbury and popularized by country crooner Don Gibson. It tells the tale of a struggling musician who finds himself playing dive bars in Houston, looking back on his past while accepting his fate and his dead-end situation.

“Cincinnati is a long, long way from here,
And it gets a little farther with each beer.
And if I had a dollar bill for every two-bit lounge
That I’ve been in, I would not be here now.”

This is not to be confused with the similarly titled “If You Ever Go To Houston,” by Bob Dylan. In that tune, the main character is passing through town, remembering the tough streets and his experiences during and after the Mexican-American War.

The Black Crowes likewise used the city as a metaphor for a hardscrabble past in “Houston Don’t Dream About Me.” Meanwhile, Houston is the place that the singer yearns to revisit in “Houston (I’m Comin’ To See You),” originally recorded by Glen Campbell (pictured) and more recently covered by NewFound Road. In their song “Houston,” R.E.M. puts forth that the city is “filled with promise.” And Mary Chapin Carpenter treads the same territory in her song “Houston,” which is about leaving the past behind and finding a new beginning in the title town.

“Never knew a promise
That didn’t break right in two.
Once we get to Houston,
Maybe one will come true.”

Music Trivia

The song “Houston (I’m Comin’ To See You),” a country hit, was written by David Paich, a studio musician and co-founder of the rock group Toto. In addition to writing the band’s hits “Africa” and “Rosanna,” he also penned tunes for other artists, including Cher, Boz Scaggs, Chicago and George Benson.

For Archie Bell & the Drells, Houston is the birthplace of a new dance craze in “Tighten Up.” The Eagles refer to the “debutantes in Houston” in “The Long Run” and Talking Heads name-check the city in “Life During Wartime.” Meanwhile those aforementioned natives – Beyonce and ZZ Top – pay tribute to their hometown in “Run the World (Girls)” and “Heaven, Hell or Houston,” respectively.

And while they don’t cite Houston directly, two songs make the list that refer to nearby Galveston Bay: Jimmy Buffett’s “Who’s the Blonde Stranger” and Bruce Springsteen’s politically charged “Galveston Bay,” in which a haunted Vietnam veteran finds his brutal past catching up to him in his hometown, and he must decide whether or not to continue the cycle of hatred and violence.

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