Lubbock on Everything: The Evocation of Place in Popular Music (A West Texas Example)

By Gumprecht, Blake | Journal of Cultural Geography, Fall-Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Lubbock on Everything: The Evocation of Place in Popular Music (A West Texas Example)


Gumprecht, Blake, Journal of Cultural Geography


Abstract. Much has been written about the important role place can play in literature, the visual arts, and film, and the ways in which creative works can shape our views of particular places. Comparatively, however, little analysis has been conducted on the equally significant role geography can play in music. This study uses the recordings of three contemporary performers from West Texas--Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Terry Allen--as an example of the influence geography can have on music, and the ability of song to create strong images of place.

Landscape into Art

The role of landscape and the importance of place in literature, poetry, the visual arts, and even cinema and television, is well established and has been widely discussed and written about. Think of Faulkner's Mississippi, the New England poetry of Robert Frost, the regionalist paintings of John Steuart Curry, or, in a contemporary sense, the early movies of Barry Levinson, with their rich depictions of Baltimore. There are countless other examples. Texas could be considered a protagonist in the novels of Larry McMurtry. The American Southwest is central to the art of Georgia O'Keeffe. New York City acts as far more than just a setting for the films of Woody Allen. The creative arts have helped shape our views of such places and the study of works in which particular places figure prominently can be useful in helping geographers to better understand the cultural landscape and the human perception of that landscape.(1)

Place can also be important to music, yet this has been largely overlooked by scholars. The literature on the subject, in fact, is nearly nonexistent. A simple search of a national library database, for example, retrieved 295 records under the subject heading "landscape in literature" and more than 1000 under the heading "landscape in art," but a similar search using the phrase "landscape in music" turned up nothing.(2) This line of inquiry is so poorly developed that no equivalent subject heading has been established. More exhaustive searches, likewise, yielded almost no major studies in this area. John Burke's book Musical Landscapes, in which the author looks at the influence of the British landscape on the music of classical composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar, appears to be the only contemporary, English-language monograph of this sort (Burke 1983).

The influence of place on music has received little attention even within the growing subfield of music geography. Over the last three decades, cultural geographers have produced an increasingly diverse body of work on musical subjects; two separate book collections of such research have been published since 1994 (Carney 1994; Leyson, Matless, and Revill 1998). But a closer examination of research on the geography of music reveals that the majority of published scholarship in this subfield has focused on the origins, diffusion, and distribution of musical styles, performers, and related elements--subjects that are largely quantifiable or mapable. This has been especially true of geographic studies on popular music.(3) Research seeking to examine the influence of landscape on popular music has been rare, and nearly all such studies produced have been so broad in geographic, thematic, or temporal scope that they have revealed little of what music can tell us about specific places.(4)

Others, too, have recognized the failure of cultural geographers to explore the linkages between music and place. Susan Smith, for example, has criticized geographers for privileging sight over hearing in landscape study, and for neglecting "the extent to which sound generally, and music in particular, structures spaces and characterizes place" (Smith 1994, 232). In urging cultural geographers to pay greater attention to musical subjects, Lily Kong notes that music "can serve as useful primary source material to understand the character and identity of places" (1995, 184). …

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