Roam If You Want To: Musicians Inspired By Places

No plane tickets are needed to visit these places celebrated in song.
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Catherine McHugh
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No plane tickets are needed to visit these places celebrated in song.
Mamas and Papas By ABC Television (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Mamas and the Papas' hit "California Dreamin'" is an ode to the Golden State. (Photo: ABC Television (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As George Gershwin’s most popular song from the 1935 folk opera Porgy and Bess goes, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” Today, warmer weather tends to inspire people to get away from the daily grind or at least to daydream about doing so. 

Since many musicians spend their lives touring the globe, their songs are often inspired by their travels—or by the places they have been missing. The stories behind the songs can also reveal some interesting trips down memory lane. 

So, even if you are staying put this summer, here are some songs that can at least figuratively transport you to the destination you desire. Whether you like pop, show tunes, rock, hip-hop or jazz, just close your eyes, put in your ear buds and push play.

"Philadelphia Freedom" — Elton John

Americans are getting ready to celebrate the Fourth of July, and many of them will head to the nation’s birthplace in Philadelphia. Ironically, two English men—Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin—wrote the best-known song about the city, “Philadelphia Freedom.” Released on New Year's Day 1975, John actually penned the song in homage to his friend, tennis player Billie Jean King, who at the time was coaching the Philadelphia Freedoms in the World Team Tennis league. However, John gave Taupin no instructions to write lyrics about King, so he didn't. He based the song on the Philadelphia Soul sound of groups such as The O'Jays and Melvin & The Blue Notes, as well as the upcoming American bicentennial in 1976. The inscription on the single, noted that the song was dedicated to "B.J.K." (Billie Jean King) and "The Soulful Sounds Of Philadelphia."

"I Love Paris" — Cole Porter

A longtime inhabitant of Paris, Cole Porter’s 1953 ode to the City of Lights knows no seasons:

I love Paris in the spring time

I love Paris in the fall

I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles

I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles

That last line inspired the title of the 1964 movie "Paris When It Sizzles," which starred Audrey Hepburn and William Holden. Although it was part of the Broadway musical Can-Can, Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the song is probably the most popular. She recorded it in 1956 on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. However, in 1960, Frank Sinatra sang it in the movie musical version of Can-Can.

Carolina in My Mind — James Taylor 

From their first day on campus, students at UNC-Chapel Hill are greeted with a cappella groups singing renditions of James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind.” I speak from experience when I say its refrain (In my mind, I’m going to Carolina. Can’t you see the sunshine? Can’t you just feel the moonshine? Ain’t it just like a friend of mine to hit me from behind? Yes, I'm gone to Carolina in my mind) is persistently haunting (in a good way). Feeling homesick while staying in an apartment in London, Taylor wrote and recorded this song in 1968, and included it on a demo tape he sent to Paul McCartney, who then signed Taylor to the Beatles' record company, Apple Records. In the song’s original recording, McCartney played bass and George Harrison sang background harmonies. Yet despite their considerable star power, the song did not become a hit until it was rerecorded and re-released on Warner Brothers Records in 1970. 

Sketches of Spain — Miles Davis and Gil Evans

Recorded between November 1959 and March 1960, the album Sketches of Spain is one of Miles Davis' most enduring and innovative achievements. Its signature piece is "Concierto de Aranjuez," which Davis brought to Canadian arranger Gil Evans after hearing a classical version of it. The pair then set about to creating an entire album of material around it, which resulted in a masterpiece of modern art. Instruments include the bassoon, French horn, and bass clarinet; 27 musicians collaborated on this epic project. Davis’s interest in Spanish music had preceded his recording of “Flamenco Sketches” from his seminal jazz album Kind of Blue. Although Sketches of Spain consists of only five tracks, it showcases more then 40 minutes of slow, smooth music — an orchestral, beautiful, flowing tribute to Spain.

"California Dreamin’" — The Mamas and the Papas

On April 26, 1951, the California Legislature made "I Love You, California" the official state song but “California Dreamin’ ” may as well be its unofficial anthem, as it has likely drawn the most people to live in the Golden State. Singer/songwriters John Phillips and Michelle Phillips (nee Gilliam) wrote the song in 1963 while they were living in New York City. It was during the winter (“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray”) when John reportedly woke Michelle up in the middle of the night and asked her to work on the song with him. Along with Denny Doherty, Cass “Mama Cass” Elliot, the duo harmoniously formed The Mamas and the Papas in 1965 and, with the help of genius producer Lou Adler, recorded the song on their debut album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me over the years that the reason they were in California was because they heard the song ‘California Dreamin’,” Michelle Phillips said. “It changed their lives.” 

Empire State of Mind — Alicia Keys and Jay-Z

The Big Apple has inspired scores of songs celebrating the big city’s bright lights. In 2009, singer/songwriter/producer Angela Hunte and Jane't "Jnay" Sewell-Ulepic gave this theme an update by writing “Empire State of Mind” while they were in London and missing their hometown. A producer played the song for hip-hop superstar Jay-Z who ended up writing all new verses for himself in which he sounds like a nonchalant tour guide balancing out the good with the bad of the city that never sleeps, dropping names and neighborhoods while throwing out warnings about the trappings of urban life. Hunte suggested Alicia Keys sing the soaring chorus (“In New York, Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, There's nothin' you can't do …”) and “Empire State of Mind” became the standout track on Jay-Z’s album, The Blueprint 3