Ooh, aren't we using fancy terms now! "Post-industrial decline," you say. "What's that, exactly?"
You might not use that phraseology, but you'll know it when you see it, or in this case, hear about it. Basically, it's what happens to towns and the people in them once their main local industry has used up all the resources it needs and moved on to more economically favorable locations, leaving the inhabitants in the lurch. Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, for example, write these kinds of songs all the time, but we limited the list to one song per artist to make things fair.Songs about urban poverty, while related, were not considered for this list, as terrible conditions for the poor in big cities predate the industrial revolution. And there were a lot we wanted to include, from Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" to PJ Harvey's "Community of Hope." But that's another list topic for another time...
John Prine's good old standby is both a tribute to his parents and their hometown, and a lament for the way he remembered it before the coal company strip-mined the land, and hauled away the environment that was always a paradise to him.
Even with the idyllic land now only a memory, he says in the final verse that he still wants his ashes scattered there, mixing with the earthly paradise even if he only makes it "halfway" to the heavenly one.Now frequently covered by other musicians, the song almost didn't get written because Prine feared nobody would pronounce "Muhlenberg County" correctly.
There's probably a whole separate list to be had composed entirely of Bruce Springsteen songs; we chose the one that reliably makes fathers cry, every time."My Hometown" is sentimental, but not blindly so - the singer acknowledges the racial violence that made his town less-than-perfect, while still longing for the days when there were jobs to be had. Now he's moving away, and hopes his son will even remember the old town at all once they've moved on. It's a lament not just for working men, but also for the times gone by that the next generation will never know.
When Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan combine songwriting forces, it's like the power of Americana exponentially swells. Everything is going wrong in "Heartland," from foreclosure to toxic drinking water to a loss of faith. No solution is offered, but Nelson and Dylan point out a side-effect perhaps worse than the loss of a few businesses - the American Dream coming apart at the seams.Even Nelson's usual, stereotypical method of relaxation doesn't work in this scenario, as he tells us, "Ain't no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can't speak." The home place is under fire, and you can't even use it to spark a joint.
Like Joni Mitchell, Harry Chapin frames the loss of industry in terms of a relationship lost, as the hottest guy in town leaves when he realizes the factory closure will take away all the jobs.Presumably, the dad from Chapin's more famous "Cats in the Cradle" was also having a tough time due to the economy; after all, he rarely sees his kid because there are mouths to feed and bills to pay.