Little did reader Ian Dunbar realize that he struck a nerve when he commented on the Bordersplit article. It had nothing to do with his fine words or sentiment. I was in total agreement. Glaring geographical errors in songs grate on my nerves too. My nemesis happens to be a completely different musical composition but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mr. Dunbar referenced a song by one Huddie William Ledbetter, a.k.a. "Lead Belly," an iconic blues musician of the 1930’s and 1940’s who profoundly influenced generations of musicians even decades after his death and into the present. He wrote "Cotton Fields" which has been covered dozens of times by the likes of the Beach, Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Johnny Cash among many others. The lines that would sound strange to anyone with a basic understanding of U.S. geography:
It was down in Louisiana
Just a mile from Texarkana
Later cover versions changed the second line to "just about a mile from Texarkana", which I think may have had more to do with reworking the melody than any conscious attempt to weasel-word the error away. Geographic accuracy probably isn’t a top consideration for most musicians. Then again, how many geographers can carry a tune?
Louisiana is not a mile from Texarkana, or even "about" a mile from Texarkana, but more like thirty miles.
There are many legends concerning the naming of Texarkana. Most agree that it’s a portmanteau comprised of TEXas, ARKansas and (most germane to this story) LouisiANA. Beyond that, I couldn’t determine the truth from the many variations floating around the Intertubes. Some think the founders believed that the border with Louisiana was closer than it turned out to be in reality. However Texarkana was founded in 1873 so that doesn’t seem to make sense to me. Surveying techniques were certainly refined enough by the latter half of the Nineteenth Century to understand a thirty mile difference. Either way, there seems to be a number of strong historical and cultural ties between the corners of said states in the immediate vicinity.
Lead Belly was born in Mooringsport, LA in 1888. That’s a town located in the far northwestern corner of the state and not all that far from Texarkana itself. He would have known the true location of Texarkana relative to Louisiana so perhaps one can assume he was speaking figuratively. It’s still an error and it still sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to many a geographer’s ear. Maybe we can consider this as a little poetic license for someone who probably understood the difference, though. It seems like a forgivable event.
In the next installment I will discuss an even more egregious example that really gets under my personal skin — my version of Mr. Dunbar’s cotton fields. It involves the Mountain State, so don’t give the answer away in the comments if you know it. Feel free to mention any other songs that are geographically-challenged though.
Many thanks to Ian Dunbar for getting the ball rolling!