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Songs that Cross Borders

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Music has a way of getting stuck in your head. No matter who you are, or where you are, it seems to have this effect. We turn to the man behind all those catchy songs from "School House Rock," Bob Dorough, to get some insight into what it takes to make a hook. Conjunction-junction, what IS your function?

Then we hear about the song written by an Englishman about an American city whose promise of togetherness really yields loneliness sung by a white Parisian woman everyone thought was black. Sound obscure? You know it. You love it. You hate it. You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares, and go "Downtown!" The story of "Downtown" was produced by Alan Hall of Falling Tree Productions and originally aired on his series about pop songs, called "Repeat 'Til Fade."

Finally the phenomenon of American country music's popularity in places like Zimbabwe, Thailand, and South Africa is something we find quite surprising. Aaron Fox, an anthropologist of music at Columbia University, tells us to rethink our surprise... though he denies any kind of meaningful "universals" in music, he thinks that quite simply, country music tells a story that a lot of us get. Check out his book Real Country: Music And Language In Working-Class Culture to learn more.


Bob Dorough, Aaron Fox and Alan Hall

Comments [13]

Anna from LA

Good song. I heard many times on the website and now I listen here.

Feb. 04 2017 09:00 AM
MaeLou from Hawaii

Thank you for this great segment. Enjoyed hearing how the "intent" in music transports us back in time to small kid time. I grew up on a farm on prairie in '50's where western music was on every radio station, tractors drove on gravel roads and endless horizon was the norm. I moved away to the west coast for college and retired from a city-life career to a small rural town in farming area of the Big Island, Hawaii. To my astonishment and delight the "back-yard" style of slack-key music transports me back to small-kid time. It feels like coming home to small town living where everyone is a neighbor and there's lots of great food at pot lucks. The small farms (papaya and mango) and small town life is so much the same, I feel like I've been transported back to the '50s. The farmers drive tractors on roads and it's common for locals to wear muddy overshoes to town. I thought I was the only one who felt this admittedly weird way until Garrison Keillor brought his show, Prairie Home Companion, to Hawaii. He invited the same slack-key musicians I hear locally to play on his show and he made the same comparison to prairie living. That's some powerful music!

Mar. 20 2016 07:21 PM
Keith from WBUR Boston MA

I like the "idea" of the universality of US county music... some urban nostalgic notion of a long lost utopic rural home. But I suspect Dolly Parton in Zimbabwe has everything to do with Sugar Hill Records and SDC Radio Networks' effective marketing and not the twang of a petal guitar. But hey, what's the point of being American if you can't imagine your culture is universal.

Mar. 19 2016 04:52 PM
Kimberly Martin from Falmouth Kentucky

I was interested in the part that a song writer will think of a tune, and wonder if they thought of that tune or stole it from somewhere. They commented that a good tune comes from "The Muse", but didnt go into detail about what exactly is a Muse?? I'm interested

Feb. 16 2015 03:43 PM
Julie Chandler from Nebraska

I have to share this segment with my son. When he was in the service he became a country-western music fan. It was not music we played much and really didn't like.
After he was out of the service I noticed he no longer listen to country-western and when I asked him about it he said, "I don't feel that bad anymore."

Mar. 22 2014 04:03 PM
Kacey Kelley from San Francisco

What is the name of the song or the artist who plays that song at the end of this segment? After the credits/sponsors are read there's this beautiful guitar music that plays. What is this?

Dec. 06 2013 01:45 PM
Lailee Soleimani from Toronto

Hi, Thanks for doing this episode. It is such a peaceful experience listening to this. What is the name of the track that plays at the end of story? Love it, it's magical.

Aug. 28 2013 12:04 PM
Jonathan Wolf from Omaha, NE

So Funny! After listening to this piece on NPR at lunch, I walked back into the office, whistling the first few notes...and from down the hall, I hear someone yell, "DOWN-TOWN!" He said he could name that song in three notes. Proof positive of the power of song.

Dec. 12 2012 01:50 PM
Celena from West Virginia

I've always wondered why people from other states, even other countries, loved this song as if it were their own. Now I know.
"Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, Country roads"

Dec. 10 2012 01:21 PM
emel from columbus, OH

I noticed when you were talking to Bob Dorough about "hooks," I noticed something. You should listen to the This American Life song contest, a particular song actually. Listen to the beginning of the song by "They were Pirates" (song remix #30) and compare it to the that Bob sings - "sittin' on the doorstep side-by-side..." Sounds like theres a stolen hook there!

Jun. 11 2008 02:47 PM
Len Lynch (lenlynch) from Chicago, IL

Ah Ha! While listening to this episode, I had the thought that Peter Gabriel's vocal style incorporates inflection, emotion, and narative elements that could be rooted in country and western music. Facinating!

Keep up the great work.

May. 12 2008 10:48 PM
David from Pittsburgh, PA

This was on of the best segments so far on Radiolab - it was super!

May. 01 2008 05:17 PM
Ellen Horne, Radiolab's Executive Producer from Radiolab

*Just a note for folks looking for the addition conversation between Radio Lab and Aaron Fox. At Mr. Fox's request, we've tabled that discussion.*

Apr. 22 2008 05:08 PM

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