karl du fresne

Karl du Fresne – A Road Tour of American Song Titles

Anzac Hall, Featherston, September 2016

Reviewed by David Famularo

Having stopped to talk to Karl Du Fresne on a Masterton street one Friday afternoon in the past, I was aware that he was a fan of country music, and also that he was writing a book about his journey to the United States to visit places made famous in song.

Du Fresne begins the talk by reeling off a longish list, but in fact just a few of the seemingly endless list of songs that have a place mentioned in a song’s title or lyrics.  A state like Alabama could have had a book by itself, he pointed out.

The fact that du Fresne could have chosen so many more is a testament to Americans’ attachment to town, cities and landscapes, real or imagined.

As Du Fresne points out, “American music is very rich in referencing place.”

While the talk inevitably charts some of the same waters as the book, du Fresne’s adlib insights are some of the little gems on a rainy Sunday afternoon in the atmospheric Anzac Hall.

His final list of 24 songs were chosen because they were the ones that most resonated with du Fresne when he was growing up in Waipukura in Hawkes Bay from the late 1950s to early 1970s.

The aim of the book, du Fresne said at the outset was “to explore the imagined places of my youth…… they made an impression on me when I was at my most impressionable – emotions are so vivid in your teenage years, so all the songs have strong associations for me.”

Du Fresne seems to have been under no illusion at the outset of his journey that he would find exactly what he imagined.

As he points out, the San Jose that was a sleepy little pastoral town Hal David remembered from his youth and dreamed of escaping to in the lyrics of “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” now has a ten lane motorway running through it.

Some places like Bobby Gentry’s Tallahachie bridge exist, but not the town, while  other instances, the places do exist but the writer had never been to them, choosing their name for purposes of alliteration or rhyme. Marty Robbins say “Rosie’s Cantina from his tour bus and grabbed it for El Paso.

However, when du Fresne stood looking over the sea wall to the ocean at Galveston he felt it was a place Jimmy Webb must have visited.

Whatever the potential for disappointment, du Fresne was interested in “going to see some of these places – to learn more about them and what inspired the author to write a song about them.”

The question that naturally arised during the talk was why, of all the countries in the world, the United States has had such a propensity for featuring place names in songs, going back as far back as Home of the Range, Oh Suzanna and other nineteenth century standards.

Du Fresne grew up in a musical household and was serious about his music, playing bass guitar and singing in bands in many of Wellington’s most famous venues of the 1960s from the Majestic Cabaret to the 1860 Hotel.

But he recognised early on that he was never going to be good enough to make a precarious living out it, and instead became a journalist and eventually editor of The Dominion in the late 1980s.

Now a semi-retired freelance writer, du Fresne and wife Jolanta took three road trips through the United States, visiting children and grandchildren as an additional incentive.

The first journey was travelled in a RV (motorhome) “that performed flawlessly when it was stationary” but ranged from the difficult to the dangerous on all other occasions.

For the other two trips, the couple instead hired a car and stayed in the Motel 6 and Super 8 motel chains, low budget but pleasant.

Du Fresne argued in the talk that while great songs have been born in other parts of the United States, the two great centres of American music have been New York, home to large Jewish and Italian communities, and the musical artery that travels north from New Orleans to Memphis and then Nashville – birthplace of jazz, blues, soul and country.

“America is intensely musical but this is where the musical pulse beats most strongly.” Du Fresne also noted that the great American music has always come out of poor communities.

A number of times during the talk du Fresne highlighted the significance of the road to America.

“The road is such a crucial part of American culture – the American mythology of the road – the restless westward push. America has developed a culture that romanticises and almost fetishicises the road.”

Du Fresne read three extracts which gave a taste of the book – a mixture of history, observation and personal experience. His delivery style reminded me somewhat of Australian journalist and satirist Clive James.

One can’t help but feel that time and progress have evaporated whatever charms once existed in many of places cited in song.

But a few have managed to keep their charm, like Mendocino on the northern Californian coast, which impressed du Fresne.

The author also has a fondness for Nashville,  still a comparatively small city of 650,000 that still seems to have a thriving live music culture going on.

Which brings me back to the subject of country music. It is unclear if the strong country flavour of the 24 songs du Fresne chose  is  a reflection of his musical tastes, or suggests country music has had a particularly strong propensity for referencing locations in its lyrics. This may be due to country music’s strong emphasis on story telling, which is inevitably located in place and time.

 There is no definitive answer to this or any of the other questions raised by A Road Tour, but like so much else about music it makes for interesting speculation.