There are many examples of towns and cities that carry their history in tandem with the present. Athens and Rome, obviously, where the monuments from centuries of long ago provide one of the main tourist attractions; London, where echoes of the past in the Tower of London, the Monument, the Jack the Ripper walks, mingle with the modern everyday; Dubrovnik, where you enter a medieval walled city in the 21st Century.
There are less obvious examples too, including Boston. It may seem familiar – though not as much as New York - from TV shows but the visitor there (eg me) also becomes aware of a past they may only be vaguely aware of. Take the Freedom Trail, for example, a walking trail along and past several historical sites in Boston: Paul Revere’s house, the site of the Boston Massacre and others. Knowledge of the American War of Independence by the average Briton is probably a bit hazy and can also get mixed up with the flotsam and jetsam of history that floats round the mind. Was George Washington cutting down a cherry tree sometime then? Weren’t the French pretty important in the outcome of the War of Independence and when did they then become cheese-eating surrender monkeys? A vague recollection of a Disney film, Johnny Tremain, sometimes shown on Sunday afternoon TV, with British redcoats stomping about colonial Boston like storm-troopers whilst the townsfolk sang Sons of Liberty.
The Boston Tea Party was in the film too, of course - also the unlikely subject of a hit by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band in 1976. This historical era, in fact, has cropped up a few times in pop music. 60’s American rock group Paul Revere and the Raiders performed in full historical uniforms. (This trend, as with Union Gap in American Civil War dress, seemed mainly an American phenomenon. I can only think of the New Vaudeville Band and their Edwardian toffs’ attire as a UK comparison). Lonnie Donegan had a big UK hit in 1959 with a version of Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans ( not Boston, obviously, but same era), primly substituting ‘bloomin’ British’ for ‘bloody British’ in the lyrics. Horton’s version, though, is worth seeing just for the exploding alligator and balletic redcoats.
However, it is always something of an eye-opener to visit a country abroad and see a glimpse of history through their eyes and not through the lens of your own country. In Cuba, for example, seeing the photos - and hearing the accounts - of the missile sites of 1962 or realising, as you are asked to leave your rucksack at the entrance of a shop in Havana, that you could be seen as a potential terrorist come to bomb. In Boston, it was my daughter’s American partner urging us to see Bunker Hill; ”that’s where we whupped you”.
The historical side of Boston, however, is only one of many and there has always been pop music from and of Boston to keep its image contemporary as well. In the late 60’s record companies, seeing the success of West Coast groups, tried to kick-start the ‘Boston/Bosstown Sound’, largely based round local groups Beacon Street Union and the wonderfully-named Ultimate Spinach – though it never really got off the ground, any more than the ‘Farnborough Sound’ did in the UK. With Ultimate Spinach in mind one could, however, draw up a dinner menu of sorts based solely on the names of groups. It might look like this:Starters
Eggs Over Easy with Salt ‘n Pepa and Bread with (Great )Peanut Butter (Conspiracy)
Meatloaf , Wild Turkey or Fish with Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Black-Eyed Peas, Ultimate Spinach and a Smashing Pumpkin
Raspberries or Cranberries with Jam and Cream
Since then however, there have been scores of songs that have looked at Boston from every angle: an impressive list was given in the comments on the Paris Bells column. Some, like Shipping Up to Boston by the Dropkick Murphys, have celebrated the boisterous waterfront life. There is the lyrical description of the Fens area by Jonathan Richman: “And there's a silence to that place as you stand there in the sun, and there's also this haunting silent sorrow, because the glory days have gone“. There is Augustana’s vision of escaping California for a new life in Boston, in their song Boston: heading eastwards, not westwards, to a promised land.
Against some of these the song here, also just called Boston, might seem at first a bit incongruous, too laid back and mellow, a geographical relocation of I Left My Heart in San Francisco . It is from a 2004 album, Outrun the Sky, by Lalah Hathaway, daughter of soul singer Donny Hathaway, and who has a smoky, velvety voice that has echoes of Cassandra Wilson. Yet, for me, the mood of it fits what I experienced there in parts of the city. Like watching people playing chess in an outdoor cafe in the afternoon sun; or going for breakfast - including Greek yogurt and blueberries - in the relaxed atmosphere of Zoe’s Diner in Cambridge; or ambling along the Freedom Trail, though giving up before Bunker Hill in favour of a drink and cake in the Faneuil Hall Market.
A song by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, They Came to Boston, criticises visitors just like me, seeking out Quincy Market or the Swan Boats in the Public Gardens: ‘They came to Boston on their vacation. They came, they saw, they annoyed me. They saw it all, what! Faneuil Hall! It's best if they just avoid me..they found the Hub confusing,looked for the Swan Boats in Mattapan, well, I find that real amusing". A similar attitude, I guess, to the derogatory South Coast term of ‘grockle’ to describe seaside holiday tourists. I subsequently looked up an old Ultimate Spinach track - Genesis of Beauty - and sensed in the opening bars the same sort of drift away feeling as the Lalah Hathaway tune, a side of Boston no less, or more, real than that seen in the songs of the Dropkick Murphys or in Boston Legal –or, for that matter, the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones. Different sides in tandem, just like the past and present.
Link to song