Updated: Oct 6, 2022
After romantic love and God, home is one of the most common subjects of popular music. Can we make any significant generalizations about songs on this subject and can they show us anything about ourselves? In this essay, I will examine a number of songs about home, some in depth, some more superficially. My selection is not intended to be scholarly, but personal. It is based on songs I know and mostly like or love. I will no doubt leave some interesting songs out of the sample on that account, but I believe I have some insights to offer nonetheless. At the risk of exposing myself to public scrutiny, at the end of the essay I will try to show how a psychological profile of myself might be created on the basis of my tastes.
There are many dimensions to how home is portrayed in songs. We could ask whether we are focusing on home itself or the singer's current place away from home, whether home is a literal place or a person(s), whether home is real or a fantasy, whether home is in the past, present, or future, and so forth. Perhaps I could make some sort of complicated Venn diagram with overlapping circles to analyze my sample, but I would rather go through various songs and discuss the dimensions as they come up. Note at the outset that when I refer to the "singer" of a song, I mean the "I, me, mine" of the song's narrative, not the vocalist who literally sings it.
Our first song will actually be one of the only ones of the sample I don't like: "Home on the Range"
"Home on the Range" is somewhat unusual among songs about home because the singer does not long for a place he is not, nor does he relate it to family, lovers, God, etc. The song is just praise for
the gorgeous landscape where he lives in the present. It's just about deer and antelope playing, beautiful sand and sky, etc. There are no people in the song, except for the "The red man [who] was pressed from this part of the West." The singer wouldn't trade his home on the range for any city, which is, I suppose, where the people are. The words have some good images, but overall, it is sentimental to the point of being kitsch, at least as far as I am concerned. Still, it is affords us with an unusually pure instance of home being strictly a place.
Our second song is also not about longing but about a place immediately experienced. "Penny Lane" is a neighborhood where future Beatles Paul McCartney and John Lennon met as teenagers. Not exactly a home, perhaps, but the singer does say that it is "in my ears and in my eyes." The song is full of images worthy of Dr. Seuss:
In Penny Lane there is a fireman with an hourglass
And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen
He likes to keep his fire engine clean
It's a clean machine (ding ding ding ding ding ding ding)
One image would not make into Seuss's books is: "A four of fish and finger pies." A "four of fish" means four-pennies-worth of fish and chips, and that would past muster with the good doctor. But "finger pies" refers to "fingering" a woman, which would not go well with cats in hats. All part of growing up for Paul and John, I suppose. Here's Paul McCartney performing the song.
"Penny Lane" is a place made of people instead of sand, sky, and antelopes. You have to wonder, though, whether the people there exist for their own sake or whether they are just idiosyncratic puppets who exist for the amusement of the singer. The sly, slang reference to sex makes me think the latter is the case. Here's another verse that supports this reading:
Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she's in a play
She is anyway
This verse suggests a theater of the mind, and it is plausible that that perspective pervades the song. That said, it is a charming ditty about the oddballs from the singer's hometown, and I wouldn't want to drain the whimsy from it.
In our first two songs there is no distance between where the singer is and where he calls home, but usually there is at least some gap, and this gives rise to a quantity of homesickness, very common in songs on the subject. One of the most popular songs on our list is John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." In it the singer is thinking of driving back to West Virginia, the place where he belongs and about which he sings in loving geographical detail.
None of the songs three writers, Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert, and Denver himself, had any connection to West Virginia. Danoff originally considered setting the song in Massachusetts since its name has the same number of syllables as "West Virginia," but (fortunately, in my opinion) he changed it. Interestingly, Denver grew up without a real home because his father was in the Air Force and frequently moved the family. Perhaps he understood the need for a solid foundation because of his childhood experience, and that made it into his music. I would characterize this song as "just sentimental enough," far superior to the hokey hoedown of "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy," and even though the latter is also about home, I'm not going to touch it because I feel embarrassed on its behalf.
"Country Roads" is rich in images of the landscape, but the most striking thing about it for me is that the song treats the place as a person. The state is the singer's "mountain mama." He refers to her as a "miner's lady," and he hears "her voice in the mornin' hour." It is appropriate that the place (the name of which contains a woman's name) is his "mama" because everyone's first home is the womb, which is a place that is part of a mother Literally though, West Virginia is still a landscape. We will see an example of home being an actual person later.
Sometimes a home seems to be a home in the typical sense of the domicile where one lives. And sometimes there's a stark contrast between that homeplace and the place(s) one currently is, giving rise to more serious homesickness than we see in "Country Roads."
Consider Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound." Here is how home is described:
Home where my thought's escapin'
Home where my music's playin'
Home where my love lies waitin'
Silently for me
Home for the singer is largely a state of mind—his thoughts and his disembodied music. The one existential element is his silent lover. The idea of his lover's patient yearning has a certain beauty to it, but it has long struck me as as too passive,. She doesn't move or speak. She has no existence outside of her relationship with him. She seems like just another image in the singer's mind.
While the singer's home is to a great extent in his head, the towns in which he performs are described with unappetizing realism—cigarettes, magazines, strangers, factories, comfortless emptiness, etc. He wants to escape from that dreary reality to the ideal realm of music and love. "Escape to home" is a theme of the genre, and home can be a fantasy that functions as an alternative to an ugly or cruel world.
For a contrast to "home as fantasy," we might turn to to Seals and Crofts' "Summer Breeze." Like "Homeward Bound" it concerns a man going home to a woman who waits for him. But "Summer Breeze" focuses on the pleasant physical details of the home and its environs (the scent of jasmine in the breeze, the doorstep, screen door, etc.). In addition, the singer's woman has an inner life ("not a care in the world") and an outer life (she cooks, sets the table, and holds her man at bedtime). Home is the right place with the right person. Perhaps the vision is a bit too traditional for some, but it is still an earthly reality and not a thing of the mind.
In many sacred songs, on the other hand, home could never be here on Earth, but would have to be in Heaven. Sometimes Earth and/or Heaven are described in detail, sometimes not, and that creates differing effects. In the hymn "Wayfaring Stranger," The Stranger is a journeyer on Earth traveling toward Heaven. Both are described in detail. Earth is full of sickness, toil, danger, dark clouds, a way that's hard and steep, while Heaven is populated with the loved ones who have gone before him: father, mother, classmates, and of course his savior. Heaven has "beauteous fields"
and he will get to wear a crown of glory, singing Jesus' praises accompanied by a band washed clean in the blood of the lamb. The "Wayfaring Stranger" even offers a roadmap: to get to Heaven you cross the River Jordan. I selected the Johnny Cash performance of the song, even though he omits some of the verses, because at this stage of his life his voice fits the persona of the Stranger.
"Wayfaring Stranger" produces its effect with its great detail, while Mahalia Jackson's "Soon I will be Done (With the Trouble of the World)" is almost the opposite. It has virtually no detail. It calls this world a place of "trouble, weeping, and wailing," and it suggests that Heaven is the home where you live with God and see your mother. That's it. Otherwise it is all emotion and atmosphere. https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Jackson's profound delivery is supported by an impressive arrangement—organ, piano, bass, brushes. The combination of the two keyboard instruments provides a rich, slightly eerie sound. It is no wonder that the hymn is often played at funerals: the overall mood is mournful, although it is ultimately a song of hope.
In some songs, however, home, even on earth, seems to be dispensable. Roger Miller's 1964 hit country tune "King of the Road," tells the story of a hobo who apparently does not even want a home. His lack of attachment correlates with his lack of character: he mooches and steals his way through the song. We're supposed to find the song charming because of the roguish independence of the king, but if taken seriously, the song reveals the ugliness of the rootless man. If you think I'm being priggish, consider the line where the king scavenges other people's used cigars and smokes them, i.e. puts them in his mouth. Disgusting, really, but I thought it was a lot of fun when I was a little boy.
(As you can see, I take lyrics rather seriously. I'm not trying to be a killjoy; I just believe that it's important to look at the effect, sometimes unconscious, of music on the soul, mine included. It's good to enjoy what you love, but you either occasionally challenge your tastes or you don't grow.)
A song about tramps of an entirely different sort would be Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." In it the singer and his girl Wendy zoom around the outskirts of town in a souped-up car. They want to escape from their hometown, and you can understand why:
this town rips the bones from your back
It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap.
We gotta get out while we're young
'Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.
Near the song's end there is some possibility mentioned of finding a better home:
Oh, someday, girl,
I don't know when
We're gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go and we'll walk in the sun
But 'til then, tramps like us
Baby, we were born to run.
The impression the singer leaves of the home he wants to escape from is much more striking than the home in the sun he wants to go to, which seems to be a vague fantasy. He defines himself as running away, not running toward.
My feeling has always been that the singer does not really want to get out of Jersey so much as he wants to revel in his passionate alienation from it. If he truly wanted to find a new home, he wouldn't refer to himself and Wendy as "tramps," which has the connotation of choosing to live untethered, like the King of the Road. The fantasy of a sunny destination is what justifies the running, since without the promise of a new home, all that furious motion would be just an self-indulgent melodrama. The singer does not wish to be the young Marlon Brando's motorcycle-riding Wild One, but at the same time, he does. It's a great song.
Sometimes home is not a place at all, not a landscape, as in "Home on the Range" or "Penny Lane" not a domicile, as in "Homeward Bound;" not Heaven, as in "Soon I will be Done;" nor a vague promise, as in "Born to Run." Sometimes home is defined only as where a loved one is.
In "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, "home is wherever I'm with you." The dual singers make clear that they love each other more than their birthplaces, their parents, chocolate candy, and Jesus Christ. The singers are earnest about this with what I take to be deliberate triteness. "Well, holy moly, me oh my / You're the apple of my eye."
"Home" is a popular song on YouTube, with almost 200,000,000 views, which might point up the need young people have for a place where they can feel grounded. Its whistling intro and its prancing rhythm will strike some listeners as happy-go-lucky and others as childish. I think some listeners might want to have it both ways, with the ironic winsomeness offsetting what they feel to be an uncool sentimentality.
But the singers in "Home" did grow up in definite places ("Alabama, Arkansas"), and I think they probably benefitted from that experience. What if one does not such a place and cannot look forward to one? We live in an age where people are constantly on the move, after all. The German song "Oft Gefragt" ("Often Asked") by the popular group AnnenMayKantereit takes up this question. The song is dedicated to the father of its composer and vocalist, Henning May. The son in the song is addressing a parent.
You dressed me, undressed me and raised me and we've moved. I've lied to you: "I'm not taking any drugs" and "I went to school".
You often wondered what was tearing me up, I didn't want you to know. You were at home alone and missed me and wondered, what you still mean to me.
You're home to me. You will always be home.
You picked me up and dropped me off, woke up in the middle of the night because of me, I've thought about that a lot recently.
We were in Prague, Paris and Vienna - in the Bretagne and Berlin, but never in Copenhagen. You often wondered what was tearing me up, and I too stopped wondering that myself.
You were home alone and missed me and wondered, what you still mean to me.
You're home to me. You will always be home.
I have no hometown, just you. You'll always be home to me.
There is a hint of alienation here, since the singer moved around a lot, but ultimately the son has bonded with the father who cared for him. This song is an exceptional example of a singer finding his roots in his first family (his parent) rather than with or a member(s) of his own generation or God. This is perhaps the archetypal feeling of home, despite the absence of a physical place.
The home is not even the place where the parent is; it is home as an actual, individual person. Perhaps that would more typically be a mother instead of a generic parent, but either will serve. The lyrics do not commit to one or the other in any case because they are aimed at the parent directly, and the German word for "you" is genderless.
I'd like to conclude with my favorite song from the sample: "Half Acre" by Hem. Hem is a difficult band to classify. The best genre to place them in might be "alt-country," although "Half Acre" doesn't sound very much like country to me.
The idea of the song is that the singer is carrying a piece of a map of Michigan that contains the half-acre parcel of land upon which her childhood home sits. She lives in various places far away from home, and the nights of the people she encounters are full of "fear and darkness." However, she is not conquered by sorrow and depression:
But I am holding half an acre Torn from the map of Michigan I am carrying this scrap of paper
That can crack the darkest sky wide open Every burden taken from me Every night my heart unfolding My home
In this song we are given images of the moody and melancholy places away from home, but nothing about home except that it's a plot in Michigan. Nonetheless, the music and Sally Ellyson's naturalistic style tell us that her homeplace has an enormous potency: it can make a mere scrap of paper into a talisman to ward off despair. Composer Daniel Messé grew up in Michigan and has said that that has informed all of his work. When I listen to the song, I frequently cry a little at the end. longing for a real childhood home to feel so deeply about.
Here ends my survey. We can glean that home involves belonging and nurturing, but that is no revelation. What I find interesting, though, is what your idea of home might say about you: Do you focus more on where you want to go or more on where you are now? Are you more attached to places or to persons? Are your goals primarily fantasies or do they have some kind of reality? Are you grounded in the past, the present, or the future? Of course, these are not stark alternatives, and there are subtle ways to integrate what might seem like opposites, but I believe the answers to these questions can still provide insight, and looking at the music one loves can be a key to one's inner life.
Since I love or at least like almost all of the songs in my sample we might be able to identify something about my personality by looking at what I feel comfortable with versus what feels "off" to me rather than by looking at what I love or hate. "Penny Lane," "Homeward Bound," and "Born to Run" all seem to be about home as states of mind rather than external reality, and that bothers me because I try so hard not to to be trapped in my own head. I do not believe in God, but I see the beauty and comfort of songs about going home to be with Him because there is a kind of spirituality to me, although I typically find it in natural places such as West Virginia and in art.
I despair a little bit about my childhood, partly because we moved around a lot, but I often dream about my grandparents' house in the Midwest, and that is my half acre to the extent I have one. I wouldn't say my wife is my home exactly. I see home as a place I can share with her, but still a place, a domicile.
"Summer Breeze," which was sung by the duo my whole family loved when I was a boy and had just moved to a strange new city, is the closest approximation among the songs mentioned to my overall feeling of home. A breeze can make you feel more alive and present, and that quality was in the air on that night when I proposed to the woman who has been with me for 35 years. Home is the place we share.
I think it might be possible to develop a crude psychological profile of a person just from their musical tastes in songs about home. We may need to open it up to other subjects in music, but home could be a good lens to start with. But the process is not one of filling out a questionnaire—it's a dialogue. In my own case, writing essays and conversation have helped me develop my self-awareness, which isn't just there, but has to be teased out. Other people might go about self-discovery by different means. To each his own, but it is important, as the philosopher said, to know thyself. If any of my readers would like to have a discussion about music and what it says about them, please reach out to me.
The funny thing is that I didn't set out to write a self-examination. I meant to create a taxonomy of a certain kind of songs. It would have been impersonal, dry, and stilted. Only as I went along did I realize how much my reactions to the music revealed about me, and that helped me organize my material. That for me is the beauty of writing essays.
What one considers home provides a window into the soul. Perhaps the most important alternative is whether you are a wanderer or are you settled? For most human beings, the idea of home, whether real or fantasy, keeps hope alive. This is a good thing, because we do not stay in the womb forever.