Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Downtown sung by Petula Clark


Recently, I downloaded this old song from Petula Clark onto my Ipod nano in a rare nostalgic mood.It reminds me of a good memory from my childhood; my sister and I riding our tricycles around the driveway on a summer day with the song playing loudly from the dashboard radio of my stepfather’s red and white Plymouth. It still makes me smile thinking of the simple fun we were having.
The song also makes me remember the infrequent trips my family made to downtown Cleveland. In winter, to see the animated Christmas displays in the department store windows and rarer summer trips downtown, where the plump grey pigeons wove through pedestrians on the sidewalks, just out of reach of my attempts to pet them(the pigeons, not the pedestrians).
Not only did the song sound very different now from the tinny transistor radios back then, I was also struck by new thoughts about the lyrics. I realized what a dichotomy the song was for its time. While most pop songs in the mid-1960’s were reflecting current events, Downtown sounded positively fluffy. While no one expected Petula Clark to pick up where The Byrds or Crosby, Stills and Nash left off, I wondered if the naivete was as deliberate as it appeared.
Because at the time this song was released, major cities in the U.S. were undergoing tremendous change. They were quite literally exploding, as many segregated neighborhoods, usually located near the center of town, were beset by riots. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “Riots are the voice of the unheard.” which is perfectly understandable, but the damage done to many inner city neighborhoods have still not completely been repaired, many decades later.
Since the 1950’s, American cities had been growing outward, fueled by cheap gasoline, shopping malls and an ever growing highways system, leading to the urban sprawl that continues today. Between the enlarging suburbs and white flight, American cities became donuts in less than a decade, meaning the center was deserted and the population and businesses had moved to the outer rings.This is different from cities in other parts of the world, especially in Europe, which remain vibrant, even in the centers.
Reading the lyrics of the song, (which I’d never done before), reassured me that it wasn’t pure cotton candy, though many of the sentiments harked back to an earlier time. The idea was that downtown was a utopian place, the ultimate pick-me-up with every sort of wish fulfillment: shopping, movies, music, companionship, “…everything’s waiting for you…”. My mother, who can recall downtown Cleveland’s halcyon days, agreed with this interpretation. I had to admit that today’s equivalent, “shopping mall”, just didn’t have the same musical flair.
But there is a serious bit towards the end of the song: “And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you. Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to guide them along.” It almost doesn’t fit with the other escapist lyrics, but it does if one views the town as the center of the community, a place to connect and meet your neighbors. Or it could be a reference to Carnaby Street, which was hip and happening in the ’60’s. Maybe it wasn’t just the shopping and entertainment that would make the listener feel carefree? In fact, the last verse invites the listener to come downtown and join in the fun, “…maybe I’ll see you there…”, a precursor of the inclusive nature of the counterculture movement.
My sister said I was reading too much into a perky pop song and I don’t want to ruin the memories of it for anyone, including myself. Though I was pleased to find more to it than I’d thought all these years. It’s still not I Am The Walrus, but does firmly fit into the trends and attitudes of the 1960’s, as well as a perfect summer day when I was little.

Warner Bros. 1965 written by Tony Hatch

You can read the lyrics and hear Petula Clark sing ‘Downtown’ at the Rhapsody website here

22 comments on “Downtown sung by Petula Clark

  1. annebrooke
    January 24, 2011

    Lovely to revisit one of my favourite songs, Jackie, and an interesting take on the lyrics too – it’s made me think!
    :)

    Anne
    xxx

  2. david
    January 24, 2011

    How do I put this, without appearing stuffy and snobby ??

    Perhaps to observe that Mr Tony Hatch and his ditties over the years may have been the stuff of popular culture, but of little or no enduring artistic stature, and it was something of a surprise to see this the subject of serious comment in such a forum as Vulpes Libris.

    As far as I know, Hatch wrote ‘Downtown’ after a visit to NYC in 1964, so it perhaps does mirror American city life of the time.

    But I cannot agree with many of the observations made in the piece – for example, UK and US cities have always been rather dissimilar in character – urban sprawl and the growth of the megopolis that was / is the New York etc conurbation is and was very very different from the economic and social development of UK (and European) cities where city centre residential flats tend to be the housing of choice for many, as opposed to a two or three-acre plot in some sprawling suburb 50 or so miles from the centre.

    Urban economic and social life does I suggest reflect these dissimilarities.

    Of course there are parallels and similarities too – we have had our share of inner city riots and Metro Centres and MeadowHells for example, but I’d contend that there is not much connection here.

    Anyhow, Tony Hatch’s achievements as works of any true artistic merit ? – do we assign to anything like same league as say TS Eliot or Vaughan Williams or WH Auden or WB Yeats or EM Forster or Dylan Thomas or even Bob Dylan; Carole King; Simon and Garfunkel; Woody Guthrie; Pete Seeger etc etc etc ?

    – somehow, for a whole host of reasons, I think not !

    (By no means do I seek to disparage or belittle these matters – Tony Hatch has I think very much enriched UK popular culture over the years, but let’s keep a sense of proportion, maybe.)

  3. Moira
    January 24, 2011

    Ah David. I think you may be confusing us with some other, slightly po-faced, litblog. We’re always a bit bemused when people say (or imply) that we inhabit the highbrow end of the market because, basically, we makes it up as we goes along. We write what we feel like writing on topics that amuse or interest us at the time. And poor old (multi-millionaire) Tony Hatch …

    Don’t forget that you’re talking about the people who brought you ‘Victoria Plum’, a motorcycle maintenance manual and Go Nagai’s ‘Starfleet’ (think ‘puppets on sticks’), along with romance novels, naked grape stomps and a 1950s TV series that no-one remembers. We have – and always have had – a nice line in ‘out of left field’. Tony Hatch at one end of the week and Kafka at the other is an absolutely classic Vulpes mix.

    There’s a long and honourable literary tradition of analysing songs, poems and novels to within an inch of their little lives: dissecting the imagery, construction and phrasing and ascribing ‘meanings’ to them that probably never even crossed the authors’minds – and would doubtless surprise them hugely if they were still around and had internet access. A whole industry has grown up around it.

    I’ve always found ‘Downtown’ a rather melancholy song – the words interestingly at odds with that infuriatingly jaunty tune. The last place in the world I’d go to find companionship and forget all my worries is ‘downtown’ … not that such a thing really exists in UK cities. It is, I think, a peculiarly US phenomenon.

    I found Jackie’s ‘take’ on Mr H’s (phenomenally successful, much-covered and iconic) little ditty a refreshing way to start the Vulpes week.

  4. David
    January 24, 2011

    I do almost-totally agree with your observations, Moira – a little harmless and amusing diversion is often very appropriate indeed, and I wasn’t in any way wishing to be sniffy or to adopt the role of Disgusted of Serene and Buttoned-up Seascale – eg taking-in avidly Tom and Jerry or The Simpsons or even Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men – and especially The Magic Roundabout – are all delightful interludes within the daunting business of Life .

    I’m off to cool my fevered brain now, tunelessly humming ‘Where are you now, my Love’ ? ( perhaps one of Mr Hatch’s more accomplished ditties ?) as I go.

    – and then maybe a crescendo of Joni’s ‘Woodstock’ and Scott McKenzie’s peace and Love aka ‘San Francisco (Wear some flowers in your hair)………

    ps

    can’t help thinking either of this contrasting and enduring little snippet, which owes very much more to Russell Square than to Tin Pan Alley:-

    That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
    A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
    Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
    With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
    It was not (to start again) what one had expected.
    What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
    Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
    And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
    Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
    Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

  5. David
    January 24, 2011

    *sob*

  6. David
    January 24, 2011

    *even bigger sob*

    RIP Mary Travers – now that was pure ART as well as pop / folk………

  7. Moira
    January 24, 2011

    Well that’s me in pieces … It’s years since I heard “500 miles”. Utterly, utterly gorgeous. *snivel*

    Oh, me lost youth … :(

  8. rosyb
    January 24, 2011

    This does tie in rather neatly with the Let’s Get Lyrical campaign we covered last week. Or was it the week before. (What year is it? Who am I again?). So not just Vulpsish but actually Vulpes managing to be topical for once which is a minor miracle in itself. And a first for having a load of vids posted too. Will the wonders never cease?

    (It’s funny that every time Eve and I talk to anyone about the site or do events or whatever we are always banging on about how we aren’t snobbish and cover pretty much all sorts of crazy stuff and yet we are still so often assumed to be…umm…highbrow. I mean we did also review The Guide to Getting it On, had animated superheroes doing a review and wasn’t there some toilet book Lisa did at some stage? Maybe I’m misremembering. )

  9. Hilary
    January 24, 2011

    Great review, Jackie! As someone who’s reviewed recipe books on VL, I’m bound to say I’m all for this sort of variety. I actually find ‘Downtown’ rather moving – and not just because it reminds me of being (very much) younger. I remember more of the lyrics than many other pop songs, and they mean quite a lot to me – I have a very vivid mental picture of the treat of going into town for someone who grew up in the country. The town was boring Midlands industrial, but still colourful, noisy and fun compared with life in our village.

    And I’ve now got a terrible dose of Earworm – thank you, I think!

  10. Jackie
    January 24, 2011

    David, I’m guessing you missed the piece one of the other Foxes did about a year or so ago referencing KISS and Ozzy Osbourne. See, that makes today look better, doesn’t it?
    I’ll agree that “Downtown” doesn’t have the weight & layers of the work of artists you mentioned, or even of more recent musicians such as U2 or John Legend, but as I said, I recently realized there is more to the lyrics than first appears,along with a dash of sunny nostalgia.
    And I do point out that American cities have evolved differently from those in the UK & Europe and am writing from one, in the attractively named “Rust Belt”. NYC is rather different from most other U.S. cities, though I know that was the inspiration for Mr. Hatch.
    Btw, I also have that Scott McKenzie song on my iPod, there’s a whole section devoted to the music of that era, it was so groovy.

  11. Moira
    January 25, 2011

    Oh my. I forgot the sex manual and the cookery book.

    How could I forget the sex manual and the cookery book?

    And KISS. That one will live in the memory …

    I have no idea what I’m going to write about Kafka. I never have the faintest idea what he’s going on about. Can I write about Winne the Pooh instead?

  12. Hilary
    January 25, 2011

    You could always write about the influence of Kafka on Winnie The Pooh … or vice versa … the world would beat a path …

  13. david
    January 25, 2011

    Kafka / Pooh not far off from a most fascinating lecture / recital I was privileged to witness last summer concerning the influence of common old bawdy musichall songs on the life and work of TS Eliot – delivered by the estimable and delightful Nancy Hargrove, with husband on tenor

    see if interested

    http://www.msstate.edu/web/media/detail.php?id=4802

    I think it was ‘One-eyed Riley’ that was performed and put under close scrutiny in this Eliotic context.

    (Can’t resist a final mention of TSE’s recreational literature, in particular the Bolo Poems, but I’d balk at even thinking about quoting any of the examples – they are very rude indeed, even after nearly a century – imagine the funniest of Old Possums Practical Cats in style but pure pornography in content – perhaps TSE should have constructed an alter ego / nom de plume as a pop song lyricist like Mr Hatch – had he done so, doubtless Valerie would be as rich as Bill Gates by now !)

  14. david
    January 25, 2011

    ps

    Vulpes, if it doesn’t already enrich their consciousnesses, might be interested in a very very different ‘modern’ (as opposed to modernIST) work of literary / lyrical art in form of

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_Grand_Central_Station_I_Sat_Down_and_Wept

    Not sure if anyone has mentioned it previously on here, but assuming not, suggest it deserves bringing to Vulpes’ attention in popular / contemporary-times literary contexts.

  15. david
    January 25, 2011

    pps

    Just reflecting – when younger and less-wise and taking myself much too seriously, I found the outpourings of Abba the ultimate in irritating triviality / frivolity.

    Well remember ROFL episode induced by that Nice Video (shame about the song) piece on Not the Nine O Clock News.

    Now with much more considered and reflective perspective, I do readily see a very different side to Abba and am amongst those millions who continue to celebrate and acclaim all their particular masterpieces of pop.

    So, there’s perhaps still hope for Mr Hatch !!

  16. Melrose
    January 27, 2011

    David, I have to say the description that you hoped was not of yourself was exactly what sprang into my mind as I read your posts. The feeling got stronger the further down the posts I read. I drop in frequently to VL because of the vast range of subject matter they review – many instances given above – and the blog always provides something for my diverse taste. “Downtown” has lasted the test of time – it evidently has something special about it, and resonates with many people. That it did not do so with you is down to taste and musical preferences. For me, Jackie’s post gave me a deeper understanding of the song, and I enjoyed the review. I have to say you wouldn’t catch me near some of the authors you quoted – not my taste – especially Ellliot.

  17. david
    January 27, 2011

    ‘I have to say you wouldn’t catch me near some of the authors you quoted – not my taste – especially Ellliot’

    Yes, suppose it is a matter of ‘taste’ – whatever turns you on, as they say……..but, please do TS Eliot the basic courtesy of at least spelling his name correctly, even if you think he was just total rubbish in the literary world. (He held the Nobel Prize for Literature, but that was awarded by other folk than Tony Hatch et al)

    However, it’s a fact I’d suggest that maximum ‘turn-on’ occurs when some serious and thoughtful attention-span gets deployed on the part of the reader or listener, as opposed to the usual quest for a quick fix / instant gratification.

    May I suggest that you try to get hold of and to read a little book called ‘Aspects of the Novel’ by EM Forster, which discusses in very palatable fashion the difference between a story as an enduring ‘work of art’ and as a mere diversion into instant gratification.

    Of course, we’re talking music / songs here, but the same general principles I think still apply – as in the visual arts – eg., why does the art of Leonardo da Vinci or Van Gogh or Rubens or Van Dyck endure as timeless ‘works of art’ whilst the rest of the ephemera of their particular age has passed-away ??

    – please tell me……………….

  18. Jackie
    January 27, 2011

    David, there is really no call to be so condescending. Why do you assume Melrose has not read Eliot? It’s perfectly possible to read an author & not like them. Just because someone has won awards & is considered to have reached a certain level in their art, does not make it mandatory for someone to like them.
    Personally, I think you owe Melrose an apology for being so patronising. In any case, I think you’re becoming much too stressed out about this whole topic, so please just move on…

  19. Melrose
    January 27, 2011

    Thank you, Jackie, for your kind support. I did enjoy your review – like your other reviews, it is well thought out, interesting to read and easy to understand – which is not as easy a task as it may seem. With regard to David’s post, often posters make assumptions about other posters, from the limited information provided. These assumptions are not necessarily accurate, and that seems to be what has happened here, as is evident from David’s opinion of my intellectual capacities and his desire to try to improve them. As for my typographical error “Ellliot” that is simply what it was – nothing more. My statement that Eliot is not to my taste is not me indicating that he is “rubbish” – David’s argument there is rather disingenuous – it is simply stating that he is not to my taste.

  20. david
    January 27, 2011

    ‘as is evident from David’s opinion of my intellectual capacities and his desire to try to improve them.’

    I pass absolutely NO opinion here, and it is equally ‘disingenuous’ I’d suggest to seek to say that I EVER did so.

    If some wish to claim that the achievement(s) of such as Tony Hatch constitute ‘works of art’ (however defined) then that’s their personal opinion / judgment, but I’d suggest they’d need to come up with some justification / evidence for that assertion.

    I can’t see that I ‘owe’ anyone any apology whatsoever, and consequently make none at all.

    Am just sorry that I’m pilloried for daring to suggest that works of art differ from mere ephemera.

    But I’ll shut up for now.

  21. david
    January 28, 2011

    ps

    even in the context of TinPanAlley’s outpourings about LURV ! here we have the Eliotic lines

    To whom I owe the leaping delight
    That quickens my senses in our wakingtime
    And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,
    the breathing in unison.
    Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other
    Who think the same thoughts without need of speech,
    And babble the same speech without need of meaning…

    No peevish winter wind shall chill
    No sullen tropic sun shall wither
    The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only

    But this dedication is for others to read:
    These are private words addressed to you in public.

    some critics think it’s all unduly soppy and slushy, but I do think it’s very touching indeed that he found such utter Love and Passion albeit towards the end of his life and articulated some of it so vividly – and as a bonus, suggest it’s even a slight improvement on the usual pop-song lyrics.

  22. Pingback: Favorite Animal Songs: “The Unicorn” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2011 by in Entries by Jackie, Non-fiction: music, Non-fiction: narrative and tagged , , , .

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