Mentor Text Wednesday: Hometown Songs

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Mentor Texts:

My Hometown – Bruce Springsteen

One Great City! – The Weakerthans

A Love Song to the City – Kalle Mattson

Wessex Boy – Frank Turner

Maritimes – Classified

These are links to YouTube videos for the songs. Here are the lyrics.

Writing Techniques:

  • memoir (writing about a place)
  • addressing stereotypes
  • writing critically about a place
  • creating tone or mood
  • lyrics as a form


Most music fans will openly admit to one album being an awakening––the one that showed them what music could be. The album for me was Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. That summer spent listening to it with my uncle was one of my favorites, and I’m not sure if it was the events or that album.

A song that always stuck with me was “My Hometown.” I grew up in Nova Scotia, a part of Canada that relies pretty heavily on the use of natural resources. That means that towns were often subject to the ups and downs of markets, of supply and demand. As a young man, I really got what Springsteen was saying about loving your town, but knowing it was hurting.I have so many vivid memories of drives through towns that felt like I was in a music video for that song.

When I left Nova Scotia as an adult, and moved to Manitoba, I discovered The Weakerthans. John K. Samson is a phenomenal songwriter, and I’ve no doubt that his work will grace this column again. The album they released as I moved here featured the song “One Great City!” named for the slogan that once graced the welcoming signs to the province’s capital, Winnipeg. The song, with its capturing of images of the city, explores the love-hate relationship we have with places. (Samson has a song called “Heart of the Continent,” which is what the signs now read in Winnipeg.)

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In a Twitter edchat last year, we got talking about this notion of using music in the classroom. Though I haven’t embraced it fully, I have this vision of my students writing memoir pieces inspired by the songs I’ve listed above. I think this would be especially poignant for Grade 12 students, as many of them will be leaving their hometowns soon after the school year ends.

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Memoir (writing about a place)––Springsteen, Mattson and the Weakerthans do a lovely job of capturing the love-hate relationship we have with our hometowns, whether we’ve been there our whole lives, or we’ve adopted them. There are things that make us sad, like struggling industry. (They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks) There are inexplicable reasons that we still love the place (In a hometown/You can’t let go). Some of the things that our town stakes their claim to fame upon are tacky, or are gone. (The Guess Who sucked, the Jets were lousy anyway). Perhaps, like in Classified’s song, we’re tired of being seen as a collection of stereotypes. We get frustrated and angry (I hate Winnipeg), yet whatever happens, we have this weird sense of belonging (I’m a Wessex Boy and when I’m here I’m home or Either way it goes I’m still reppin’ for my coast man). In different ways, these songs give us a way into writing about where we live. We can grumble about it, or we can celebrate it. Students could pull lines that they like, and use them to inspire their own pieces. The Springsteen, Mattson and Weakerthans pieces highlight both the things that are “typical” in their respective towns, while highlighting how things have changed. This is a good model for the students––what’s the big thing in town, and what’s changed?
  •         Addressing Stereotypes––Obviously, Classified’s lyrics are the most overt example of this. Though a bit NSFW, he does a really good job of expressing how folks from outside the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) see the people that live there. (That’s how we do it down here / Least that’s how you think we do it down here) I think it would be neat, in writing about where we live, to discuss those stereotypes that exist, and then debunk them.
  •         Writing Critically About A Place––In my opinion, one of Springsteen’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is his ability to write critically about the subject. You can feel that in “My Hometown.” He feels a sense of belonging to that town, was told by his father, and tells his son that this is their hometown, but that pride rings false doesn’t it? He points out so many of the things about the town that are bleak. Samson captures so many tiny vignettes of what makes Winnipeg maddening: late buses, stalled cars, crowds, a dying part of the city. Samson has repeatedly stated that this song is tongue-in-cheek, and he loves Winnipeg, but he so wonderfully criticizes it in these lyrics, doesn’t he?
  •         Creating Tone or Mood––The beauty of using songs as mentor texts is that you have the extra element of the music. In these songs, the music works the hardest at establishing the tone, and mood of the pieces. Springsteen, Mattson and The Weakerthans haven’t quite created dirges, but there is certainly a melancholy tone created by their voices, and the instrumental accompaniment. Conversely, Turner and Classified create a celebratory mood with their songs. I’d begin by discussing the tone of the music with students as we look at these, but I would then move into how the lyrics deepen that tone or mood. What do the songwriters say that builds this? What mood works best for how we feel about our home? It would be interesting to point out that Mattson is much less specific than the others, and discuss the fact that his song ties more into his feelings in general than his feelings about his city per se. However, as they are likely all too aware, how you feel colours how you see the place you are.
  •         Using lyrics as a form–– Songwriting fascinates me. It shares many elements with poetry, yet seems so, so different. I haven’t yet had students writing songs, but I suspect that’s because I haven’t figured out how to tell them to write lyrics without them thinking I want them to write music, too. With that being said, I love the idea of them having a refrain, or repeated phrase in their pieces. Each of these songs has a line or two that they come back to, almost like they’re restating their thesis. I’d like to see my students writing like this when they write that piece about where they’re from, coming back to a refrain, and working to establish imagery, tone and mood to make that refrain, their thesis of sorts, resonate.

I’ve been using music in my classroom for years, to listen to, but also to analyze as a text. Though I’ve been rolling the idea of using a couple of these songs as inspiration, I’ve never actually worked hard to tap into their potential as a mentor text. As I write, listening to music of course, I’m making notes to myself, because I’m realizing how many of the things I’d like my students to write can be realized lyrically. It might be time to put on some records and make new mentor text lists.

What other songs can we add to this cluster of “hometown song” mentor texts? Can we create a “hometown song” playlist that includes other genres of music? What are some other places we can use lyrics as a mentor text?


Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

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