Blame it on the nomadic nature of modern society or the Internet's role in breaking down the notion of community as a geographic conceit, but it's embarrassing how many folks call someplace "home," yet know so little about it—myself included. Whenever I see that breakfast cereal commercial where the little kid is studying for his state capitals quiz, my stomach clenches. If the Capitol Building weren't visible from I-5, I'd never remember Olympia as anything more than the home of K and Kill Rock Stars.
Think you're better? OK, smart guy—what's our official state gem? Emerald? Wrong! According to the authorities, it's petrified wood. And our state fish? It's not the salmon, but the steelhead trout. Here's an easy one: What's our state song?
Did you answer "Louie Louie"? Go to the back of the class.
The confusion is perfectly understandable, reinforced by fleeting moments of joy at fraternity keg parties and seventh-inning stretches at Mariners games. But despite its tremendous popularity in the Pacific Northwest, "Louie Louie" isn't it. It's true that among the 1,000-plus versions—including renditions by the Kinks, Barry White, and Black Flag—one of the earliest was by regional heroes the Wailers. But the best-known recording, which peaked at number two in 1963, was by the Kingsmen . . . from Portland! Plus, the ditty was composed by a Los Angeles songwriter.
Not that these obstacles discouraged a group of passionate souls, prompted by KING TV's Ross Shafer of Almost Live, from mounting a 1985 campaign to install "Louie Louie" in office. Their valiant efforts, however, fell short; the state song remained "Washington, My Home."
Penned in 1950 by Helen Davis, an insurance and real estate agent who passed away in 1993 at the age of 87, "Washington, My Home" became part of the state code of law in 1959, replacing the unofficial state anthem "Washington Beloved." Not surprisingly, given Helen's background, the lyrics read a bit like ad copy, hailing our beautiful countryside, "from mountain peak to fields of wheat" and "our verdant forest green." (Check out local boys Sicko's version on last year's Coolidge 50 anthology of state songs if you're curious.) Since she makes a point of noting that "small towns and cities rest here in the sun," we can only assume Davis made her home east of the Cascade Mountains.
Washington also boasts a state folk song. In the mid-'40s, after completion of the Grand Coulee Dam, the federal Bonneville Power Administration made a film encouraging residents of the Pacific Northwest to wire their homes and farms for electricity. To liven up the soundtrack, the BPA commissioned Woody Guthrie to compose original music. "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On," added to the list of state symbols in 1987, was just one of 26 tunes Woody cranked out in 30 days for the princely sum of $300.
Now, all these have something to recommend them. Mr. Guthrie wove some lovely imagery ("green Douglas firs") into his ditty, and "Louie Louie" is the most recognizable riff in garage rock history. And at least "Washington, My Home" sounds more stirring than "Rhode Island, It's for Me." But none of them measure up to the best: "I Love New York," "Georgia On My Mind," "Oklahoma!"
One of Washington's greatest resources is its music scene. Seattle's finest seem capable of writing about other states—Citizen's Utilities' "Idaho," Damien Jurado's "Yuma, Arizona"—so why can't somebody compose a catchier ditty on behalf of the Evergreen State? Don't tell me the countryside isn't inspiring enough, when godforsaken Indiana yielded hits like "Indiana Wants Me," "(Back Home Again In) Indiana," and "God Didn't Make Little Green Apples."
Take a cue from John Linnell of They Might Be Giants and his new solo CD State Songs (on Zo믒ounder Records). "Nevada" is memorialized as a brass band march, while "West Virginia" spins a spell of '60s psychedelia. Linnell even commissioned the cutting of original paper rolls so "Illinois" and "Utah" could be played on Wurlitzer band organs, which generate the scary cacophony of any half-decent merry-go-round. He wrote 15 total, and they're all catchy as hell, albeit in that annoying oh-my-god-turn-it-off, too-late-it's-stuck-in-my-head fashion at which TMBG excel.
But he didn't write one about Washington. That task awaits one of our own. Surely there's a Washingtonian up to the challenge. As my piano teacher used to say, with a gentle rap across my knuckles, "Can't means won't." The day when our schoolchildren begin class by singing Nirvana's "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" may never come, but if just one songwriter within state lines showed a little civic pride, we could at least give those hicks in Tulsa a run for their money.