Musical boundaries

illustration of two buses facing each other across a line in the road with famous Liverpool buildings behind them

Image from the DVD 'Crossing the Line', a film about music and the line between north and south Liverpool produced by URBEATZ © URBEATZ

Throughout history songs, people and land have been closely connected. Musicians involved with a broad diversity of musical styles, from Cuban son to Australian aboriginal music, from US hip hop to British folk ballads, have created songs incorporating lyrical references to real places.

What can we learn by attempting to map the actual places featured in such songs? For one thing, we can discover that songs help to characterise and distinguish places. In this sense songs can mark boundaries between one place and another.

Hip hop is just one style of music in which boundaries and territories are commonly marked out through song. The Hollywood film '8 Mile', starring the well-known rap artist Eminem, can help to illustrate this process. The title of the film refers to a street in the US city of Detroit that acts as a border within that city, a dividing line between city neighbourhoods regarded as urban and suburban, as well as black and white. In the film the street also appears as a psychological dividing line that separates Jimmy Smith Jr (Eminem) from where and who he wants to be.

In this sense the film is a story about the boundaries that define our lives. These boundaries are marked through the songs that make up the film's soundtrack. The lyrics to the title track '8 Mile,' for example, refer to 8 Mile as a city 'borderline' and express the desire of the film's lead character to 'escape' from that street, crossing 'over these tracks' to the other side and never looking back.

The documentary film 'Crossing the Line' (URBEATZ) is also about boundaries. It features hip hop artists from North and South Liverpool and addresses the imaginary 'line' between North and South and stereotypes and misunderstandings associated with this division. Local boundaries also emerge in local grime music, a style of breakbeat music influenced by hip hop and various other musical styles, such as UK garage and punk. Grime emerged in the UK in the early 2000s. Grime lyrics commonly incorporate territorial references to specific city neighbourhoods and postcodes, and sometimes to the gang rivalries attached to those neighbourhoods and to specific places within them. Soulja, for example, is a young singer and producer of grime music from an area of Liverpool's inner city known as Toxteth or Liverpool 8. His lyrics incorporate detailed references to that neighbourhood, a neighbourhood in which much of the city's Black population has been concentrated.

Country music provides a contrasting example of this kind of musical boundary-marking. Hank Walters and Kenny Johnson are Liverpool's best-known country musicians. They perform their own versions of well-known US country songs but they have also composed their own songs. Hank, a retired dockworker from Everton in North Liverpool, has composed several songs about Liverpool, including one entitled 'Everton'. Similarly, Kenny has written a song about growing up in the North Liverpool neighbourhood of Kirkdale, and about the particular street he used to live on.

Investigating the place references in these songs could tell us something about traditional country music, which has typically incorporated sentimental images of 'home' and places from the past. It could also tell us something about the places that the songs refer to. For example, traditional country music has been more popular in dockside neighbourhoods in the north of Liverpool, where Irish immigrants were once concentrated.