The Life of a Song: ‘Baltimore’

The Randy Newman original has been covered in a kaleidoscope of musical styles, thus testifying that testifies to its flexibility and durability
Randy Newman in 1979— Getty Images © Getty

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“Hard times in the city, in a hard town by the sea.” Thus Randy Newman sums up the city of Baltimore, Maryland on this song from his 1977 album Little Criminals. Newman is renowned for his darkly comic songwriting — also on the album is the irony-drenched “Short People” — but on “Baltimore” he plays it straight: this is a threnody for a hardscrabble town in the throes of deindustrialisation.

Apart from its grim lyrics — hookers, drunks, hopelessness — what is interesting about the song is that it takes an age to reach the chorus. A piano motif circles, the tension builds, until relief of a sort finally arrives when the drums kick in properly and Newman stretches out with “Oh, Baltimore”. (His studio band, incidentally, included several members of the Eagles.) Eventually Newman’s lyric concludes that the only thing to do is to escape, so he packs a family in a “big old wagon” and sends them off to the mountains, never to return.

The following year, the song was picked up by Nina Simone and it became the title track of her Baltimore album. Although her reggae treatment smoothes out the contrasts between verse and chorus that distinguish Newman’s original, it nevertheless conveys a deep sense of unease.

This, however, is as nothing compared with the profound mood of despair that inhabits another reggae version, released in 1979 by Jamaican band, The Tamlins. Propelled by the immaculate rhythms of Sly and Robbie, the Tamlins’ treatment brings an almost biblical quality to the song.

Over subsequent decades “Baltimore” has been covered in a kaleidoscope of musical styles that testifies to its flexibility and durability. It was included in 2001 on a posthumously released EP by Scottish singer Billy Mackenzie, whose take on it is almost abstract — a wash of synths, and Mackenzie’s vocal delivery eschewing his customary hysterics in favour of something dreamy and distant. For years it was also a staple of David Gray’s live repertoire, his version adding urgency through a pulsing beat.

Today, Newman’s portrait of Baltimore seems just as pertinent as it did when he wrote the song in the 1970s. The TV series The Wire reflected a city that has never recovered from the loss of the old heavy industries (90 per cent of local jobs are now in the low-paid service sector), while Serial, the podcast about the murder of 18-year-old Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, touched on the city’s high crime rate. Baltimore’s homicide figures, though now declining, still make grim reading — 217 recorded murders in 2014 gave the city the fifth-highest murder rate in the US for cities with populations over 100,000.

Newman himself has received some criticism from Baltimore’s citizens and civic authorities for painting such a bleak picture of their city. In fact the lyrics had sprung from a fleeting visit, and he later told the Baltimore Sun: “I couldn’t legitimately defend my extensive knowledge of the town. The song just came out.”

There’s also a tragic postscript to the life of this particular song. Beneath Newman’s version on YouTube are various comments from viewers, one of which reads: “King Steelo brought me here. RIP.” This is a reference to the rapper Capital Steez, whose track “Hard Times” (featuring Dirty Sanchez) is based on a looped sample of Newman’s piano riff and vocal. The “RIP”? In 2012, Capital Steez — real name Courtney Everald Dewar, Jr — killed himself by jumping from a building in New York’s Flatiron District. He was 19. Hard times in the city.

To listen to a podcast of this story, including clips of the songs, go to ft.com/culturecast

Photograph: Getty Images

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