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April 21, 2024

An annotated playlist of Baltimore’s musical history

By NOËL DA | February 19, 2024



Photo of Billie Holiday, who lived in Baltimore during her childhood.

If you want to know a place — I mean, really know a place — then here is what you do: You start by walking around, making sure to pay close attention to everything you see. Absorb it all, even (especially) small things, like cracks in the sidewalk where the grass shoots out. Then, when you get back to someplace comfortable, sit down and do some research on the history of the place. It may sound tedious, but this is part of it. Get to know the people who have lived there and the things that have happened, especially those that interest you. Then go for another walk. I promise it will feel different the second time.

In the spirit of this ritual, I have compiled a list of songs from Baltimore. I hope this will provide background and help you know the place a little better, like it did for me. By no means is this a complete history of Baltimore’s musical legacy (in fact, it is only a fraction) but it does form a path of musical stepping-stones from Baltimore’s early jazz days to its indie-rock shoegaze scene. The annotations are a combination of my own comments on the songs along with some historical background on the artists and their connection to Baltimore. 

If you are reading the online version, click here to listen to the playlist. 

“I’ll Be Seeing You,” by Billie Holiday 1956

Billie Holiday is one of the most legendary jazz singers. She spent her childhood here, living in the Sandtown neighborhood until the age of thirteen. It was a rocky time for Holiday, and her experience of Baltimore was very likely tainted. Yet it was around this time that she was exposed to jazz and blues, specifically the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, whom Holiday later cited as inspirations in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues. You can hear the influence of Holiday’s life in this song: its melody, her voice and the background audio crackle with ache and the rhythms of Baltimore, the place where she was first exposed to jazz. 

“Joey, Joey, Joey,” by Ethel Ennis1963

Another product of Baltimore’s rich jazz scene is Ethel Ennis, also legendary though less well-known. She rose to fame quickly for her smooth authentic vocals — in fact, Billie Holiday herself praised Ennis for using her natural voice and not faking it — but turned down a life of fame in favor of personal and creative freedom. After touring in Europe, Ennis returned to Baltimore, where she was (and is) beloved and celebrated. This song, as well as most of Ennis’s music, belongs to the more joyous side of jazz. It is funny, full of flair and invention both in the vocals and background trumpet, dancing around the one word “Joey.” All in all, it’s a playful song that adds color to the history of Baltimore and its jazz culture.

“Didn’t Want To Have To Do It,” by Cass Elliot1964/65

Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas is an instantly recognizable folk voice. Her words are rounded at the edges, and her melodies are comforting. Perhaps a part of this comes from her upbringing in Baltimore, itself a community bound together by its folk: Her father worked to manage a food wagon that delivered lunch to local construction workers, while her mother was a nurse. Though she did not write this song, the folksy sensibilities from Elliot’s Baltimore childhood seem to have translated into her singing, which softens the delivery of each line.

“Watermelon In Easter Hay,” by Frank Zappa1979

Baltimore’s mustachioed avant-garde rock god had a reputation not just in Maryland, but in all of music culture. His weirdness permeates all of his work, whether it borrows from acid jazz, blues or rock. But, as Zappa said, “I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.” Growing up in Baltimore, he lived next to a chemical warfare facility where his father worked. The nearby facility stored large quantities of mustard gas, requiring Zappa and his family to keep gas masks handy — you might even hear influences from that “toxic” life in this song (which, coincidentally, might have the greatest guitar solo of all time).

“Cornflake Girl,” by Tori Amos1994

The Peabody Institute admitted Tori Amos when she was five, making her the youngest student to ever study there. When she was eleven, they rescinded her scholarship and dismissed her just as quickly. Reasons ranged from “musical insubordination” and a preoccupation with rock to a refusal to read sheet music. Following this, Amos wrote an album titled Y Kant Tori Read and from there rose quickly to ‘90s alternative stardom. “Cornflake Girl” is my favorite Tori Amos song, with its floating melodies and messages about growing up as a girl. In the piano instrumentals, you can hear some of the classical training Amos received at Peabody — and in everything else, you can hear the rebelliousness that got her dismissed.

“A Soft Seduction,” by David Byrne 1996

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne was raised in and around Baltimore. He enrolled at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design but dropped out after one year, feeling alienated from the upper-class student body. Byrne then briefly attended the Maryland Institute College of Art. There is something hauntingly Baltimorean about this song in particular, although it is unknown whether or not that was Byrne’s intention in writing it. Still, looking at this city, its alleys and its people, it is hard not to think of his lyrics

“But night reveals what daytime hides / Who lingers on, who sleeps outside / The soft seduction, the strong attraction / Somewhere downtown / A junkie’s song, a dancer’s knees / The laws of chance strange as it seems / Take us exactly where we most likely need to be.”

Something about the lyrics and melody, not precisely charming nor off-putting, evokes particular images of Baltimore nightlife: metal banisters, empty benches, scrappy filth and beauty.

“Rational Bohemian,” by Mary Prankster 2002

Along with crabs and Old Bay, the beer company National Bohemian (or Natty-Bo) has become a shorthand for Baltimore, an instantly recognizable icon for the place. Singer-songwriter Mary Prankster, equally iconic and tied to Baltimore, played off of this name in the song title “Rational Bohemian” — though it is not entirely clear what direct connection it has to the brand. The entire song is tightly packed with bizarre wishes and phrases, rhyming intermittently. Because the song is so enigmatic, we are left to assume that Prankster chose to associate this song with Baltimore for some personal reason. Something about “stars and garters” and “cerebral petting zoos” reminded her of how she sees the city. 

“Somewhere Tonight,” by Beach House 2015

When Victoria Legrand of Beach House moved from Paris to Baltimore to visit a friend, she “partied, raged, went crazy, and thought it was a great place.” So she stayed, and soon met Alex Scally, forming an intimate friendship and musical collaboration. The two wandered around Baltimore’s indie-rock underground for a while, experimenting with sounds and lyrics, before releasing their first album, Beach House. I like to imagine what Baltimore’s musical underground looked like just under a decade ago when I listen to their music. It is like tapping into the wispy undercurrent of the city, letting it swirl and settle into my understanding of the place. 

Each time I think I know Baltimore, I learn something new about it, and I feel like I understand the city all over again. I highly recommend that you listen to these songs and see if things change the next time you look around — but don’t stop there. Once again, this playlist is only a fraction of Baltimore’s rich history. Do some more research and your perspective might just shift. 

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