Homeward Bound or Housebound?

Themes of Home in Popular Music

How to Cite

Varney, W. (2007). Homeward Bound or Housebound? Themes of Home in Popular Music. M/C Journal, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2701
Vol. 10 No. 4 (2007): 'home'
Published 2007-08-01

If thinking about home necessitates thinking about “place, space, scale, identity and power,” as Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling (2) suggest, then thinking about home themes in popular music makes no less a conceptual demand. Song lyrics and titles most often invoke dominant readings such as intimacy, privacy, nurture, refuge, connectedness and shared belonging, all issues found within Blunt and Dowling’s analysis. The spatial imaginary to which these authors refer takes vivid shape through repertoires of songs dealing with houses and other specific sites, vast and distant homelands, communities or, less tangibly, geographical or cultural settings where particular relationships can be found, supporting Blunt and Dowling’s major claim that home is complex, multi-scalar and multi-layered.

Shelley Mallett’s claim that the term home “functions as a repository for complex, inter-related and at times contradictory socio-cultural ideas about people’s relationships with one another…and with places, spaces and things” (84) is borne out heavily by popular music where, for almost every sentiment that the term home evokes, it seems an opposite sentiment is evoked elsewhere: familiarity versus alienation, acceptance versus rejection, love versus loneliness.

Making use of conceptual groundwork by Blunt and Dowling and by Mallett and others, the following discussion canvasses a range of meanings that home has had for a variety of songwriters, singers and audiences over the years. Intended as merely partial and exploratory rather than exhaustive, it provides some insights into contrasts, ironies and relationships between home and gender, diaspora and loss. While it cannot cover all the themes, it gives prominence to the major recurring themes and a variety of important contexts that give rise to these home themes. Most prominent among those songs dealing with home has been a nostalgia and yearning, while issues of how women may have viewed the home within which they have often been restricted to a narrowly defined private sphere are almost entirely absent. This serves as a reminder that, while some themes can be conducive to the medium of popular music, others may be significantly less so. Songs may speak directly of experience but not necessarily of all experiences and certainly not of all experiences equally.

B. Lee Cooper claims “most popular culture ventures rely upon formula-oriented settings and phrasings to attract interest, to spur mental or emotional involvement” (93). Notions of home have generally proved both formulaic and emotionally-charged. Commonly understood patterns of meaning and other hegemonic references generally operate more successfully than alternative reference points. Those notions with the strongest cultural currency can be conveyed succinctly and denote widely agreed upon meanings. Lyrics can seldom afford to be deeply analytical but generally must be concise and immediately evocative. Despite that, this discussion will point to diverse meanings carried by songs about home.

Blunt and Dowling point out that “a house is not necessarily nor automatically a home” (3). The differences are strongly apparent in music, with only a few songs relating to houses compared with homes. When Malvina Reynolds wrote in 1962 of “little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky,” she was certainly referring to houses, not homes, thus making it easier to bypass the relationships which might have vested the inhabitants with more warmth and individuality than their houses, in this song about conformity and homogeneity.

The more complex though elusive concept of home, however, is more likely to feature in love songs and to emanate from diasporal songs. Certainly these two genres are not mutually exclusive. Irish songs are particularly noteworthy for adding to the array of music written by, or representational of, those who have been forced away from home by war, poverty, strife or other circumstances. They manifest identities of displacement rather than of placement, as studied by Bronwen Walter, looking back at rather than from within their spatial imaginary. Phil Eva claims that during the 19th Century Irish émigrés sang songs of exile in Manchester’s streets. Since many in England’s industrial towns had been uprooted from their homes, the songs found rapport with street audiences and entered popular culture. For example, the song Killarney, of hazy origins but thought to date back to as early as 1850, tells of

Killarney’s lakes and fells,
Emerald isles and winding bays;
Mountain paths and woodland dells…
...her [nature’s] home is surely there.

As well as anthropomorphising nature and giving it a home, the song suggests a specifically geographic sense of home. Galway Bay, written by A. Fahy, does likewise, as do many other Irish songs of exile which link geography with family, kin and sometimes culture to evoke a sense of home. The final verse of Cliffs of Doneen gives a sense of both people and place making up home:

Fare thee well to Doneen, fare thee well for a while
And to all the kind people I’m leaving behind
To the streams and the meadows where late I have been
And the high rocky slopes round the cliffs of Doneen.

Earlier Irish songs intertwine home with political issues. For example, Tho’ the Last Glimpse of Erin vows to Erin that “In exile thy bosum shall still be my home.” Such exile resulted from a preference of fleeing Ireland rather than bowing to English oppression, which then included a prohibition on Irish having moustaches or certain hairstyles. Thomas Moore is said to have set the words of the song to the air Coulin which itself referred to an Irish woman’s preference for her “Coulin” (a long-haired Irish youth) to the English (Nelson-Burns). Diasporal songs have continued, as has their political edge, as evidenced by global recognition of songs such as Bayan Ko (My Country), written by José Corazon de Jesus in 1929, out of love and concern for the Philippines and sung among Filipinos worldwide.

Robin Cohen outlines a set of criteria for diaspora that includes a shared belief in the possibility of return to home, evident in songs such as the 1943 Welsh song A Welcome in the Hillside, in which a Welsh word translating roughly as a yearning to return home, hiraeth, is used:

We’ll kiss away each hour of hiraeth
When you come home again to Wales.

However, the immensely popular I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen, not of Irish origin but written by Thomas Westendorf of Illinois in 1875, suggests that such emotions can have a resonance beyond the diaspora. Anti-colonial sentiments about home can also be expressed by long-time inhabitants, as Harry Belafonte demonstrated in Island in the Sun:

This is my island in the sun
Where my people have toiled since time begun.
Though I may sail on many a sea,
Her shores will always be home to me.

War brought a deluge of sentimental songs lamenting separation from home and loved ones, just as likely to be parents and siblings as sweethearts. Radios allowed wider audiences and greater popularity for these songs. If separation had brought a longing previously, the added horrors of war presented a stronger contrast between that which the young soldiers were missing and that which they were experiencing. Both the First and Second World Wars gave rise to songs long since sung which originated in such separations, but these also had a strong sense of home as defined by the nationalism that has for over a century given the contours of expectations of soldiers. Focusing on home, these songs seldom speak of the details of war. Rather they are specific about what the singers have left behind and what they hope to return to.

Songs of home did not have to be written specifically for the war effort nor for overseas troops. Irving Berlin’s 1942 White Christmas, written for a film, became extremely popular with US troops during WWII, instilling a sense of home that related to familiarities and festivities. Expressing a sense of home could be specific and relate to regions or towns, as did I’m Goin’ Back Again to Yarrawonga, or it could refer to any home, anywhere where there were sons away fighting. Indeed the American Civil War song When Johnny Comes Marching Home, written by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmour, was sung by both Northerners and Southerners, so adaptable was it, with home remarkably unspecified and undescribed.

The 1914 British song Keep the Home Fires Burning by Ivor Novello and Lena Ford was among those that evoked a connection between home and the military effort and helped establish a responsibility on those at home to remain optimistic:

Keep the Homes fires burning
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home,
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark clouds inside out,
Till the boys come Home.

No space exists in this song for critique of the reasons for war, nor of a role for women other than that of homemaker and moral guardian. It was women’s duty to ensure men enlisted and home was rendered a private site for emotional enlistment for a presumed public good, though ironically also a point of personal hope where the light of love burned for the enlistees’ safe return. Later songs about home and war challenged these traditional notions. Two serve as examples. One is Pink Floyd’s brief musical piece of the 1970s, Bring the Boys Back Home, whose words of protest against the American war on Viet Nam present home, again, as a site of safety but within a less conservative context. Home becomes implicated in a challenge to the prevailing foreign policy and the interests that influence it, undermining the normal public sphere/private sphere distinction.

The other more complex song is Judy Small’s Mothers, Daughters, Wives, from 1982, set against a backdrop of home. Small eloquently describes the dynamics of the domestic space and how women understood their roles in relation to the First and Second World Wars and the Viet Nam War. Reinforcing that “The materialities and imaginaries of home are closely connected” (Blunt and Dowling 188), Small sings of how

the gold frames held the photographs that mothers kissed each night
And the doorframe held the shocked and silent strangers from the fight.

Small provides a rare musical insight into the disjuncture between the men who left the domestic space and those who return to it, and we sense that women may have borne much of the brunt of those awful changes. The idea of domestic bliss is also challenged, though from the returned soldier’s point of view, in Redgum’s 1983 song I Was Only Nineteen, written by group member John Schuman. It touches on the tragedy of young men thrust into war situations and the horrific after-affects for them, which cannot be shrugged off on return to home. The nurturing of home has limits but the privacy associated with the domestic sphere has often concealed the violence and mental anguish that happens away from public view.

But by this time most of the songs referring to home were dominated once more by sentimental love, often borne of travel as mobility rose. Journeys help “establish the thresholds and boundaries of home” and can give rise to “an idealized, ideological and ethnocentric view of home” (Mallett 78). Where previously songsters had sung of leaving home in exile or for escape from poverty, lyrics from the 1960s onwards often suggested that work had removed people from loved ones. It could be work on a day-by-day basis, as in A Hard Day’s Night from the 1964 film of the same name, where the Beatles illuminate differences between the public sphere of work and the private sphere to which they return:

When I’m home, everything seems to be alright,
When I’m home feeling you holding me tight, tight, yeah

and reiterated by Paul McCartney in Every Night:

And every night that day is through
But tonight I just want to stay in
And be with you.

Lyrics such as these and McCartney’s call to be taken “...home to the Mull of Kintyre,” singled him out for his home-and-hearth messages (Dempsey).

But work might involve longer absences and thus more deepfelt loneliness. Simon and Garfunkel’s exemplary Homeward Bound starkly portrays a site of “away-ness”:

I’m sittin’ in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination…

Mundaneness, monotony and predictability contrast with the home to which the singer’s thoughts are constantly escaping. The routine is familiar but the faces are those of strangers. Home here is, again, not simply a domicile but the warmth of those we know and love. Written at a railway station, Homeward Bound echoes sentiments almost identical to those of (Leaving on a) Jet Plane, written by John Denver at an airport in 1967. Denver also co-wrote (Take Me Home) Country Roads, where, in another example of anthropomorphism as a tool of establishing a strong link, he asks to be taken

home to the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma,
Take me home, Country Roads.

The theme has recurred in numerous songs since, spawning examples such as Darin and Alquist’s When I Get Home, Chris Daughtry’s Home, Michael Bublé’s Home and Will Smith’s Ain’t No Place Like Home, where, in an opening reminiscent of Homeward Bound, the singer is

Sitting in a hotel room
A thousand miles away from nowhere
Sloped over a chair as I stare…

Furniture from home, on the other hand, can be used to evoke contentment and bliss, as demonstrated by George Weiss and Bob Thiele’s song The Home Fire, in which both kin and the objects of home become charged with meaning:

All of the folks that I love are there
I got a date with my favourite chair

Of course, in regard to earlier songs especially, while the traveller associates home with love, security and tenderness, back at home the waiting one may have had feelings more of frustration and oppression. One is desperate to get back home, but for all we know the other may be desperate to get out of home or to develop a life more meaningful than that which was then offered to women. If the lot of homemakers was invisible to national economies (Waring), it seemed equally invisible to mainstream songwriters. This reflects the tradition that “Despite home being generally considered a feminine, nurturing space created by women themselves, they often lack both authority and a space of their own within this realm” (Mallett 75).

Few songs have offered the perspective of the one at home awaiting the return of the traveller. One exception is the Seekers’ 1965 A World of Our Own but, written by Tom Springfield, the words trilled by Judith Durham may have been more of a projection of the traveller’s hopes and expectations than a true reflection of the full experiences of housebound women of the day. Certainly, the song reinforces connections between home and intimacy and privacy:

Close the door, light the lights. We’re stayin’ home tonight,
Far away from the bustle and the bright city lights.
Let them all fade away, just leave us alone
And we’ll live in a world of our own.

This also strongly supports Gaston Bachelard’s claim that one’s house in the sense of a home is one’s “first universe, a real cosmos” (qtd. in Blunt and Dowling 12). But privacy can also be a loneliness when home is not inhabited by loved ones, as in the lyrics of Don Gibson’s 1958 Oh, Lonesome Me, where

Everybody’s going out and having fun
I’m a fool for staying home and having none.

Similar sentiments emerge in Debbie Boone’s You Light up My Life:

So many nights I’d sit by my window
Waiting for someone to sing me his song.

Home in these situations can be just as alienating as the “away” depicted as so unfriendly by Homeward Bound’s strangers’ faces and the “million people” who still leave Michael Bublé feeling alone. Yet there are other songs that depict “away” as a prison made of freedom, insinuating that the lack of a home and consequently of the stable love and commitment presumably found there is a sad situation indeed. This is suggested by the lilting tune, if not by the lyrics themselves, in songs such as Wandrin’ Star from the musical Paint Your Wagon and Ron Miller’s I’ve Never Been to Me, which has both a male and female version with different words, reinforcing gendered experiences. The somewhat conservative lyrics in the female version made it a perfect send-up song in the 1994 film Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.

In some songs the absentee is not a traveller but has been in jail. In Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Ole Oak Tree, an ex-inmate states “I’m comin’ home. I’ve done my time.” Home here is contingent upon the availability and forgivingness of his old girl friend. Another song juxtaposing home with prison is Tom Jones’ The Green, Green Grass of Home in which the singer dreams he is returning to his home, to his parents, girlfriend and, once again, an old oak tree. However, he awakes to find he was dreaming and is about to be executed. His body will be taken home and placed under the oak tree, suggesting some resigned sense of satisfaction that he will, after all, be going home, albeit in different circumstances.

Death and home are thus sometimes linked, with home a euphemism for the former, as suggested in many spirituals, with heaven or an afterlife being considered “going home”. The reverse is the case in the haunting Bring Him Home of the musical Les Misérables. With Marius going off to the barricades and the danger involved, Jean Valjean prays for the young man’s safe return and that he might live. Home is connected here with life, safety and ongoing love.

In a number of songs about home and absence there is a sense of home being a place where morality is gently enforced, presumably by women who keep men on the straight and narrow, in line with one of the women’s roles of colonial Australia, researched by Anne Summers. These songs imply that when men wander from home, their morals also go astray. Wild Rover bemoans

Oh, I’ve been a wild rover for many a year,
and I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer…

There is the resolve in the chorus, however, that home will have a reforming influence. Gene Pitney’s Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa poses the dangers of distance from a wife’s influence, while displaying opposition to the sentimental yearning of so many other songs:

Dearest darlin’, I have to write to say that I won’t be home anymore
‘cause something happened to me while I was drivin’ home
And I’m not the same anymore

Class as well as gender can be a debated issue in meanings attached to home, as evident in several songs that take a more jaundiced view of home, seeing it as a place from which to escape. The Animals’ powerful We Gotta Get Outta This Place clearly suggests a life of drudgery in a home town or region. Protectively, the lyrics insist “Girl, there’s a better life for me and you” but it has to be elsewhere. This runs against the grain of other British songs addressing poverty or a working class existence as something that comes with its own blessings, all to do with an area identified as home. These traits may be loyalty, familiarity or a refusal to judge and involve identities of placement rather than of displacement in, for instance, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Ferry Cross the Mersey:

People around every corner, they seem to smile and say
“We don’t care what your name is, boy. We’ll never send you away.”

This bears out Blunt and Dowling’s claim that “people’s senses of themselves are related to and produced through lived and metaphorical experiences of home” (252). It also resonates with some of the region-based identity and solidarity issues explored a short time later by Paul Willis in his study of working class youth in Britain, which help to inform how a sense of home can operate to constrict consciousness, ideas and aspirations.

Identity features strongly in other songs about home. Several years after Neil Young recorded his 1970 song Southern Man about racism in the south of the USA, the group Lynyrd Skynyrd, responded with Sweet Home Alabama. While the meaning of its lyrics are still debated, there is no debate about the way in which the song has been embraced, as I recently discovered first-hand in Tennessee. A banjo-and-fiddle band performing the song during a gig virtually brought down the house as the predominantly southern audience clapped, whopped and stamped its feet. The real meanings of home were found not in the lyrics but in the audience’s response.

Wally Johnson and Bob Brown’s 1975 Home Among the Gum Trees is a more straightforward ode to home, with lyrics that prescribe a set of non-commodified values. It is about simplicity and the right to embrace a lifestyle that includes companionship, leisure and an enjoyment of and appreciation of nature, all threatened seriously in the three decades since the song’s writing. The second verse in which large shopping complexes – and implicitly the consumerism they encourage – are eschewed (“I’d trade it all tomorrow for a little bush retreat where the kookaburras call”), is a challenge to notions of progress and reflects social movements of the day, The Green Bans Movement, for instance, took a broader and more socially conscientious attitude towards home and community, putting forward alternative sets of values and insisting people should have a say in the social and aesthetic construction of their neighbourhoods as well as the impacts of their labour (Mundey).

Ironically, the song has gone on to become the theme song for a TV show about home gardens. With a strong yet more vague notion of home, Peter Allen’s I Still Call Australia Home, was more prone to commodification and has been adopted as a promotional song for Qantas. Nominating only the desire to travel and the love of freedom as Australian values, both politically and socially innocuous within the song’s context, this catchy and uplifting song, when not being used as an advertisement, paradoxically works for a “diaspora” of Australians who are not in exile but have mostly travelled for reasons of pleasure or professional or financial gain.

Another paradox arises from the song Home on the Range, dating back to the 19th century at a time when the frontier was still a strong concept in the USA and people were simultaneously leaving homes and reminiscing about home (Mechem). Although it was written in Kansas, the lyrics – again vague and adaptable – were changed by other travellers so that versions such as Colorado Home and My Arizona Home soon abounded. In 1947 Kansas made Home on the Range its state song, despite there being very few buffalo left there, thus highlighting a disjuncture between the modern Kansas and “a home where the buffalo roam” as described in the song.

These themes, paradoxes and oppositional understandings of home only scratch the surface of the wide range of claims that are made on home throughout popular music. It has been shown that home is a flexible concept, referring to homelands, regions, communities and private houses. While predominantly used to evoke positive feelings, mostly with traditional views of the relationships that lie within homes, songs also raise challenges to notions of domesticity, the rights of those inhabiting the private sphere and the demarcation between the private and public spheres. Songs about home reflect contexts and challenges of their respective eras and remind us that vigorous discussion takes place about and within homes. The challenges are changing. Where many women once felt restrictively tied to the home – and no doubt many continue to do so – many women and men are now struggling to rediscover spatial boundaries, with production and consumption increasingly impinging upon relationships that have so frequently given the term home its meaning. With evidence that we are working longer hours and that home life, in whatever form, is frequently suffering (Beder, Hochschild), the discussion should continue. In the words of Sam Cooke, Bring it on home to me!

Author Biography

Wendy Varney