Last October, a few months shy of the 30th birthday, I moved back to the area where I was born, grew up, and attended college. Pennsylvania’s Centre County, as the name would suggest, is in the dead middle of the state, roughly equidistant from both Pittsburgh to the west and Philadelphia to the east. It’s most famously the home of the Pennsylvania State University (my alma mater), who I’ve worked for instructing online classes about pop music since 2009. (This past semester, I published and taught a course which I co-wrote, titled A History of Hip-Hop, which only a handful of students super hated.)
I had spent the past seven-or-so years living in cities, first in Chicago, then Philadelphia, and finally Washington, D.C., all of which I loved for different reasons–save for maybe Philly, a city I only love for its steadfast commitment to being a constant waking nightmare). So when my wife was offered a terrific job back in (as it is colloquially known) Happy Valley, the decision was a no-brainer. We had been planning on making this kind of move for some time–after all, both of are families are still in the area, and I work remotely writing and teaching, our dog Ike always within my arm’s reach. A great opportunity, a logical life change, the inevitable next chapter. No-brainer. But I’d be lying to myself if I said I was totally done with city life, with my twenties, with an “adult life” as I had newly come to understand it.
Fleet Foxes’ “Ragged Wood,” from the Seattle band’s almost impossibly rich self-titled debut, is unequivocally my favorite Fleet Foxes song, and I love a lot of Fleet Foxes songs. The appeal is obvious: A rollicking, backroad-tripping first half, that sun-struck coda, nothing but lush vocal harmonies in-between. Personally, I love it because my wife loves it— whenever she pulls out a record to put on, 70% of the time it’s Fleet Foxes. I also loved it because it reminded me of home. There’s a kind of pastoral yearning that, as the song says, calls you “back home.”
I was a kid who grew up always wanting to live in a city, and I was lucky enough to get to do so. And with people I loved, no less. As much as I often bristled at the idea of coming back home, “Ragged Wood” was there when I needed a reminder of where I came from, and despite my stubbornness and ego, it was a reminder of how potentially rewarding that idea actually was. Now walking Ike through the back alleys of the quaint Victorian town we now call home, just 15 minutes from the house my parents raised me in and still live, I noticed the song’s familiar melodies popping into my head. Was it always as quiet and verdant out here? Probably. I was just too dumb to appreciate it. But I’m back home. And better yet, back on my own.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.