Sarah Vowell is familiar to many KCRW listeners as a contributor to This American Life and her commentary on five favorite songs is just as keen and comical as you would expect. From songs about feminism and Marxism to a risqué Christmas song and the tale of a California-bound rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. She also selects two tracks that have influenced her writing process with their expressive lyrics. Sarah Vowell’s latest novel, The Wordy Shipmates, chronicles the 17th and 18th century history of Puritan colonists in Massachusetts.
1.) Loretta Lynn - The Pill
2.) Chuck Berry - Promised Land
3.) Louis Armstrong - That's My Desire
4.) Randy Newman - The World Isn't Fair
5.) Elvis Presley - Santa Claus is Back in Town
Interview with Mario Cotto and Sarah Vowell
Mario Cotto: Hi this is Mario Cotto from KCRW and I'm here with author and "This American Life" contributor Sarah Vowell. We'll be talking about music that has inspired her over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ project. How ya doin?
Sarah Vowell: I'm okay.
Mario Cotto: So what did you bring for us today?
Sarah Vowell: I thought we could start with Loretta Lynn's song "The Pill"
Sarah Vowell: I bought this record when I was a little kid, at the time living in Oklahoma. And Loretta Lynn had a lot of influence on me at a very young age, maybe I was eight. She got married when I think she was maybe thirteen or fourteen and she was pregnant at thirteen. So a lot of her songs in her book had to do with how she was stuck with all these kids when she was only a few years older than I was. It has this feminist quality where this woman who's sick of taking care of all of these kids, her husband running around on her and now it's her turn.
Song: Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”
My family was very religious. I wasn't allowed to listen to Kiss because they were supposedly satanic. And then years later I would listen to a song like "Beth" by Kiss and it's just this little bubble gum love song. And I wasn't allowed to listen to that but I was allowed to listen to this Loretta Lynn song about, you know, getting hot pants and taking oral contraceptives.
Mario Cotto: That was "The Pill" by Lorett a Lynn. So what do we have next here?
Sarah Vowell: Chuck Berry "Promised Land." I just finished writing this book about New England puritans. I would listen to this song, Bruce Springstein's "Promise Land" song and this Mormon Tabernacle Choir version of that hymn "Bound for the Promised Land" a lot, as a way of thinking about these people getting in their little boats and coming here for their new life in this new world. But the thing I loved specifically about the Chuck Berry one, besides all that big American biblical poetic stuff, Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" is specifically about what a drag it is dealing with transportation. He has a lot of mishaps you know, he's on a bus, then he's on a train, and then finally he's on a plane. It's all about getting to California. I thought that would be nice to talk about here in Santa Monica.
Song: Chuck Berry’s "Promised Land"
Sarah Vowell: There's this bit where he's gone through the bus and the train, he's been to Alabama, New Orleans, and Houston. He's in the plane finally. I think the line is "working on a T-bone steak a la cartie" And I'm pretty sure Chuck Berry knows the pronunciation of that French word is “a la carte” but there's just the rhythm of it is just so obstinate and it's just so catchy like "working on a T-bone steak a la cartie." There's something so rhythmic about that.
Mario Cotto: Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" here on KCRW. I'm Mario Cotto sitting here with Sarah Vowell. What's the next song here on the list?
Sarah Vowell: Louis Armstrong doing his version of "That's My Desire."
When I was a kid I wanted to be a trumpet player and I thought that was what I was going to do when I grew up. Then one of my teachers said, ‘Oh, you should check out this guy Louis Armstrong.’ So I had this Louis Armstrong live album I would listen to as I fell asleep every single night, much to my sister's dismay she was across the hall, because I thought if I just listened to Louis Armstrong over and over and over again, then I could figure out what he was doing and then I could be a better player.
Eventually I just had to hang it up. My trumpet teacher tells me ‘you should quit.’ But I realize later listening to this one song was the first inkling of becoming a writer. Because of Louis Armstrong in this song, he's mostly singing and when he does regular lyrics "Take a little glass of wine, gaze into your eyes divine and feel the touch of your lips pressing on mine." When he does it later on he changes the lyrics to "I'll feel the touch of your chops, all wrapped up amongst mine." I knew that was a better lyric, his lyrics. But I didn't know why and it also seemed to be kind of at odds with what I was learning in eighth grade English, you know? I knew I wouldn't be able to write like "yo chops" on any of my eighth grade English papers or anything. I mean it was a true mystery to me.
Now I know, it's funnier, it's earthier, it's sexier, it's just more specific -- and so whenever I'm writing something and it's too generic and dull, I always have this voice in my head saying "less your lips and more yo' chops."
Song: Louis Armstrong’s "That's My Desire"
Mario Cotto: That was Louis Armstrong doing "That's My Desire" here on KCRW. I’m Mario Cotto here on the KCRW Guest DJ Project with author Sarah Vowell. What do you have next for us?
Sarah Vowell: Randy Newman song "The World Isn't Fair." I love this song because, first of all, it's about Karl Marx and what happened to his dream of socialism.
But the thing I really love about this song and it's something I guess I try to do writing about history is this song takes this turn in the middle. He's talking about Karl Marx and his dream of fairness and how that all went to hell. And then Randy Newman tells this story about he has these little kids now and he's at their orientation and it's this Hollywood private school event and it's all these Hollywood mothers. They're all really pretty and they're all there with older, uglier men like him.
Song: Randy Newman’s "The World Isn't Fair"
Sarah Vowell: And that's his way of telling Karl Marx that the world isn't fair and there's something about that example and just how personal it is that really just makes the song. You know, because who wants to listen to a song about how Marx's dream got shot to hell.
I'm always in the mood for Randy Newman lately. And that's not necessarily a good thing. It seems like whenever the country's kind of at a low point, I’m always in the mood for Randy Newman.
Mario Cotto: Randy Newman's "The World Isn't Fair." I’m sitting here with Sarah Vowell. I'm Mario Cotto here on KCRW. What else did you bring for us today?
Sarah Vowell: From the Elvis Christmas record. This is my favorite Christmas song. It's called "Santa Claus Is Back in Town."
It's a very risqué Christmas song. I did a story for "This American Life" a few years ago about how so many Christmas songs are all about Santa Claus as this sort of sexual threat or sexual being. I remember being a kid and I was always so offended by that song "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." And I think I always thought Santa Claus was this person who was going to steal your mom from your dad.
Song: Elvis Presley’s "Santa Claus Is Back In Town"
Sarah Vowell: I specifically remember my parents giving me this record on Thanksgiving when I was maybe seven or eight. And again, it's a sort of grown up song. It's a fairly smutty song, to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Mario Cotto: Elvis doing "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" You're on KCRW's Guest DJ project. So Sarah, thanks for coming in today.
Sarah Vowell: My pleasure!
Mario Cotto: My name's Mario Cotto and we've been here with Sarah Vowell on KCRW's Guest DJ Project, here on KCRW.com.
[PLAYLIST GOES HERE]