Readers recommend playlist: songs about roots

This week’s playlist takes us through the ages, with songs from Elvis, Grace Jones, Morrissey and Leonard Cohen

Below is this week’s playlist – the theme and tunes picked by a reader from the comments on last week’s callout. Thanks for your suggestions. Read more about the format of the weekly Readers recommend series at the end of the piece.

Biologically, roots are the parts of a plant that draw nutrients and water from the soil to nourish it and help it grow. Roots also anchor the plant in place so it is not subject to the vagaries of the wind.

For people, roots are the elements of our childhood that nourished us and helped us to become mature, independent human beings. And they often serve as an anchor for our lives. A place we can return to, literally or in memory, to draw solace or inspiration when times are tough.

Often these roots are cultural rather than personal. The cultural roots of the Jewish people speak of escape from slavery in Egypt. Leonard Cohen tells the story of a people Born in Chains. “I fled to the edge of a mighty sea of sorrow pursued by the armies of a cruel and dark regime,” he sings, “but the waters parted and my soul crossed over out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh’s dream.”

Another song celebrating cultural roots is the powerful Welsh anthem Yma O Hyd, sung by Dafydd Iwan with the backing of a large choir.

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Uprooted from their native Africa, black men were brought to America as slaves. The Dixie Drifters recite the litany of the black man’s tragic history there. A solemn reminder – and not just of the tragic but also the inspirational. “I am all the ways I survived,” they sing. “I am Tubman. I am 14 black jockeys winning the Kentucky Derby. I am the creator of hundreds of patented inventions. I am LaFitte the pirate. I am Bessie Smith. I Am the Black Book.”

Stevie Wonder invokes images of trees to relate to his roots as a black man. “Tree – within your branches there’s such history so much of what we’re searching for to know,” he sings in A Seed’s a Star/Tree Medley.

Black America often turned to religion for solace, a dream of a place where one’s sorrows are ended and peace and happiness reign. The powerful voice of Paul Robeson sings of Going Home, the heavenly home so much better than the one of his actual roots. The music is based on the largo of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

On the other side of the coin, the genteel white society of the pre-civil war south is still fondly remembered. When you see Elvis Presley singing An American Trilogy – actually a southern-American trilogy – you can feel the passion that wants “to live and die in Dixie”. And you understand why Elvis was the King. A powerful live performance.

Roots are also used to describe the origins of things, such as musical genres. The roots of jazz. The roots of the blues. Musicians often speak of their musical inspirations – their musical roots. Carl Perkins tells us about the Birth of Rock‘n’Roll in fine rockin’ style.

Grace Jones’s musical roots come from her mother’s side of the family. Her mom told her how her Grandpa Dan was an itinerant musician who played with Nat King Cole. Grace was admonished, “When are you gonna be a Jones like your Dad?”. But she has Williams’ Blood in her – musician’s blood. Williams being her mom’s maiden name.

An overriding sense of rootedness can morph into nationalism. Morrissey sings that he has Irish Blood, English Heart, “Dreaming of a time when to be English is not to be baneful, to be standing by the flag, not feeling shameful, racist or partial.” And Killing Joke, apparently, are supporters of the European Union, yet their song European Super State can be interpreted as warning of a totalitarian government ruled by a Platonic philosopher king. Indeed, the person who posted the video of the song used horrific images from the movie 1984, a story characterised by three ruthless, totalitarian super-states. These undoubtedly echo some of the passions driving the recent Brexit vote.

On the other hand, Billy Bragg celebrates Britain’s diversity telling how he is England, Half English, with humour and panache.

Dexys Midnight Runners in 2011.
Dexys Midnight Runners in 2011. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

But the metaphor of roots only goes so far. People are not plants. Individuals can choose to reject the roots of their birth. Reject the abusive childhood or the deep poverty of their upbringing. Reject the forces that caused them to disperse from their homelands. A failure to do so gets you stuck in a One Horse Town. “You don’t climb too high or dream too much,” sing Blackberry Smoke. “Swallow your pride just to make your family proud” and become “an old married man at the age of 23.” He only dreams of the life he could have had.

Indeed, Dexys Midnight Runners tell us that Nowhere is Home: they reject the very concept of roots. “I wanna be the man of my dreams and I can’t be a fucking stereotype,” they sing. “I won’t give in, I will not cave in until I become free.”

People have the ability to lay down their own roots, wherever and whenever they want. Maybe part of growing up is not accepting the roots you came with but setting down your own roots in a place and with people of your own choosing.

The A List in full

1. Leonard Cohen: Born in Chains
2. Dafydd Iwan: Yma O Hyd (Still Here)
3. The Dixie Drifters: I Am the Black Book
4. Stevie Wonder: A Seed’s a Star
5. Paul Robeson: Going Home
6. Elvis Presley: An American Trilogy
7. Carl Perkins: Birth of Rock’n’Roll
8. Grace Jones: Williams’ Blood
9. Morrissey: Irish Blood, English Heart
10. Killing Joke: European Super State
11. Billy Bragg: England, Half English
12. Blackberry Smoke: One Horse Town
13. Dexys Midnight Runners: Nowhere Is Home

New theme

The theme for next week’s playlist will be announced at 8pm (UK time) on Thursday 7 July. You have until 11pm on Monday 11 July to make nominations.

Here’s a reminder of some of the guidelines for RR:

  • If you have a good theme idea, or if you’d like to volunteer to compile a playlist from readers’ suggestions and write a blog about it, please email
  • There’s a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are “zedded”, at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of “zedded”, “donds” and other strange words used by RR regulars.
  • Many RR regulars also congregate at the ’Spill blog.


Marco den Ouden

The GuardianTramp

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