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Zoo Story: Bob Dylan vs. The Mountain Goats

on June 03, 2013, 12:00am
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How have Bob Dylan and John Darnielle, a.k.a. The Mountain Goats, traveled the world?

Darnielle often sings in the present tense, moving with caution from place to place, detailing the ghosts that live in unexplored pockets of the world. He zooms in on Portmore in Jamaica, or Galesburg in Illinois to set a new backdrop for trials domestic and romantic, personal, and imagined. His geography is only surreal in the sense that it’s unfamiliar, whether he’s Going to Georgia or Going to Ghana. He is always there, living in that moment, experiencing the jungle or the desert with his heart in his hands.

Dylan uses his geography more broadly. He sings in the past tense, a storyteller for men and women, outlaws and gamblers who ventured to the four corners of the world trying to just pick up and move on. He focuses on the south and the west, Wyoming and Texas. With Dylan, it’s more about the people he’s met than the person he is. Though he’s mapped many dusty roads and highways, cities are often just a setting, not the focal point for Dylan.

Essentially, the sun is rising over Darnielle’s towns, and the sun is setting behind Dylan’s.

Recently, Thomas Bollier, Chris Kirk, and Richard Kreitner over at Slate put in massive legwork to map out almost every location Bob Dylan sang about, and in 2009 a man named Alex put in massive legwork to map out every Mountain Goats song. Using these two maps, we compared the 50 states in the U.S. plus the rest of the continents (alas, neither wrote songs about Antarctica).

According to this research, some notes: Darnielle’s “favorite” state (ha ha) is California (33 songs) while Dylan’s is New York (26 songs). Both Darnielle and Dylan have “cop outs”, with Darnielle writing about 44 “Going To…” songs, and Dylan naming about 12 “exotic” locations in “Union Sundown”. And not that folk music is a contest, but if it were, Darnielle’s songbook includes approximately 254 songs that mention a specific place in the world, while Dylan’s songbook includes approximately 177.

Here’s a breakdown of all 50 states and the rest of the globe, plus which American songwriter can subjectively claim that part of the world as their own.

How many songs did Darnielle and Dylan write about…

Alabama

Darnielle: 3
Dylan: 2
Decision: Dylan, by way of of iconic location in iconic song title (“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”).

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Alaska

Darnielle: 1
Dylan: 0
Decision: Darnielle, on a simple “Going to Alaska”, where “the jacaranda are wet with color.”

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Arizona

Darnielle: 1
Dylan: 1
Decision: Darnielle, as his Arizona hat tip is not included in just a laundry list of southern states like Dylan.

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Arkansas

Darnielle: 1
Dylan: 1
Decision: Dylan, as Darnielle can only just “see” Arkansas, no proof whether he was actually there. No proof at all.

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California:

Darnielle: 38
Dylan: 9
Decision: Darnielle, clearly. No one can’t compete with the songs of the Sunshine state that haunts Darnielle perpetually.

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Colorado

Darnielle: 4
Dylan: 3
Decision: Dylan, for his decidedly more rustic and romantic imagery of Colorado (and because I love “Rambling Gambling Willie”).

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Connecticut

Darnielle: 1
Dylan: 0
Decision: Darnielle. Connecticut doesn’t really have a lot of great songs about them (Superchunk, excepted), but Connecticuters take comfort that Darnielle shouts out Norwalk, where a local tells me they have “a nice aquarium.”

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Delaware

Darnielle: 0
Dylan: 0
Decision: Dewey, DE for the one time I was there and saw a bunch of lifeguards practicing semaphore down the beach.

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District of Columbia

Darnielle: 0
Dylan: 2
Decision: Dylan, Another notch in the belt of “Rambling, Gambling Willie”!

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Florida

Darnielle: 12
Dylan: 4
Decision: Oh my god, Darnielle. There’s “Going to Dade County”, a song about the small Gulf town of Inglis, the album Tallahassee being one of his greatest achievements, and also it being a former place of residence.

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Georgia

Darnielle: 4
Dylan: 3
Decision: Close, but Darnielle, for the person who always shouts “Going to Georgia” at the shows.

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Hawaii

Darnielle: 1
Dylan: 1
Decision: Dylan, for the “old Honolulu” mention in the unimpeachable “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go”.

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Idaho

Darnielle: 0
Dylan: 1
Decision: Dylan by default. I asked an Idahoan what Idaho city should have a song written about it, they replied “Sandpoint deserves a protest epic to rewrite its place in history.”

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Illinois

Darnielle: 5
Dylan: 4
Decision: So close but Dylan’s “The Death of Emmett Till” trumps all, even Darnielle’s mention of Galesburg, even though a local tells me, “There’s a cool old Arby’s sign there and that’s it.”

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