As much as I love discovering songs that remain true to my heart, I get just as much pleasure finding out what music is important to people I encounter. While traveling I am always interested in learning about what music or songs unite people and are universally recognized. Travel stories and memorable encounters, like music, tend to stick with me and instantly become reference points for my time in a foreign place. The following is a retelling of a travel and musical moment in my life that remains dear to me.
At the tail end of a backpacking trip in the Scotland Highlands I found myself in a run of the mill local pub in a borough of Edinburgh, after just having seen a football match at the local stadium.
The pub was full of locals of all age, the majority of whom had just exited the stadium after the Edinburgh team had lost the match. The Sunday afternoon outcome of the game didn’t alter the mood. This was clearly a time for being part of a community.
The pub was alive with the banter of old and young alike, the pints were flowing, the smell of stained bar wood and meat pies lingered in the air and the juke box was spinning traditional Scottish fare and classic rock and roll.
The Stones, The Beatles, U2 all made appearances with cordial indifference from the crowd. I was sitting with my host of the occasion, the local tour bus driver who had taken a group of us around the highlands and had extended the football invitation solely my travel partner and myself.
Suddenly, the first notes of a song came on that silenced the otherwise noisy crowd.
Most people know the band The Proclaimers from its runaway hit from the early 90s, “I Will Walk Five Hundred Miles,” but other than that catchy one-hit-wonder, little else is known of the band outside of Scotland. For the good people of Edinburgh the group, comprised of brothers Charlie and Craig Reid, is a mark of local pride.
The song that began to spin was the title track of the band’s 1988 Album, Sunshine on Leith. As soon as the first lines, “my heart was broken, my heart was broken,” were sung, the entire bar exploded in a massive sing-along that was unlike anything I had ever encountered. Part of the pleasurable surprise of the moment was due in part to the fact that everyone in the bar, from the children to the town elders, were joining in the anthem.
I instantly felt out of place and foreign to the locals who, during this song, could’ve probably cared less about who I was or what I was doing in their local haunt. It was a beautiful moment. It was a jaw-dropping sign of community, the acceptance and passion for local artists who made it big, and an ode to an unofficial town ballad.
Pints were raised high, people were belting out the lyrics and when the song was finished people went back to their banter.
What was striking about the incident was that not even an hour later the same song was selected again, and as if someone pushed rewind, the crowd erupted in the same motions. I asked Mike, the local guide and all around nice guy about why everyone knew this particularly song and he couldn’t give me an answer. Some things just are the way they are.
The Proclaimers’ minor international success in the 90s was clearly a big enough deal back home that people joined in together to recognize the crowning achievement of these local brothers from Edinburgh.
After I had had time to let the incident soak in I began to think about similar moments back home. Surely there must have been some song or moment I could compare this to. In college certain songs were instant crowd-pleasers at keg parties, tailgating events, and bars but these songs generally aim towards a particularly demographic, namely the inebriated, 17-30 year old market.
Sure, an artist like Michael Jackson is recognized by old and young, and a song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” tends to bring the proletariat together (hell it even tapped into the echelon of society thanks to The Sopranos finale), but that music is too big to be as humble as “Leith’s” moment in the spotlight. What I came to realize is that part of what made this moment seem so foreign to me is that the pub is unlike any other bar or gathering spot back home. These pubs are not merely bars but rather assembly halls for the community to gather.
This football match was on a Sunday afternoon, a day of rest for most. Rather than watch the game from the comforts of a large sofa in front of a big screen TV, the masses went out to the pub. This is not to say Americans don’t follow suit as well. Sports bars back home have jukeboxes too, however, something about this moment made me think that I had just been given a glimpse into a different world.
As far as songs go “Sunshine on Leith” is a pretty basic ballad, nothing special. If anything it is a little corny or overly sentimental (read: “Your beauty and kindness /
made tears clear my blindness”) It references the district of Leith in Northern Edinburgh that serves as a port to the sea. But even to this day I’ll reach for it to remember that day. It reminds of just how powerful music can be for bringing people together, be it through a communal jukebox selection or a televised musical moment. In our current digital age where music is often solely experienced by the individual, rather than by groups, it’s refreshing to know there are still moments where people unite over song.
There was a time when I wished I had brought a video camera to the pub to document both moments, but the songs’ ability to spark a vivid mental image of that day makes up for it.