California Canon: Around the State in 13 Songs

A baker’s dozen of great and not-so-great ditties from all over California.

PUBLISHED OCT 29, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Some songs less traveled from around the Golden State.

Some songs less traveled from around the Golden State.   gguy

This list does not contain “Hotel California,” “California Girls,” or “California Dreamin’.” You already know the way to San Jose, and that a visit to San Francisco involves flowers in your hair. Instead, it’s a trip from Chula Vista to Mendocino, with stops along some other dark desert highways.

1. “Where the Turf Meets the Surf”

There is a smile on every face
And a winner in each race
Where the turf meets the surf

In 1937, Bing Crosby and Johnny Burke wrote this on-the-nose celebration of Del Mar’s celebrity-drenched racetrack across the street from the ocean.

Watch on YouTube

2. “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”

When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That’s the day you promised to come back to me.
When you whispered farewell in Capistrano
Twas the day the swallows flew out to the sea.

If it’s March 19 and you’re anywhere near the glorious Mission San Juan Capistrano, look up and enjoy the return of the cliff swallows from their 6,000-mile migration—and boy, are their wings tired—from Goya, Argentina, a tradition dating back to the early 1930s. The rest of the year, it’s mainly seagulls and pigeons.

3. “Mendocino”

Mendocino, Mendocino,
Where life’s such a groove
You blow your mind in the morning.
We used to walk through the park,
Make love along the way in Mendocino

The Sir Douglas Quintet’s Doug Sahm may have started out heavily influenced by the blues and conjunto sounds of his home state of Texas, but after a move to Salinas, the musician adapted extremely well to the counterculture scene in Northern California. In 1969, he perfectly captured the laid-back hippie vibe in “Mendocino,” a song he wrote while visiting the groovy coastal town.

4. “I Had a Ball in Big L”

In Lompoc Valley are large deposits of diatomite
Our earth is rich with rock and oil and dolomite
Be sure to see the Flower Festival every year.
And if it's hunting and fishing you like
Ocean Park is near

I had a ball in Big L. I had a ball in Big L. The livin’ is swell. And oh, how I fell. Cause I had a ball in big L.

Once you hear “I Had A Ball in Big L,” you’ll be humming it all day. Sorry about that. Probably the only song to rhyme “diatomite” with “dolomite,” the ditty about the town frequently described as “above Santa Barbara, below San Luis Obispo” was a promotional single for local radio station KNEZ “The Breezy 960” in 1962. The song was rescued from obscurity and digitized 40 years later. Sadly, no one can identity the singer.

5. “Gypsies From Bonsall”

We’ve been kicked from every place that we’ve lived in
Because the neighbors don’t like music after ten o’clock shu bop shu biddily bop
Tried to fit eleven people in one room, drove the landlord crazy
Till he went and kicked us out shu bop shu biddily bop
Found us a place where we can do our thing
We’re gypsies from Bonsall
There’s no stopping at all

Poor little Bonsall. In 1975, the rural area in San Diego’s North County wasn’t exactly terrain that inspired songwriting. Then came the family group knows as the Weirz with “Gypsies From Bonsall.” The nine siblings—Larry, Joan, Pixie, Tom, Cathy, Theresa, Michael, Estelle, Maria—submitted the song all about their nomadic lifestyle to radio station KGB’s “Homegrown” music anthology, and the song became a hyper-local hit.

6. “Ukiah”

The mountain streams that rush on by
Show the fish a jumpin’
And reflect the open sky
The fresh clean smell of the pines
Symbol of unchanging times
All around this sacred land

The Doobie Brothers went to “retreat and live off the land” in this tribute to the tiny Mendocino County burg of wineries and extremely tall trees. “For some reason that area was lyric-rich, for lack of a better term,” the band’s Tom Johnston told a Ticketmaster blog in 2019. “I liked the name, Ukiah, and the words in that song fit the area.”

Listen on YouTube.

7. “Chula Vista”

While you’re south ... South of the border, heading north ... Freeway to L.A.
San Ysidro ... And then you stop ... Everyone will say ...
You're back in Chula Vista, Chula Vista
Chula Vista, Chula Vista
Chula Vista, Chula Vista
Chula Vista, Chula Vista
Chula Vista, Chula Vista

Also featured on KGB San Diego’s “Homegrown” series is this truly terrifying paean to the San Diego suburb, which translates as “Beautiful View” and is also known as “Chulajuana” for its proximity to the border. Complete with awkward nightclub crowd laughter and some sort of clangy Jew’s harp, the deadpan number by an act known as Rose & The Arrangement alternates between the most monotonous chorus you’ve ever heard to jazzy finger-snapping that’s pretty irresistible.

8. “Kern River”

And now I live on Lake Shasta
And Lake Shasta is where I will stay
There’s the South San Joaquin
Where the seeds of the Dust Bowl are found

And there’s a place called Mount Whitney
From where the mighty Kern River comes down

Merle Haggard has called his stark lament on the drowning of his girlfriend in the Kern River “a scary record” that “screamed quiet and startled you alive.” The song was also covered by Dave Alvin and Emmylou Harris.

Watch on YouTube.

9. “Pico and Sepulveda”

Vine may be fine,
but for mine I want to feel a-live
and settle down in my
La Brea ... (Pico and Sepulveda, Pico and Sepulveda)
Tar Pits ... (Pico and Sepulveda, Pico and Sepulveda)
Where nobody's dreams come true...
(Pico and Sepulveda, Pico and Sepulveda)
(Pico and Sepulveda, Pico and Sepulveda)

If bandleader Freddy Martin, who wrote the 1947 Dr. Demento fave “Pico and Sepulveda,” was looking for a completely unremarkable Los Angeles intersection, he surely succeeded with this ode to the Los Angeles spot, where today you'll find an Anawalt Lumber and a Supercuts.

10. “Lodi”

Just about a year ago
I set out on the road
Seekin’ my fame and fortune
Lookin’ for a pot of gold
Thing got bad, things got worse
I guess you will know the tune
Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again

John Fogerty never visited Lodi when he wrote the song in 1969 for Creedence Clearwater Revival. The lyrics, about a struggling musician, might have worked as “stuck in Redlands” or “stuck in Fresno,” but he chose the Central Valley town because it had “the coolest sounding name.”

Watch on YouTube.

11. “Folsom Prison Blues”

I hear the train a comin’, it’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone

If you shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, you might not do your time in this Northern California prison, but we’ll let that detail slide for Johnny Cash.

Watch on YouTube.

12. “Streets of Bakersfield”

You don’t know me but you don’t like me
You say you care less how I feel
How many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?

Well, have you? (At least you should visit Bakersfield for the Basque food.) The Bakersfield Sound—the more rockin’ counter to the slick stuff that was coming out of Nashville—is the calling card of this agricultural city in Kern County. Buck Owens also recorded a duet version with country singer Dwight Yoakam.

13. “Flying Saucer Safari”

Taco Bell and filter kings
Correctol and onion rings
Banning, Blythe and Indio
Desert Center too, you know
Concentrate, don’t make a sound
We’ll psychokinetically pull one down

An Interstate 10 road trip, cigs and snacks, and an alien take-down all set to a spazzy, pogo-friendly beat by Suburban Lawns. More importantly, what ever happened to Su Tissue?

Watch on YouTube.


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