In the music world, the unusual name of Kalamazoo has become a versatile tool for a variety of lyrics—and a popular metonym to refer to more exotic places, even if Kalamazoo isn’t so exotic itself. It’s a Michigan city, but it’s also now a big piece of lyrical Americana.
MICHIGAN—”Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo.”
It was Kalamazoo’s most memorable slogan for a reason—namely because all of the popular songs that referenced this southwest Michigan city made it sound fictional.
For one reason or another, this Potawatomi word has turned out to be a popular choice among musicians. Perhaps it’s because the ending vowel sound rhymes perfectly with so many other words. Maybe it’s because the budget-friendly Gibson guitar was made in the city for so many years—and the instrument was a popular choice among many songwriters.
Over time in the modern vernacular, though, Kalamazoo seems to have earned a unique meaning—a metonym of sorts, to refer to exotic lands. Sort of like Timbuktu, it’s a real place that has taken on a folkloric meaning of its own that often has little to do with the city itself.
Here are eight examples of Kalamazoo finding its way into musical history:
“(I’ve Got A Gal in) Kalamazoo” by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra (1942)
This Academy Award-nominated song may be solely responsible for cementing Kalamazoo into lyrical history. This catchy swing tune about a wartime man longing for a woman back home played in the 20th Century Fox movie-musical Orchestra Wives. Thanks to the popularity of the song, Kalamazoo decided to elect a real-life “Gal from Kalamazoo” in 1942— Sara Woolley, who was a 19-year-old student at Kalamazoo College at the time. She went on to become a local celebrity of sorts and an unofficial spokeswoman for the city.
“I’ve Been Everywhere” by Hank Snow (1962)
The song “I’ve Been Everywhere” has been covered multiple times, including famously by Johnny Cash in 1996. It was also covered as recently as 2021 by the L.A. Rats, a group that includes Rob Zombie and Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe. The lyrics are quite simply just a list of many cities and states that are phonetically similar and pleasing—including Kalamazoo.
“Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
The B-side to rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival’s well-known track “Fortunate Son,” “Down on the Corner” is the story of a fictional street corner band known as Willy and the Poor Boys. Unlike other songs, this reference to Kalamazoo is clearly about Gibson guitars.
“Turnpike Tom” by Steve Goodman (1971)
Steve Goodman may not have been a Michigander, but he was definitely Midwest kin—perhaps most well-known for writing “Go, Cubs, Go,” the official theme song and victory song for the Chicago Cubs. In “Turnpike Tom,” he references not only Kalamazoo, but also Greensboro, Tennessee. He also mentions Bloomington, but no specific state is mentioned.
“Mary Lou” by Bob Seger (1976)
Famous Michigan singer-songwriter Bob Seger is known for making references to his home state throughout his songs. The rocker hailing from Southeast Michigan has mentioned popular locales in songs such as “Detroit Made,” “Horizontal Bop,” “Makin’ Thunderbirds,” “Back in ‘72,” and “Roll Me Away.” Kalamazoo is mentioned in “Mary Lou” off Night Moves.
“Della and the Dealer” by Hoyt Axton (1979)
“Della and the Dealer” is a folksy storytelling song about a cat who is “cool” and “never said a mumblin’ word.” Why the cat is named Kalamazoo isn’t exactly clear. Hoyt Axton was a country legend and known actor, but he doesn’t seem to have any connection to Michigan.
“Jumbo Go Away” by Frank Zappa (1981)
Frank Zappa was an eclectic musician who dealt in experimental tunes. “Jumbo Go Away” was inspired by a stalker who followed Frank Zappa on tour, according to bassist Denny Walley. It’s unclear whether she was literally from Kalamazoo, or if it was a metaphor.
“Kalamazoo” by Primus (1997)
Funk rock band Primus is perhaps most recognizable for singing the original theme song for the animated television series South Park. But around the same time Primus was “headin’ on down to South Park,” they also wrote this riff on Glenn Miller’s “Kalamazoo,” with the same alphabetic intro. The song mentions Kalamazoo five times—and may be speaking about Kalamazoo more as a state of mind rather than a city. We’ll let you be the judge.
“Kalamazoo” by Ben Folds (2004)
Though perhaps not as emotional as his better-known song “Brick,” Ben Folds penned an unplugged and heartfelt song that used music’s favorite midwestern city in the title. The song mentions Kalamazoo three times, alongside the dulcet tones of the piano. It may just be a good rhyme, though. Folds doesn’t appear to have a personal connection to Kalamazoo.
“I Can’t Stand L.A.” by Bowling for Soup (2009)
Texas-based pop punk band Bowling for Soup wrote “I Can’t Stand L.A.” first when he was writing songs for the album Sorry for Partyin’. Kalamazoo is included in a list of cities that he prefers to Los Angeles, with background vocals that joke “we’ve never been there.” It seems to be another folkloric reference to Kalamazoo—but at least this band is in on the joke.
“Gotta Get Away” by The Black Keys (2014)
“Gotta Get Away” is a Southern rock-inspired track. The song conveys the struggle of a hopeless romantic trying to find the right girl, who might not even exist. It was also particularly popular in Canada—maybe because our neighbors enjoyed the local name drop.
“Kalamazoo” by The Show Ponies (2017)
This track comes from indie folk band The Show Ponies. Despite the name of the track, the LA-based band doesn’t seem to have any ties to Michigan. Instead, according to co-lead vocalist of Clayton Chaney, Kalamazoo seems to serve a purpose towards the song’s meaning regarding “staying out of the places where we are emotionless and complacent.”
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