Our “Top Five Songs That Mention Michigan” has been a popular article for some time here at Awesome Mitten–and a popular topic of debate. So when our friends over at Interlochen Public Radio asked us to revisit the topic, we jumped at the chance to add to our list. While we stand by our original selections, we have to admit there were some glaring absences. We scoured the internet and the recesses of our minds to come up with other great songs that mention Michigan. We pored over your comments on Facebook and Twitter. In the end, we came up with five more songs that should’ve been on the list the first time. Disagree? We’d love to hear your opinion. Want more Michigan songs? Check out IPR’s comprehensive Spotify playlist.
It’s well known that Michigan has a rich musical history. It’s home to Motown and is the birthplace of techno; it’s the home state of such stars like Eminem, Madonna, Big Sean, Kid Rock, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Jack White, and Iggy Pop. And yet, given all this musical star power, a surprisingly small number of great songs have been written about the mitten state. Sure, any given weekend you can hear large congregations of drunks shouting the lyrics to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” but anyone with any sense of geography realizes south Detroit is called Canada. The Wikipedia entry entitled “List of songs about Detroit” turns up a list comprised of twenty-one Kid Rock tunes and very few songs that could be considered “hits.” Still, with a little extra effort, we dug up the best songs about Michigan!
Top 10 Songs About Michigan
“America” – Simon and Garfunkel
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now/It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw/I’ve gone to look for America”
A song that makes for a great road trip companion, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s 1968 hit details the travels of a young couple, the starting point of which seems to be Saginaw, Michigan. Two years ago, spray-painted lyrics from the song started popping up on blighted buildings across the Saginaw area, and NPR investigated.
“Night Moves” – Bob Seger
“It was just like southern Michigan summertime.”
Am I cheating here? Only a little. For those unfamiliar, these words can’t be found in the original studio version of “Night Moves.” If you’re well versed in Seger, however, you will recognize this phrase from his live album Nine Tonight. I’m putting it on here because it’s ubiquitous during summer in Michigan; the radio stations in Michigan seem to have signed some sort of agreement in December of 1976 that they have to play the song once a day, every day between the months of June and September for the rest of eternity. I once had a longstanding debate with a friend that Bob Seger was not truly popular anywhere but Michigan (sample dialogue: “I spent the entire weekend in Ohio, and I never heard ‘Night Moves’!”)
“Lake Michigan” – Rogue Wave
“You can never see yourself/ringing all around it/No one is on Lake Michigan/you labored on, Lake Michigan”
Perhaps not a popular song by radio standards, Rogue Wave’s “Lake Michigan” is nevertheless a song many people will recognize thanks to its placement in commercials and television shows.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot
On November 10, 1975, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald shipwrecked in Lake Superior, taking with it its entire crew of 29 men. One year later, Gordon Lightfoot, a Canadian singer-songwriter, released the single mythologizing the wreck. The song would eventually go on to be Fitzgerald’s second most popular single, peaking at #2 on the Billboard charts.
“Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State” – Sufjan Stevens
Why pick just one song when you can have an entire album? Michigan native Sufjan Stevens released his third album “Greetings from Michigan” in 2003 to rave reviews. AllMusic.com called it “a haunting and hypnotic studio opus certainly worth getting lost in.” It’s hard to disagree. The album covers a wide variety of topics and places from within the state, and Stevens plays over twenty instruments on the album. A must-listen for any lover of Michigan and indie music.
“Michigan” – The Milk Carton Kids
A somber, delicate folk song about leaving Michigan. The setting is established in the very first lines: The clouds move over Pontiac skies/Their silent thunder matches mine and gets fleshed out in the second verse: It’s unannounced like you’d expect it/Among broke down brake lines and Motown records. Of course, it’s all tied together by the chorus: Michigan’s in the rearview now/Keep your hands where I can see them.
“Detroit Rock City” – KISS
This could be called the Detroit sports anthem since it seems as if it’s played at every sporting event in the city. Those in charge of the city’s PA systems have a good reason for wearing out the grooves on their copy of “Detroit Rock City”: the song’s chugging rhythm gets the blood flowing and the chorus helps inflate Detroit pride while instructing the listener to stand up and get rowdy.
It’s said that the song was written about a fan who died on his way to a KISS concert. The band has other connections to the city as well, recording songs on their breakthrough live album Alive! in town; the back cover of Alive! is a picture of two fans at Cobo Hall.
“Dancing in the Street” – Martha and the Vandellas
While Michigan gets only a brief shout out in the song (Don’t forget the Motor City!), it is no doubt a truly Michigan song. It’s widely considered one of the Motown record label’s greatest hits and peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. It’s certainly got the “Motown Sound,” and was co-written by one of their most important artists, Marvin Gaye. It has been widely covered by other bands, the most notable of which include The Mamas & The Papas, Van Halen, and Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
“Michigan and Again” – The Accidentals
A new song by the Traverse City-area band, “Michigan and Again” dominated my Facebook News Feed for weeks after its release. It got coverage on NPR, where the band members explained that the song came about when a fan suggested they write about their home state. The song is a breezy love letter to the Great Lakes state, with aching strings and strong harmonies.
“Panic in Detroit” – David Bowie
During the 1970s, the Thin White Duke befriended Michigan native Iggy Pop, who was at the time the frontman for Ann Arbor garage rockers The Stooges. Allegedly, it was Pop who gave Bowie the inspiration for “Panic in Detroit,” which describes or alludes to a number of revolutionaries who were making their home in the city at the time. The song sounds jittery and paranoid, which, for some people, described how the city felt in the wake of the 1967 riots.
Disagree? Hold your horses, we’ve got more! Check out the rest of the list below…
More Songs About Michigan
“Romulus” by Sufjan Stevens – You could be fooled into thinking that this is a simple song; listen closer. There are a ton of instruments on this track. It’s low-key but intricate.
“Put Your Hands Up For Detroit” by Fedde Le Grand– I don’t typically listen to techno, but in a mix about Michigan, you have to throw some in. This is far and away my favorite techno song, and after listening to it, I will often wander around for hours muttering “Put your hands up for Detroit,” much to the delight of anyone living in the same house as me.
“Pretty Girl From Michigan” by The Avett Brothers – This song has nothing to do with Michigan outside of its title; The Avett Brothers just have a habit of writing songs called Pretty Girl from (Insert Destination Here). Still, this is one of their best songs off of their new album.
“The Blue” by Jason Isbell – Even though Michigan only gets a quick mention, Jason Isbell gets props for even mentioning us. He could have easily stretched the syllables in Florida to fit, but he didn’t, and for that I’m grateful.
“Highway Patrolman” by Bruce Springsteen– Off of the sparse, spooky, and great Nebraska, “Highway Patrolman” is the tale of a cop chasing his troubled brother through Michigan. A great example of The Boss as a top-notch storyteller.
“The Last Time I Saw Richard” by Joni Mitchell – It was in Detroit! It says so in the first line of the last song off of Joni Mitchell’s classic album Blue.
“Paint’s Peeling” by Rilo Kiley– Full disclosure: I hadn’t heard this song before I started researching this article. It’s hard not to be pulled in by the opening line, though: “The paint’s peeling off the streets again/And I drive and I close my eyes in Michigan/And I feel nothing, not brave/It’s a hard day for breathing again.”
“Especially in Michigan” by Red Hot Chili Peppers – Singer Anthony Kiedis and drummer Brad Smith both have roots in Michigan (Kiedis lived in Grand Rapids until he was 12, Smith spent most of his childhood in Bloomfield Hills and often wears a University of Michigan baseball hat while drumming), so it felt like a no-brainer to include their song about the state, even if it’s not my favorite RHCP song.
“Saginaw, Michigan” by Lefty Frizzell – Lefty Frizzell had a huge impact on country music, influencing some of its most important stars-to-be (think Willie, Waylon, and Merle). This song was his last hit, telling the story of a poor guy from Saginaw who falls in love with a girl, only to find out her rich dad thinks the narrator is too poor for his daughter. What follows is a trip to Alaska in search of gold and an eventual happy ending. For those counting, this song mentions Michigan far more than any other on the list.
“Sweet Payne” by The Hold Steady– Singer/lyricist Craig Finn has a stable of characters he comes back to again and again on Hold Steady albums. One of these characters is named Gideon, who has—according to this song—been living in Bay City, Michigan. One wonders though, why the characters had to get high to realize Michigan looks like a mitten.
“The Big Three Killed My Baby” by The White Stripes – In case you slept through the 2000s, the White Stripes were a garage rock band from Detroit. The Big Three in question here are (gasp!) the Detroit automakers. Apparently, this song is based on a true story.
“Kalamazoo” by Ben Folds – After I moved away to college, Ben Folds came to my hometown to play at Adrian College. I seem to remember an article afterward where he complimented our Bob Evans, a comment which forever endeared him to me.
“The Deeper In” by Drive-by Truckers – Add this song to the list of great songs about incest! And in your face, other states—despite the many miles of running by the fugitive couple in the song, Michigan’s Finest were the ones who eventually hauled them in.
“Going to Michigan” by The Extra Glenns – To be fair, I’d complain if I knew someone who only listened to the Tubeway Army. Or the Blue Cheer comprehensive retrospective box set.
“I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash – And that includes Kalamazoo.