We Created a Playlist to Link You to the Joy and Heartbreak of Being a Preservationist
Updated: Feb 10
For those passionate about preserving historic places there are songs that speak to us about the pain of losing something that matters to the world, reminds us of the unique places that surround us and feeds our drive to fight as stewards of history and cultural resources that existed years before us and - if we do our jobs - will be there for years after.
Kicking off the playlist is a song recorded in Preservation Hall in New Orleans as part of an album celebrating New Orleans music and raising funds for Preservation Hall. 64 Parishes, a project of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, said the Preservation Hall building is “a rustic, unimproved structure from the early 1800s — (that) stands out even in the historic French Quarter as old, atmospheric, and a hardy survivor of history, not unlike the music played within it.”
“There are some magical places where you can go and actually feel the past surround you and experience the transience and fragility of our place in time. For me the place in America that best captures that wonder is New Orleans,” said Melissa Wyllie, Florida Trust CEO & President. “Listening to Preservation is a joyful immersion in the cultural heritage and history of New Orleans - and a reminder of how vital preserving those things are to our experience of the world.”
The history of music in the building dates back to the 1950s, and serves as a reminder of the city’s jazz history, but also as a rare space in the segregated South where musicians, bands and audiences could share music together regardless of race. Learn more about the Preservation Hall and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Florida Trust Board Member Mike Cosden has this to say about Rush’s Subdivisions. “How many arena rock songs are there that urgently and unironically sing the praises of urban planning? From its opening lines Subdivisions decries sprawling, cookie cutter architecture and praises the vibrancy of the city:
‘Sprawling on the fringes of the city in geometric order
An insulated border in-between the bright lights and the far, unlit unknown.’
While the song isn’t exactly about historic preservation, it touches on one of the reasons many of us are passionate about the field — the hope of preserving truly special places that often add up to more than the sum of their parts and stand in stark contrast to identical, bland subdivisions with ‘no charms to soothe.’”
How else can music connect us to preservation? It can remind us of connections we make with the spaces around us. Josh Ritter’s Where the Night Goes tries to seize a rare and special opportunity, while recognizing how brief a flash our lives are through its interactions with the built environment’s old cars, back roads and boneyards. It’s also a great song for those of us who love historic cemeteries. Simon & Garfunkel’s America shares the journey of coming to grips with the truth of ourselves and our country.
“I’ve been loving Mattiel’s vibrant ‘60s sound lately, and I fittingly heard the song Cass Tech for the first time while searching for a WPA school in Levy County I’d read about. I adore the way the song anthropomorphizes the building as a beloved old friend and expresses gratitude and reverence for its years of service to the students who graced its sunny classrooms,” said Laura Duvekot, Florida Trust Board Member. “Mattiel’s voice conveys both fondness for the building, and that resigned feeling of devastation over losing a dear friend, in such a lovely but haunting way. To top it off, the song comes in at two minutes and fourteen seconds, making Cass Tech my preservation love song favorite this Valentines Day.”
Sometimes, preservationists lose, and there’s music for that, too. Jeff Buckley’s Last Goodbye isn’t about a building, but many of us can relate to his heartbreaking sense of losing something vital that can’t be replaced. A love song to the Smith Tower in Seattle, Washington, Teardrop Windows is really about how our culture so often fails to recognize the value of places once they are no longer draped with superlatives. “But in 1962 the needle made its big debut / And everybody forgot what it outgrew,” summarizes the way celebrated places can quickly become forgotten.
Other songs on the preservation playlist speak about buildings themselves, or the role they can play as witness to our own lives and heartbreaks. Vampire Weekend sings about Mansard Roofs and Jackson Browne’s Shape of a Heart is a building that bears the scars of an ill-fated love. The Weakerthans’ Sun in an Empty Room aptly describes a tangible sense of place that is so interconnected with preservation. The “parallelograms of light / on walls that we repainted white,” the shadows crossing the floor, the ink-stained fingerprints on doors — this is a place a person is intimately connected to.
“Maren Morris’ The Bones reminds me of the strength of historic buildings,” said Florida Trust Board President Friederike Mittner. “So many people don’t realize the potential of buildings if on the surface they have been neglected, but if the bones are strong they are worth it!”
Though the playlist goes on, let's end with Beyoncé singing Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, a song with a Florida connection that reminds us of the complexities and tragedies of our nation’s history and how preservationists fight to capture all the voices of the past, and all the stories.
What songs would you like to add to a preservation playlist?
Are you an archaeologist? We found a playlist for you, too.