California Stars by Wilco. Take a Listen:
Kind: Sleepy Baby
Reasons it’s a Tot Rocker: Firstly, California Stars is about stars, and kids like everything to do with space (ever had to sing Twinkle, Twinkle a million times?) The song only has two verses, but that’s all the easier to remember at 4:30am when you’re trying to get your kid back to sleep. Finally, everything about the lyrics and tune are so simple, in fact, it’s easy (and enjoyable) to hum along after only hearing it once.
Those catchy, tender lyrics? The Woody Guthrie. Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, describes in an interview on NPR how the lyrics likely came to be: “He (Woody) hadn’t been to California in 10 years at least. He probably already knew he had Huntington’s, and he wished he could go back in time — stop the progress of an illness.”
The happy, sleepy tune? The Wilco. Wilco got involved with Billy Bragg to add music to Guthrie’s words and out of it came Mermaid Avenue, a collaborative album released in 1998. California Stars later become a standard part of Wilco’s set. Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, gives credit to Wilco for their contributions as the reason the song is what it is:
“I think it’s the music. I want to be honest. The melody that they did aligned so well with the lyrics. Imagine these guys – they just got a sheet of paper with two verses on it. You could just hold that paper and sing in in 20 different ways in 20 different rhythms. There’s something about the tempo and the vocal and the melody that they did that brought out this idea of a little bit of melancholia.” (California Songs)
I love how songs can remind you of a specific moment in your life. For me, California Stars reminds me of a amazing meal I had in Northern Spain. I really have no recollection of the meal itself, just the ambiance, the company, and the beautiful surroundings. There happened to be grape vines hanging from the pergola above my head, but that seems besides the point. It was something about that moment, and now that memory, that seems to embody the perfect simplicity of this song.