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Why a guy from New England wrote an anthem for your town

Plus, Mother's Day is Sunday.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
May 12, 2023
Inside this edition: Write something, Mother's Day, Susquehanna trashman, AM gold, misdemeanor fortune telling, and the Pennsylvania songbook.
🏆 PA IQ TEST: If you think you've been paying attention to the news, we're here to help you prove it. Put your knowledge to the test with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Oil and gas orphans, state House control, and Taylor Swift's homecoming.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

This week marks 42 years since reggae legend Bob Marley's death in 1981 at the age of 36. Marley played his last-ever concert in Pennsylvania months prior. What city was the show in? (Bonus points for the venue.)

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One thing worth reading: Pittsburgh author and journalist Brittany Hailer wrote about early motherhood in a Short Reads piece called Quick, Write Something: "Quick, before the baby cries. Before the dog asks to be let back out and let back in and out and in and out and in. Before the baby needs a bottle. Before the baby pees, shits, spits." 

» One thing worth knowing: Sunday is Mother's Day, a holiday born in Pennsylvania. Billy Penn reports the Philly woman behind the day, Anna Jarvis, hated what it became, but maybe don't tell mom that part: “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

» One thing worth sharing: John Naylor hit his goal of removing 26,400 pieces of trash from the Susquehanna River in March. York Daily Record reports he did it one boatload at a time over six-plus years. “You name it — it’s in there,” said Naylor. “The scariest things are baby dolls."

» One more thing worth reading: Automakers are phasing out AM radio in cars, but opponents of the move told The Inquirer (paywall) that rural Pennsylvania can't always count on cell phones and internet in emergencies. "AM radio has been a lifeline," one state official said.

» One crime worth knowing: ABC27 reports a Palmyra woman is charged with misdemeanor fortune telling and theft. According to the 19th century state law, a person may be found guilty of a third degree misdemeanor for fortune telling if any of these things happened.

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Election deniers running to make Pa. voting rules

» Is Pa. playing 'whack-a-mole' with orphaned gas wells?

» Lawmakers question medical marijuana doctor data

» You’re invited! A panel on Pa.'s $1B opioid settlement

» Why you should support Spotlight PA during Centre Gives

» Everything you need to know to vote in the May 16 primary

» 3 ways Shapiro's budget would change public health

» PSU president’s adviser accuses students of misinformation

» Full guide to the candidates for Pennsylvania's Supreme Court

» Guide to the candidates for Commonwealth, Superior Courts

Support Spotlight PA's public-service election coverage now.
Matt Farley on the cover of his Pennsylvania opus. (Courtesy of Matt Farley)

Matt Farley has cracked a code. Almost 10 years after his double album of offbeat and irrepressibly upbeat songs about Pennsylvania cities and towns first dropped, Farley — aka The Guy Who Sings Songs About Cities & Towns — remains a streaming and songwriting juggernaut, churning out oodles of instant not-so-classics, performing an ode to defunct Pizza Huts on Jimmy Fallon, and earning the unlikeliest of Wall Street Journal profiles.

He’s infiltrated the Kardashian Power Center, and, more central to the money he makes from all this, he’s now been discovered by TikTok

PA Local caught up with Matt to talk about his Pennsylvania opus, its lyrics inspired by Wikipedia entries. We also covered why he's mad at Philadelphia this week, when quantity can lead to quality, and the case for not overthinking things so much.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

PA Local: Pennsylvania has something like 2,500 municipalities. Why stop at 93? 

Farley: At the time, the distribution [system] I used was two CDs worth of music. And that's how many songs fit on two CDs. 

PA Local: That’s a pretty good reason.

Farley: I guess I'll have to come back and do a sequel.

PA Local: Did I read that you live in Massachusetts? 

Farley: Yeah. North of Boston.

PA Local: Have you been to Pennsylvania before? 

Farley: For sure. Um, I went to Centralia to see the smoke coming out of the ground. That was exciting. And Pittsburgh had some just, like, good vibes. And I don't like Philadelphia right now because they're up three games to two over the Celtics. (Update.)

PA Local: Why no Centralia song? 

Farley: Just because their population was so low. I'm pretty strict. I just go by population. I start with the most populated place and work my way down until I fill up an album.

PA Local: I have a couple of Between Two Ferns-style questions I’d like to ask. 

Farley: Go for it. 

PA Local: You wrote a song called “Allentown Good Song.” Why not “Allentown Great Song”?

Farley: I don’t know. Billy Joel wrote a great Allentown song. I mean, come on. Who am I to claim to have written the great Allentown song?

PA Local: When you said “York is a City (Good Nice),” what did you mean by that?

Farley: <Laughs> That's poetry. No further explanation needed.

PA Local: Have you ever done a negative song about a city? 

Farley: No. Because, I mean, why write a negative anthem? It's just fun to be like blindly celebratory of every city I'm singing about. And there's a cumulative effect to the comedy where you're like, ‘He just sang about how great Pittsburgh is and now he's singing about how great Scranton is.’ You can have a bingo card while you're listening. ‘Is he gonna mention the library?’ There are several songs where you can hear me laughing. If the singer were a character, he's a little bit out of his mind. But I don't think I'm making any deeper points about anything. It's more like, ‘Wouldn't it be funny if some guy wrote an anthem for 3,000 American cities?’ I thought that would be funny. And so I spent a decade doing it. 

PA Local: How many states are left? 

Farley: I've done 46. New Mexico, Wyoming, Mississippi, and West Virginia are the last four. And I plan to finish that by July.

PA Local: So this won't be like the Sufjan Stevens project

Farley: I'm envious. He still gets way more attention than me and he's only done two states. He's obviously a great musician and whatnot, but — a few months back I Googled albums about states and there’s his big face that pops up. You can’t find me anywhere.

PA Local: So you’re gonna see this through.

Farley: Yes, but wouldn’t it be funny if I just didn't do the 50th state? 

PA Local: Maybe not for that state. 

Farley: I agree. From the four states I haven't done yet, I've seen comments from people expressing their sadness about that.

PA Local: Quick pivot, but I’ve written about Pennsylvania enough to know that people here are quick to let you know if you’ve gotten something wrong about Pennsylvania. How many fact-checks have you received?

Farley: Well, there's a river called, like, the Skull-kee-ville River? You know what I'm talking about? 

PA Local: Yes, the Schuylkill.

Farley: I have definitely mispronounced that in multiple songs and it’s been pointed out to me. I think it adds to the fun: ‘He wrote an anthem and he doesn’t even know how to pronounce it!’

PA Local: If I were to give you a town, like St. Marys, that you haven't done yet, and a few prompts, could you write me a verse and a chorus?

Farley: Yes, but I have a big concert in a week and I have tons of preparation to do. 

PA Local: What's the show? 

Farley: Once a year I have an extravaganza. I rented out a function room in a hotel and me and my friends are going to be performing for five and a half hours.

PA Local: Which of your Pennsylvania songs is your favorite? 

Farley: I don't know. I haven't listened to that album in a long time, so I wouldn't — Oh, I know, Philadelphia! <Starts singing loudly> PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA. That one has a good bassline. Now I’m remembering.

PA Local: What’s stopping me from writing a thousand songs a year?

Farley: In college, a friend and I would spend the weekend in a dorm room just recording song after song. And we definitely got to the realization that the more we create, the more likely we are to create something good.

You’re not a good judge of your work while you’re working on it. If you get too self-critical and give up because you think it's bad, you never know, because oftentimes the song I think is good is the one nobody likes. Then the one I rattled off in 10 minutes as a joke is the one that people respond to, so my duty is to just follow up on every idea, no matter how ridiculous.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

Read more, via Paste MagazineThe Mad Genius of Magic Spot, Motern Media, and Matt Farley.

Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and get a 12X match on new monthly donations.
Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

"I was devastated. ... It’s even funnier because I’m in my forties."

—Olivia Troye, a DC-area Taylor Swift fan who's coming to Philadelphia for this weekend's tour stops, on being forced to choose between bringing her best friend or husband due to ticket availability (the husband won out)

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
Tufted titmouse and snack, via @johnmcculloughphotographySend us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
A closeup of a bird with a worm in its mouth.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

Bob Marley played his last-ever concert at Pittsburgh's Stanley Theatre (now the Benedum Center) in September of 1980.

The show happened days after Marley collapsed in New York's Central Park and the rest of the tour was canceled as Marley sought treatment for the aggressive form of skin cancer that claimed his life months later. 

TribLIVE has the backstory on the Pittsburgh show and Spotify has audio of the concert here, complete with six songs over two encores.

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and get a 12X match on new monthly donations.
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