Mon | Jun 17, 2019

Baltimore, Jamaican style

Published:Sunday | May 3, 2015 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
From left: Derrick Lara, Carlton Smith, and Junior Moore of The Tamlins.
The Tamlins back in the day.

It may be an indication of just how much we take the American influence on Jamaica - including our popular music - for granted that The Tamlins' take on Baltimore is an enduring hit in the country.

With its strong horn line, at points alternating with the vocal trio's harmonies, set to a reggae beat at just the right tempo, Baltimore is an exquisite song. Added to the studio version, there is a live cut, which gets played on radio occasionally, in which the singers add significantly to the song's aesthetics.

However, as much as I appreciate that performance recording, on the very few occasions that I have heard The Tamlins perform Baltimore live, I have not been satisfied. The approach has been uptempo, with an almost frenetic atmosphere that this is a big hit. It is, but there are those hits that are in part great because of their laid-back groove.


reggae version


The reggae version of Baltimore is one of them.

It is a sad song, actually, about the difficulties of living in the state of Maryland's seaport town (hence the opening line about a "beat-up little seagull" that is "trying to find the ocean/looking everywhere"). Many may miss the departure from Baltimore, which is done by car - much as Bruce Springsteen packs up his son and hits the road in the sadly sweet My Hometown, from his Born in the USA album.

So, if getting out of Baltimore, the plan is to "buy a big old wagon/to haul us all away/live out in the country/where the mountain's high/never coming back here/til the day I die/oh Baltimore, man it's hard just to live."

Baltimore has long been given good treatment by standouts like Randy Newman and Nina Simone, and a couplet about Baltimore's character could have been about Kingston:

"Hard times in the city

In a hard town by the sea."

However, in The Tamlins' version, there is an adjustment in the lyrics that changes a character from the American original. For, while Newman-Simone sings "hooker on the corner/waitin' for a trick", The Tamlins make it "copper on the corner/pleading for a drink".

Considering the recent events in Baltimore, which raise questions of citizenship and the fundamental values of the United States (US), it is ironic that it has a connection to a song that is a cornerstone of the society, the American anthem - The Star-Spangled Banner sprang from writer Francis Scott Key's reaction to US soldiers raising the stars and stripes at Fort McHenry in September 1814, during the war with England.