In a Smalltimore state of mind

Songwriter Howard Markman gives Baltimore provincialism its own anthem

August 07, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

When I moved here 23 years ago, some friends gave me a framed copy of the lyrics to Randy Newman's song, "Baltimore." Sample lyrics:

Hooker on the corner

Waitin' for a train

Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk

Sleepin' in the rain

Several years later, Lyle Lovett would release his own musical tribute, just as imaginatively titled "Baltimore." Sample lyrics:

And if they go to Baltimore

Then I'll see you in heaven

And as they breathe you'll breathe no more

And you will surely die

Given this sorry state of musical affairs, I braced for yet another back-of-the-songwriter's-hand when I heard there was a new Baltisong out there. Great, I thought, just what we need: In this summer of oppressive temperatures and rampaging criminals, now we have to hear how bad it is in song as well.

To which Baltimore-based musician Howard Markman would say, or rather, sing: "It ain't the heat, it's the humanity."

That might be my favorite line of all in "Welcome to Smalltimore," Markman's Valentine to his hometown, which both celebrates and pokes at its malaprop-y provincialism.

You can hear the song — or better yet, buy it — on his website, I should warn you, though: The tune will lodge itself in your brain, and you won't be able to go anywhere in town without hearing Markman singing the chorus, "When I walk down the street, all the faces that I meet — I've met before. Welcome to Smalltimore."

Markman, 54, is a professional musician and a Baltimore native who now lives in Hampden, although he's originally from Pikesville. Or as he Smalltimorely corrects me, since no one here is from anything so large as a city, Sudbrook Park. Before I can ask the first question any Smalltimorean would ask — where'd you go to school — he provides the answer: Milford Mill. (I'll pause here while you figure out whom you know that Markman might also know.)

The song is the title tune of his third CD, which was officially released in May, although in something of a "soft launch." While he's rehearsing now for a steadier schedule of shows in the fall, he's been performing the tune occasionally at house parties and coffee shops — to much enthusiasm and smiles of recognition.

He came up with the song, as the song itself notes, as he was driving across the Bay Bridge back home from a trip to the Eastern Shore and he started thinking of who he'd see. Well, obviously people he's always seen, or someone one or two degrees of separation away.

"Some days it's impossible to walk down the street, into a restaurant, a hardware store and not see someone you went to high school with," Markman told me. "It's just that funny thing of, 'I went to high school with your cousin's brother.' "

The charm of the song, I think, is its understatement. Despite a couple of standard Bawlmer references — there are nods to Formstone and the Domino Sugars sign — the song manages not to come off as a corporate jingle for the Hon industry. Some of that is Markman's sense, even now, of being something of an outsider, even though he's a second-generation Baltimorean. The song "plays with that dichotomy," he said, of a town of people who come from all over — but once here, somehow adopt the city's trademark provincialism.

"Huddled, muddled masses," he sings of what he considers a city of immigrants, "and they all know who you are. It's comfort and it's claustrophobic, a sideshow that's for sure."

Oddly enough, the song has caught on even beyond our borders. "Someone wrote me from New Mexico, 'That's what it's like here,' " Markman said. "I like that it's not just a Baltimore song."

He's had previous brushes with national exposure, most notably when another song, "Almost Home," was picked for the soundtrack of a 10-part PBS series, "Carrier," about life aboard the USS Nimitz during its deployment to the first Gulf War. Among the documentary's executive producers: Mel Gibson.

"It happened right around the last time," he said, referring to a previous meltdown by the actor, in this case his anti-Semitic outburst after a DUI arrest in 2006. In the resulting outcry, Gibson apologized and said he wanted to reach out to the Jewish community.

"I think the check to me was the extent of the outreach," Markman says jokingly.

Markman, normally averse to genre-labeling, thinks he most fits the "Americana" category. He performs solo, in duos and larger bands, as a backup musician and even a wedding singer, and he teaches guitar.

"Baltimore has always treated me well," he says.

And in this song, he returns the favor.

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