Despite the ease of digital mail, it cannot quite match the impact of the arrival of a handwritten letter. While the USPS struggles through some very difficult economic times in the digital age, it has stood tall in our cultural history in fiction, film and song. Many dramas have arisen about our communications through the mail: waiting for the mail to arrive with an answer, a missed letter with a life-changing message, the dilemna of whether a lack of communication is the post office’s fault or signifies something bigger. Just like our previous blog post about Print, Paper & Ink in popular song, below are some classic evidence of the role mail and letter writing plays in our culture.
Please Read the Letter – Robert Plant & Alison Krause (2008)
Beautiful, haunting song named Record of the Year at the 2009 Grammys. Originally recorded by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Plant claimed the lyrics are an “unfinished business.” No USPS involved in delivering this letter however; the narrator just nailed it to the door.
Box Full of Letters – Wilco (1995)
Gotta box full of letters – and not enough time to answer all the questions. Same feeling we get now with an inbox full of email, but it just doesn’t inspire the same musical feeling that snail mail does somehow.
Strawberry Letter 23 – The Brothers Johnson (1977)
Known as the most sampled song in hip hop music, I remember this hit from high school. Seems the author was so moved by the strawberry scented paper on which a girlfriend wrote to him, that this song was born. A trippy, psychedelic imagery fills the lyrics about this 22nd letter, the title suggesting he’s waiting on the next delivery.
Anchorage – Michelle Shocked (1988)
In the lyrics, two friends on very different paths separated by a “burning bridge” catch up via the USPS. A letter is sent to Dallas, “but the reply came from Anchorage, Alaska.” Le Roy’s wife must have used the Change of Address service!
The Letter – Joe Cocker (1970)
Originally recorded by the Box Tops, I just like Joe Cocker’s gravelly-voiced version from his album “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” better. This was Cocker’s first Top 10 hit in America. The lyrics illustrate our deep cultural belief in the right letter arriving at the right time and it’s ability to change someone’s life. A missed email doesn’t seem to have the same built-in drama of a misplaced or misdelivered letter.
You Wear it Well – Rod Stewart (1972)
The entire lyrics are a handwritten apology to a lost love, from the man who blew it in Minnesota. He says he’s been meaning to phone, but “Now I’m eating my heart out, trying to get a letter through.” (Check out the great violin solo from Dick Powell.)
Take a Letter Maria – R.B. Greaves (1969)
R.B. Greaves, the nephew of legendary singer Sam Cooke, hopefully did not write this song from real life experience… a terrible story about a businessman dictating a letter to his secretary to break up with his wife whom he had just caught cheating, then asking the secretary out for a drink. My bet is Maria said “No!”
Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours) – Stevie Wonder (1970)
Enjoy Stevie on The Dick Cavett Show singing his first hit he produced himself. A classic.
All My Loving – The Beatles (1963)
Early Beatles at their best. “I’ll write home everyday, and I’ll send all my loving to you.”
Letter to Me – Brad Paisley (2007)
We have to include one from the country world. The USPS hasn’t mastered this delivery service yet, however: “If I could write a letter to me/ and send it back in time to myself at 17…”
Some obvious examples not on our list include: “Return to Sender” by Elvis, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” by Fats Waller, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp)” by Allen Sherman, and of course, “Please Mr. Postman” by The Carpenters, The Marvelettes, The Beatles and many others. Not favorites of mine, so they didn’t make the list.
The post office also honors the music industry. Check out the USPS stamp series, Legends of Rock & Roll/Rhythm & Blues from 1993, and order the 2014 Rock Icons series here, featuring Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Lydia Mendoza, Edith Piaf and Miles Davis.