Small Town

John Cougar Mellencamp, 1985

How much do you identify with this song? What does it mean that he was "taught the fear of Jesus"? What does "I can breathe in a small town" mean?

How small is a small town? How would you define a small town? Is it about the number of people? Available activities? Job opportunities? What are the trade-offs between living in a small town and big city? Where would you like to live?

If he can be himself in a small town, what do think he's afraid would happen in a big city? Has he really decided to stay or has he just not found a reason to leave yet? Do you think he'll stay in this small town? Why?

Which other eras would this song fit in? Compare it to "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?" in unit 6. What similarities exist between the farm and the small town for the young men?

Compare it to "Living for the City." How were their small town experiences similar? Strong family, religious, limited prospects. How were they different? "Living" suffers discrimination.

"Small Town" performed by John Cougar Mellencamp on Scarecrow. © 2005. Available on iTunes and Spotify.


For more information on John Cougar Mellencamp, visit his official website. The official music video may be viewed via YouTube.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source

Born 1951 in Seymour, Indiana, Mellencamp began playing in rock bands as a teenager. During the several decades spanning his career, Mellencamp changed his name from John Cougar, when he sported a James Dean-style image, to John Cougar Mellencamp, and eventually simply to John Mellencamp. Early albums were not immediately successful, but his popularity rose when he and his band began touring almost non-stop in 1979.

John Cougar Mellencamp

John Cougar Mellencamp.

Mellencamp's earlier songs dealt with "boy-wants-girl" themes, but the album Scarecrow, which included "Small Town," began commenting on social concerns. In particular, he portrayed the plight of the farmer as a dedication to his farmer grandfather. He became the promoter of so-called "heartland rock," songs about the Midwest. These songs of the mid-1980s reflect the Reagan years when high interest rates forced farmers to sell their farms. Mellencamp, along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, formed the benefit Farm Aid to help farmers. The highly charged, steady rhythm of "Small Town" reveals the influence of rock and roll on Mellencamp's music. Mellencamp commented on this song, "I wrote one song about small towns, and all of a sudden, I became keeper of the small town."

The liner notes from Scarecrow read: "The highway between John's house and the studio where these songs were recorded cuts through a stretch of Indiana where the land is fertile and full of growth. It is from this land and its people that these songs are born, and though it is not necessary to know this to enjoy and appreciate them, it does lend a certain understanding for those who care to think about such things."

Check census information and find out the percentage of urban vs. rural population now, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 150 years, 200 years. When does the population become primarily urban?

Check the census data and old maps to find out if your town was ever a small town. What happened to make it grow past those original boundaries? What factors determine the life cycle of a town? What makes some towns grow, some stay the same, some disappear?

Write and design a brochure promoting this small town to people relocating.

Divide in groups, each researching a different-sized nearby town or city, then write an article, arguing the benefits of staying in that town to "be yourself."



Creative Commons License
Voices Across Time is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at