When I was a kid, someone taught me a song with a line that I’ve been wondering about ever since.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard the children’s camping song “I Love The Mountains.” It goes like this:
A Girl Scout leader taught our troop this song. Our version was a little different than the popular one. It started with verses about nature, but then it went into an extra verse about cities.
“I love the city life,” it starts. Fine. But then comes the second verse, the verse that I’ve been thinking about for over a decade:
“I love the city air.”
I’d been to Chicago. I knew what the air was like there: worse than air anywhere else I’d been. This line wasn’t just nonsensical. It was the opposite of the way I thought the world worked.
When I was 18, I went to New York, and my befuddlement only grew. New York smells like rats trapped in a cage, probably because New York is literally a bunch of rats trapped in a cage. I’ve been to D.C., L.A., Boston, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Paris, and dozens of other cities around the world, and I’ve never enjoyed the air. Tolerated, sure. But loved? Never.
“Maybe the writer just needed a rhyme,” I tried to convince myself over the years.
“Come on,” the devil on my shoulder responded. “You could make up a better rhyme in ten minutes.”
I love the city life
I love to live in fear
I love smelling trash every day of the year
And paying $12 for a beer
The writer had options, is my point. How did she end up choosing this incomprehensible line? Did she just space out? Or did she truly love city air? If so, then I’d have to accept that my view of the world was hopelessly different than everyone else’s, and people have no idea what other people are thinking or feeling, and love is impossible, and life is meaningless, and …
… And a couple weeks ago, I decided to track down the songwriter and ask her.
This proved surprisingly difficult; I couldn’t find the line anywhere. “I love the mountains” was all over the place, but the city verse had been erased from the Internet. Perhaps it was only in the original song from pre-Internet days?
The only information about the history of the song I could find was a half page Wikipedia article. It said that the Discovery Channel made a commercial using the song. The commercial starts with two astronauts floating in space, staring at the planet.
“It never gets old, huh?” says one.
“Nope,” mutters the other.
“It kinda makes you wanna…”
“Break into song?”
A resigned pause. Then …
They pound fists and start singing. Other people around the world join in. At one point, a Navy seal shoots a giant gun and blows up a house while singing “boom-dee-ah-da.”
As much as the video made me appreciate the planet and wonder if an army recruitment center was funding the Discovery Channel, the video didn’t have any of the city lyrics. I started wondering if I’d just imagined them.
I asked Reddit for help, but someone just referred me back to the Wikipedia article. I Googled some of the lyrics from memory (I had the whole song memorized), and I got three results. The first was my own question on Reddit. The second was a program for a recorder concert at my actual elementary school. I clicked on the third page.
A cacophony of hideous noises blasted the moment the page loaded, and I literally jumped. There were a bunch of music files on the page; the webmaster must have set them all to play automatically.
After pausing most of the files, I realized that they were actually recordings of singing children. The page belonged to an elementary school music teacher. And she’d posted the lyrics, city lines included, on the page. They were real!
I emailed her. The email bounced back.
I googled various parts of the lyrics. “I love the city air.” Nope. “I love the way tall buildings look up there.” Nope. This went on for days. Finally, I decided to try one more search: "city life song i love the mountains."
Suddenly, results started poured in. The first was a video featuring a bunch of kids singing the song I remembered. The description read "City Life (With "I Love the Mountains") (written by John Jacobson)."
Oh hello there, John Jacobson.
Jacobson was a middle-aged man with luminescent blond hair, an affinity for colorful polo shirts, and a smile that should probably be selling toothpaste. A few years ago, he made some videos of himself rocking dance moves like “rubber legs” and “double dream feet.” The videos went viral; one has over 7 million views. There’s really no substitute for watching them:
The comments under his videos included:
I bet this guy destroys the bar scene.
So you’re in the club and this guy comes up and starts double dream footing your girl, what do you do?
In another video, he replicates into three John Jacobsons, each with different colored polo shirts. I was starting to doubt my premise. If there was one guy who could get enthusiastic about city air, it was John Jacobson.
“That guy!” my friend exclaimed when I showed him the video. “Everyone knows that guy!” Apparently, Jacobson was Internet famous in 2010, a time when getting loads of views on YouTube wasn't nearly so common.
Jacobson writes children’s choir songs and teaches kids to dance. He’s choreographed young people for Disney, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and even a couple presidential inaugurations. Most interestingly, he went on “America’s Got Talent” a few years ago. It was a total disaster; he got booed off stage. I wondered how he’d ended up there.
Millions of kids have sung Jacobson’s songs in school assemblies and other performances. So that’s how I fit into all this: I was one of those children.
Despite his popularity, I couldn’t find much about this unusual man. His Facebook page was closed; his site looked like it hadn’t been touched in years. I tried contacting him through every line of communication I could find; I didn’t get a response, which seemed strange for an entertainer trying to make it on TV. Sadly, I never found the guy.
“I’m not one who’s good at sitting at a desk,” said John Jacobson WHO I GOT A HOLD OF. (His agent eventually responded to a follow up email.) Jacobson came from a family of educators, worked for Disney theme parks, and went on to write music and teach kids to dance. Then a student put one of his videos on “the Youtube,” he told me, and everything went crazy. He went on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” and millions of people watched his videos online.
That’s when the insults started rolling in. Viewers were vicious.
“I never thought that what I did for a living looked ridiculous,” he told me. But after a while, he decided that it didn’t matter. “It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about kids getting excited about learning something.” I should probably mention here that Jacobson was one of the nicest people I’d ever interviewed — imagine Mr. Rogers, but somehow more innocent.
His optimism was tested when “America’s Got Talent” asked if he wanted to come on the show. It wasn’t really his scene, but they said they wanted him to warm up the crowd and teach a bit about music education. But when Jacobson arrived, they slapped a number on him and treated him like a contestant.
“It was a complete setup,” he explained.
Jacobson went on stage, introduced himself, and started dancing. The crowd booed. Piers Morgan, one of the judges (a Simon Cowell type) started insulting Jacobson immediately.
“If you were my teacher, I’d just be so annoyed,” said Morgan. “If the competition was ‘America’s Got Annoying Teachers,’ you would walk away with the title immediately.”
Jacobson felt like he’d been punched in the gut.
“Well, if you were my student, I’d send you to detention,” Jacobson replied (the show cut that bit out).
“It was nothing but adult bullying,” Jacobson told me. “We would never let kids treat other kids like that. And yet we let people like Piers Morgan on national television treat other adults like that.”
As humiliating as the experience was, Jacobson found a silver lining.
“I’m an adult,” he said. “Piers Morgan’s not gonna make me jump off a bridge. But how about a kid who hasn’t learned the adult skills to handle that sort of bullying? … I can relate on some level now to kids who have been bullied.”
As exciting as it was to hear about his television disaster, there was still one last thing I wanted to know.
“So … I have a question I’ve been wondering about,” I started nervously. I explained the mysterious “city air” line.
He laughed. “I think I was probably writing more about city air as atmosphere, rather than pollution,” he said. "I don't necessarily want to smell the buses or the gutters.”
Although he pointed out that he used to direct the group that started the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade every year, and the air was always full of the smell of roasting chestnuts. Leave it to John Jacobson to fondly remember a New York smell. But that's the guy’s M.O. He was one of the most cheerful people I’d ever encountered, and that seems to be part of the reason so many people watched his videos.
“This is the purest thing on the Internet,” wrote one commenter. In fact, the supportive comments and insulting comments had something in common: they all marveled at his sheer enthusiasm.
“You know what it is?” one of my friends told me. “When most people get older, they stamp out all their excitement for life. But this guy somehow kept it and nurtured it.”
“Why … Why are you like this?” I asked Jacobson. “How are you so enthusiastic?” He laughed and explained that he worked with kids a lot; their energy rubs off on him. Plus, he’s physically active, which keeps his spirits up. But ultimately, he says it’s about choosing to see the good. When his house burned down and his brother died a few years ago, he said to himself, “I’m not the first person who lost a brother, and I’m not the first person who had their house burn down.”
“You either have to laugh or jump off a building,” Jacobson continued, “So I choose to laugh.”