Okay, students of the Great American Songbook, think now: What iconic popular song embodies the historic city of Boston? What tune did Sinatra croon that captures Beantown?
If we’re being honest, no such song exists.
I’m sorry, but while the Standells’ “Dirty Water (Boston You’re My Home)” from the late 60s is a popular number around these parts (listen to a live performance here), it falls short of city theme status. Over 60 years ago, the Kingston Trio did a fun little banjo song, “M.T.A.,” about a man named Charlie who was trapped in the Boston subway system; it was recorded as a protest to a potential fare hike. (Listen/watch here.) Ummm, that’s not exactly a great anthem either.
Last month, in a post about great songs celebrating great cities, I closed with the question of why there’s no iconic Boston song. Apparently I’m not alone. I recently Googled around a bit and found this blog post by the owner of Voltage Coffee & Art, an area cafe, thinking along the same lines:
Frank Sinatra and his buddies made a lot of songs famous, including several selections that seem to endorse these hipper cities as cooler than cool. The theme from “New York, New York”, “I Left my Heart in San Francisco”, “My Kind of Town (Chicago)” … think about it.
So, here’s my opinion on how to begin to solve this issue: what this city needs more than anything is a swanky jazz standard about our awesome city. Consider this a summer project. We’re putting together a contest to see who can write the best song. We’re looking for something super cool, maybe slightly wistful, that shows a completely un-ironic love of Boston. The best entry we receive will get recorded, hopefully with a Frank Sinatra impersonator and full orchestra if we can swing it. Official details to follow soon.
I don’t know if their project ever got off the ground.
My read on it
Great, cosmopolitan cities have playful styles that have expressed themselves in music and song. It’s why, for example, Sinatra could croon unofficial city anthems like “New York, New York” and “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” in ways that evoke deep, rich feelings about those places.
In my not-so-humble opinion, the core of Boston’s traditional culture has historically lacked a certain joie de vivre. Its essence has been, well, kind of serious, and often uptight and controlling. It has an earned reputation of not being the friendliest place for newcomers. It also has the nastiest, most aggressive, least predictable drivers I’ve ever encountered — and I’m speaking solely as a pedestrian!
As I’ll suggest below, some of these elements are softening. However, during the heart of the century that produced the Great American Songbook, they were fairly baked into the culture of this city. That’s not exactly the makings of a Cole Porter classic.
Boston as music maker
But there’s a twist, and it’s a positive one: There is a lot of music made in Boston! Not only is Greater Boston home to major conservatories, the Boston Symphony, and the Boston Pops, but also it hosts an abundance of amateur and professional venues for playing and singing music of all types.
In his book Greater Boston (2001), urban historian Sam Bass Warner, Jr., opines that among its cultural traditions, Boston’s most notable one may well be “the making of music.” “On any given night,” he observes, “the Boston city region sends more musical sounds towards the heavens than any other American place except such giants as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.” Amateur singers and musicians play a meaningful role in the creation of this musical culture.
And you don’t even have to be a star in the making to find a place to play or sing, as my own experience attests. As I wrote last year, for many years I’ve been taking a weekly voice workshop at an area adult education center, taught by Jane Eichkern, a Juilliard-trained vocalist. Jane has built this class around the idea of a supportive, encouraging, and safe place to learn how to sing. And more recently I’ve been joining fellow voice class students for open mic cabaret nights at a local club.
Infused by newcomers
Here’s an interesting, unscientific trend that I’ve noticed about many folks who take the voice workshop: A good number of them are from other places, even other countries. Their personal backgrounds and occupations vary greatly. But they all have that twinkle in the eye and that dose of fortitude that are pretty much necessary to get up in front of a roomful of strangers (at least at the beginning, for it’s a very friendly group) and sing.
They capture for me a more joyful side of the city, one that helps to transform a place known more for its stiffness into one that has a song in its heart, at least within some circles.
Truly great cities are infused by newcomers. The newbies introduce different perspectives and world views. They offer their special qualities to the metropolitan mix. And they’ve already demonstrated a willingness to take a chance on something new, even if it’s a little scary.
Hmm, that does sound a lot like our weekly singing classes.
The music in me
It took me a while to realize how important this singing class has been to me, and, correspondingly, just how important music is to my life. For insight, I draw upon the work of my late good friend John Ohliger, a pioneering adult educator, public intellectual, and community activist. (Go here for a book chapter I wrote about him.) John’s short unpublished memoir, My Search for Freedom’s Song (1997), was constructed around the theme of music:
I can’t read music, I can’t play an instrument, and I don’t sing very well. But, looking back at my first 70 years, music has graced much of my life. Much of the time I find myself singing, humming, or whistling, softly or silently to music. I almost always associate music with good feelings — feelings of wholeness — in a fragmented personal and political world.
Like John, I can’t read music or play an instrument. (I do think I sing pretty well!) And like John, I now understand how “music has graced much of my life.” Thanks largely to participating in this ongoing, shared experience of singing, I also appreciate how music helps me cope with “a fragmented personal and political world.” For me, singing is a unique form of mindfulness, an invitation to be in the present. That’s a pretty cool way to spend one’s time, and in good company as well.
I think, if a city has to choose between have a good song ABOUT it or having tradition of producing music, the latter is much more satisfying! It seems to me that making music, well or even not so well, is a huge part of being human.
I don’t know, David, “Dirty Water” is a great song, and to me it kind of has a bit of Boston swagger and attitude. But imagine how disappointed I was when I first visited Boston and saw that the Charles River was actually pretty clean 😉
Hi Fiona, it’s a catchy little tune, but in my experience, the Boston swagger and attitude to which to you refer has translated into insularity and exclusion. I experienced that very culture shock moving here from NYC in 1994 — and keep in mind that I grew up in NW Indiana, so it wasn’t a New York snobbery kinda thing! 🙂 The positive change I see in the everyday culture of Boston is coming from the presence and energies of people who have moved here from other places and are adding a different kind of attitude, one that takes the best of the city but adds a blend of their own.
[…] classes I’ve been taking for years at an adult education center in Boston (e.g., here and here). From those classes has emerged a cohort of folks who have moved their singing up a notch to […]