An American Odyssey in Song: New York – Boroughs, Bridges and “Feelin’ Groovy”

Welcome to this occasional series where I am attempting a virtual journey around the 50 States of America in song. For anyone new to this place, I have a continuous route map where I enter and leave each state only once. Suggestions for the next leg always welcome!

It’s quite some time since I continued on my American Odyssey in Song and that would be because I developed a severe case of Odyssey block! After struggling somewhat to identify any songs at all for the New England states, once I hit New York there were just too many. I have started this post on numerous occasions but always gave up half way through. This time, as The Drifters sang in 1961, it’s going to be different, this time I’m going to stay (with it)….

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No time for lengthy paragraphs about the state itself this time though as loads of songs to get through. Suffice to say it must be one of the most diverse states in the whole of the US as not only does it have Long Island, whose “Hamptons” are where rich New Yorkers go to spend their summers, but it also has the wilderness areas to the north where hunting and fishing are the pastimes of choice. The state borders Canada and two of the Great Lakes but at the foot of the triangle there is one of the most iconic and culturally rich cities in the world, New York.

Time to get this party started then and it’s not going to be pretty – Via “a stream of consciousness” is how I’m going to tackle this one. Everyone will have different songs that they associate with New York but these are the ones that have come to mind over the last few weeks. Ready, steady, go….

There can’t be many people who are not familiar with the sights of New York City but just in case, here’s a whistle stop tour courtesy of MGM and those three sailors who had a whirlwind 24-hour leave back in 1949. Ok, ok guys, we’ve got it – “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people ride in a hole in the ground”.

You can’t have failed to notice that Mr Francis Albert Sinatra plays one of the sailors in that clip and I’m sure it’s expected that his version of the song New York, New York will feature here, but that would just be too obvious, so unusually for me I’ll enter the 21st century and share Empire State of Mind by Mr Shawn Corey Carter (otherwise known as Jay-Z). 

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Jay-Z, Rapper and Businessman

Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys:

Lord knows I’m not usually a fan of rap but I was truly blown away by this “song” (if that’s what it’s called) when it came out in 2009. Some fantastic lines in there referencing Sinatra’s New York, New York but also Afrika Bambaataa, the Bronx DJ who became known as the Godfather of hip-hop. The rap part on it’s own I probably wouldn’t have warmed to that much (although I don’t know), but with the inclusion of Alicia Keys vocals it became something really special. The pair are both from NYC and the song’s main writer, Angela Hunte, grew up in the same building as Jay-Z – 560 State Street, Brooklyn, an address mentioned in the song.

Something that comes across loud and clear from the lyrics of Empire State of Mind is that NYC is not just the island Manhattan as I had often thought as youngster. Oh no, NYC is made up of five boroughs – Brooklyn and Queens on the western end of Long Island, Staten Island which nestles up against New Jersey and The Bronx, north of Manhattan. Manhattan itself only becomes an island because of that tiny sliver of water linking up the East River with the Hudson.

5 boroughs

New York City, despite being made up of these five boroughs is very much centred on Manhattan, so how is it all linked up? Why by ferries and bridges of course. I am reminded of the scene in Saturday Night Fever where John Travolta’s character tries to impress his potential love interest with his knowledge of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, that double-decked suspension bridge that connects Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Another iconic bridge is the one that featured in the opening sequence to one of my favourite TV shows from the early ’80s – Taxi starring Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch. Whenever I hear this theme song I am right back in my student room, my little white portable telly perched precariously on the edge of my desk, just in the right place for the aerial (coat hanger?) to pick up a signal. It would have been mid-week and I was probably having a break from all those laborious hours spent writing everything out in longhand (no computers in those days). A flatmate might have popped in for a coffee whilst we watched the show. Sometimes those memories are the best, ones where nothing in particular was happening, just normal everyday life but hearing that theme reminds me of the scene. A beautiful piece of music called Angela by Bob James.

Angela (Theme from Taxi) by Bob James:

Of course I had to do some research after rewatching that clip to find out which bridge it actually was that came up every week in the titles – Joy, oh joy, it was none other than the Queensboro Bridge – So what I hear you ask? The alternative name for that bridge is The 59th Street Bridge and considering this whole series was inspired by the Paul Simon song America, it is fitting that his song about the bridge be included in this post.

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The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) by Simon and Garfunkel:

Paul Simon said that he’d spent most of 1965 in England but after coming back to the US, and having success with The Sound of Silence, life became really hectic for a while and he found it difficult to adjust. One day, going home to Queens over the 59th Street Bridge, he kind of started to snap out of it as the day had been a really good one, a “groovy one” – Once home he started to write the song subtitled Feelin’ Groovy that went on to appear on the 1966 album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” recorded with musical partner Art Garfunkel.

But enough about bridges, in the New York of 1977 the phenomenon that was disco had started to really make its mark. Manhattan had Studio 54 where Liza, Michael, Mick and Bianca were regulars but across the Brooklyn Bridge (oops, more bridges), they had a local disco called 2001 Odyssey and every Saturday night, aforementioned John Travolta (playing the character Tony Manero), temporarily left his monotonous life behind and became “king of the dance floor”. Watching him now, the dancing doesn’t look quite as impressive as it did when we first experienced Saturday Night “Fever” and the parodies have been ruthless, but I still have fond memories of going to see that movie when it first came out in the UK in 1978. As someone who has been known to “do a John” over the years and clear the dancefloor, it can be an exhilarating feeling (and not showy-off at all of course!).

You Should Be Dancing by the Bee Gees:

The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album, featuring disco songs by the Bee Gees, is one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time. How Deep Is Your Love is the song that appears in the closing scenes of the movie as we watch a desolate Tony ride the New York subway late at night. It is one of my all-time favourite love songs (which is probably why it became the choice for my Valentine’s Day post).

So far we’ve checked out the geography of New York and talked about the bridges and the nightlife. What about the people? I read an article recently about the flamboyant octogenarian fashionistas, who cut a dash on 5th Avenue – Way to go ladies!

Of course New York has long been known for its flamboyant characters and Sting sang about one of them, eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp, in his 1988 song Englishman In New York. Another “character” commited to song was when Rod Stewart wrote and recorded  The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II) in 1976. This story song tells the tale of a young gay man who became successful and popular amongst Manhattan’s upper class – He was “the toast of the Great White Way”, which is the nickname given to the Theatre District of Midtown Manhattan. Georgie attends the opening night of a Broadway musical, but leaves “before the final curtain call” and heads across town. He is attacked near East 53rd Street by a gang of thieves and one inadvertently kills him. The song was apparently based on a true story about a friend of Rod’s old band The Faces.

I have waited a fair amount of time to feature Rod Stewart in this blog as it seems to be universally accepted that by the late ’70s he had sold out and his albums just weren’t up to the calibre of his earlier ones but hey, I was a mere 16-year-old schoolgirl at this time and was a big fan. This song especially, combining the melancholy and sombre Part II with the more popular Part I has long been a favourite of mine.

The Killing Of Georgie (Part I and II) by Rod Stewart:

We’ve spent an awful lot of time in New York City so far in this post but what about the rest of the state? Back in the early sixties before kids started heading off to Europe on holiday they used to go with their parents to resorts such as Kellermans in the Catskill Mountains. This is where “Baby” Houseman spent the summer of 1963, and fell for dashing dance instructor Johnny Castle. Dirty Dancing was a low-budget film that had no major stars but became a massive box office hit and was the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video. It has some great dance scenes and the soundtrack is full of classic songs from that early ’60s era such as Be My Baby, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Love Is Strange and this one, Stay by Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs.

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Kellermans in the Catskills, the setting for Dirty Dancing

Stay by Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs:

There are some great scenes in the movie where the landscape of the Catskills is kind of the star. I must admit to having become a bit of a fan of this movie in my later years although didn’t really take much heed of it when it first came out – I think it’s down to the nostalgia element, the music choices and the sadness that comes from the realisation that my days of dalliances with a young Johnny Castle are well behind me. Whatever, I’ve ended up writing about songs from it three times now (Be My Baby, Doomed Romances and Summer’s End) and they take the prize for being my least viewed posts – Sacre bleu!

Another song that makes me think of Upstate New York is Woodstock, written by Joni Mitchell but made famous in 1970 by Matthews Southern Comfort. The irony of course is that Joni Mitchell hadn’t even made it to the infamous festival which took place on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, but wrote about it after having watched it from her hotel room in New York. The lyrics tell the story of a spiritual journey and make prominent use of sacred imagery, comparing the festival site with the Garden of Eden. The saga commences with the narrator’s encounter of a fellow traveller, a “child of God”,  and concludes at their ultimate destination where “we were half a million strong”.

Iain Matthews of Matthews Southern Comfort was actually from Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire but he had previously been with the band Fairport Convention who were at the time heavily influenced by American folk rock.

Well I don’t know about you but I’m exhausted – This post has been a long time coming and I’m sorry it’s so wordy, but I for one am now just pleased that it’s “in the can” so that the journey can continue. Next time we’ll be passing through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey so as ever, suggestions for that state are more than welcome. Unlike with the New England states I have a feeling that it’s now going to get a whole lot easier.

A final clip before I go however – One of my all-time favourite movies is Manhattan directed by Woody Allen. I was given the soundtrack album by the boyfriend of the day after going to see it, as I was just so bowled over by George Gershwin’s compositions. They were all performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and somehow I now always think of Rhapsody In Blue when I see the New York skyline.

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Rhapsody In Blue by George Gershwin:

The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) Lyrics
(Song by Paul Simon)

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy

Hello, lamppost, what’cha knowin’?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growin’
Ain’t’cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in doo-doo, feelin’ groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy

I got no deeds to do
No promises to keep
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me
Life, I love you
All is groovy

May Day, Ella Fitzgerald and Summertime

Well, it’s May Day and I don’t know about you but up here in Scotland it’s been a wonderful sunny day. As ever I am celebrating this landmark date in the calendar with a few of the old customs. First of all I managed to do a symbolic washing of my face with morning dew – With any luck I may wake up tomorrow morning looking like a young maiden, but I’m not holding out much hope.

Next on the agenda was to gather some spring flowers for the little shrine I’ve got used to putting together on such days – Cherry blossom, narcissi and a few pink flowers I don’t know the name of. Along with a candle, some ribbon and some symbolic dew, it all looks very nice.

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Holy wells are popular places to visit on May Day or Beltane as it used to be called here in Scotland. As luck would have it we have a clootie well a short drive away and as Mr WIAA and I were both on holiday, that seemed like a good plan. This ancient spring is dedicated to Saint Curetán where the rags, dipped in the water from the well, are hung on the surrounding bushes and trees. It was once thought to have had the power to cure sick children. The spring runs into a kind of basin and just as we got there a young maiden was indeed washing her face – Just as well we knew the significance of the day or it would have all been a bit weird.

Beltane marked the beginning of summer for the ancient Celts and that was when their cattle were driven out to the higher pastures and rituals were performed to protect cattle, crops and people. Bonfires were kindled, their flames, smoke and ashes deemed to have protective powers.

Most of us are no longer pastoral people with cattle, but suburban people with garden furniture and fire pits so instead of driving my cattle to high pastures today, I have just got the rest of the accoutrements of summer out of the shed and lit a symbolic fire to celebrate Beltane. A wee spot of Drambuie also slipped down nicely and was my toast to the coming of summer.

Whenever a fire is lit the young people all seem to want to congregate round it – Darling daughter did a bit of texting and we now have a garden-full. Perhaps a bit of a novelty that drags them away from their electronic devices – Whatever, we have now left them to it, so time for a quick post to celebrate this special day.

The song I’ve chosen could not be less Scottish if it tried, but one I have always loved. Summertime was composed in 1934 by George Gershwin for the opera Porgy and Bess. The one I have in my music library is by Ella Fitzgerald who would have last week reached the age of 100. For over half a century Ella was the jazz singer who commanded the largest popular following and her musical collaborations with Louis Armstrong were amongst her most notable. No long wordy post from me today then, just this lovely version of one of Gershwin’s finest compositions.

Summertime by Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong:

Summertime Lyrics
(Song by George Gershwin/Dubose Heyward)

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush little baby, Don’t you cry

One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing
And you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky
But ’til that morning, there ain’t nothin’ can harm you
With Daddy and Mammy standin’ by

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush little baby, Don’t you cry

One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing
And you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky
But ’til that morning, there ain’t nothin can harm you
With Daddy and Mammy standin’ by

Postscript:

It’s not an Oscar winner and I’m still learning how to do this, but here is my little film of our day out – It all ends rather abruptly I’m afraid but I will improve!