NEW YORK: A MOMENT IN TIME SUMMER OF 1865

Detail…so much great detail in this photo taken by Marcus Ormsby on Lower Hudson Street in New York City.

One of the posters–to the left of the man in the top hat–appears to advertise what was an “Annual Picnic” taking place in August 1865. The poster above that notes “300 Wanted,” which might be a Civil War recruitment poster, although if this photo were taken in the summer of 1865, the war would have ended a few months earlier. Maybe an old poster? Maybe nothing to do with the Civil War?

Is that John Peake in the top hat? Photography was still a vey new phenomenon so I imagine Mr. Peake and the other workers pictured had walked out of their shops for what must have been a momentous occasion. And look at the carpenter standing on the second floor with a huge plane in his right hand and a 4-square hat.

A great peak at an everyday scene in NYC’s downtown, taken during an era when all my great great grandparents were arriving from Ireland. One was a carpenter…might he be have worked in this building…might he be in this photo?

GEORGE GERSHWIN, PETER QUINN and NEW YORK CITY

A while back, author, historian and storyteller extraordinaire Peter Quinn and I created a video using music, image and story called “Peter Quinn’s New York,” which coincided with the launch of Peter’s book “Dry Bones.”  

We wanted to add Gershwin to the short video and we didn’t want to use “Rhapsody in Blue”…wonderful piece of music, but too often used, we thought. We opted for Gershwin performing his Prelude No. 2 in C sharp Minor in attempt to capture the feel of the city.

Peter said, “New York City isn’t so much a city but a character, it destroys some people, elevates others. The one thing New York won’t do is leave you alone, it’s always changing.” Peter continued, “The older I get, the more I’m struck by the drama of change that goes on around us. It’s a great gift for a novelist. You don’t have to search for drama…in New York…you just live it”…as Gershwin hits the final dreamy note of a work he called a “blues lullaby.”

Photo by Jack Rosenzweig.

A NEW YORK CITY CLASSIC: BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S

Why is it every time I walk past Tiffany’s I think of Audrey Hepburn and Moon River? Any movie more New York City than “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer–who’s career had stalled–collaborated on this 1961 tune, which went on to become the Academy Award winner for Best Original Song.

And when I think there were some who thought the song should not be included in the movie…can you imagine! Supposedly, when Hepburn was told it was coming out she said, “Over my dead body.” True or not, the song stayed in and has become one of the most popular songs in film history.

Here’s the wonderful scene of Audrey Hepburn singing the tune with George Peppard looking on…CLICK HERE

Side note: Andy Williams built a career around the song. He began his TV show with the song, named his production company and venue after it and his autobiography is called “Moon River and Me.” But interestingly, his version of the song was never released as a single, however, his album on which it is included sold over 2 million copies. My favorite, version of the tune is this 1961 recording by Jerry Butler…CLICK HERE

KAY SWIFT and GEORGE GERSHWIN

One of the more interesting relationships in the musical history of New York City, is that of George Gershwin and Kay Swift. 

Swift, married at the time, met Gershwin at a dinner party in 1925. They began seeing each other frequently and Gershwin introduced the classically trained Swift to show music and jazz. A talented songwriter herself, Swift began helping Gershwin with his musical thoughts. 

Swift was divorced in 1934 and although her affair with Gershwin continued until Gershwin’s death in 1937, they never married. Swift’s granddaughter, author, Katharine Weber–she wrote a family memoir “The Memory of All That,” which discusses the relationship–suggests that Gershwin’s mother was unhappy that Swift wasn’t Jewish. 

Swift wrote a number of tunes that are now well known and one in particular has become a popular jazz standard, “Can’t We Be Friends.” Click here to hear Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong sing the tune

WHO IS THIS MAN KNOWN ONLY AS “ICARUS”?

American photographer Lewis Hine did important work exposing the abuses of child labor, but he is also well known for the photographs he took during the construction of the Empire State Building. Lewis called the man in this photo, and others like him, “sky boy” but the photo, taken in 1930, has become known as “Icarus.”

Some think the photo was posed, but that has never been confirmed.To this day, one thing has always baffled me, particularly considering our digital age when photos can flash around the world in seconds…the steelworker in the photo remains unidentified.

One guess…many of the “high steel” workers were Native Indians and commuted from their home reservations in Canada. Perhaps they came to work, returned home with no relatives or friends in the area who could recognize or name him. Many think he may have been a Mohawk Indian, but that too has never been confirmed.  And then I think he doesn’t necessarily look Native American so might he be English or Irish, as some have posited, who lived in upstate New York? 

But through the years, no brother or sister, spouse, child, cousin, co-worker or friend has identified the man in one of NYC’s most iconic photos. Will we ever know? 

BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME….OVER THE RAINBOW

As a young person I viewed the 1930s through a mixed lens. I’d watch films and listen to music and think it was a time of top hats and tuxedos, Cole Porter’s witty lyrics and Fred and Ginger glamorously swirling across a ballroom. But there was another side to the thirties…the life of the everyman, captured here by Lewis Hine’s 1934 photo of unemployed men along NYC’s docks…in stark contrast to the jazz and cocktails of Porter’s thirties.

Hine’s photo is a reminder that life was hard throughout the land: Unemployment was rampant, the country suffered through an awful heat wave and the “Dust Bowl” drought strangled the mid-section of the country.

Interestingly, there was a lyricist who captured both sides of the thirties….Yip Harburg. He wrote a song of hope, “Over the Rainbow and the era’s song of angst, “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime.”

ON THE BOWERY: STEPHEN FOSTER and MY FAMILY

My family’s first home in NYC was located at 25 Bowery–they arrived from Newry, Ireland in 1854–and was located just outside the lens of the photographer’s camera in this stereograph, which was taken in the late 1850s. A few years after my family moved to the Bowery, Stephen Foster known as the “Father of American Music,” and the composer of many popular songs including, “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” took up residence across the street from John and Maria Hale at 30 Bowery.
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Foster, who had drinking problems and suffered from depression, was found with a gash in his neck and a bruise on his forehead and died of his injuries in 1864. In 1865, John and Maria lost their three-year old daughter Ellen, from bronchial pneumonia. Foster, who knew instinctively how to blend words and music into songs that became hymns to the sorrow of the human condition, had written a beautiful lullaby, two years before his death. I wonder if John and Maria crossed paths with Foster and I wonder if Maria ever sang this Stephen Foster lullaby to her dying baby, Ellen.
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If you’ve enjoyed this post and would like to see more of the same, check out my group on Facebook called, “The Musical History of New York City.” 

AUTHOR/HISTORIAN PETER QUINN on NEW YORK CITY

I was discussing the history of New York City with novelist and historian Peter Quinn recently and he said, “I rode on the Third Avenue El as a kid, but the city I write about is largely gone…the El, Penn Station, El Morocco…even Judge Crater!”

Peter continued, “When it comes to the city, like many New Yorkers, I’m a hopeless romantic…always pining for what was. Being raised in NYC, I feel I received an enormous gift. People travel all over the world to write in exotic places. But you grow up here in the boroughs…it’s like growing up in different worlds. The older I get, the more I’m struck by the drama of change that goes on around us. It’s a great gift for a novelist. You don’t have to search for drama…in New York…you just live it.”

As much as any other song, it feels as if New Yorkers’ Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s “Long Ago and Far Away” evokes what’s been lost. 

Photo by the wonderful Evelyn Hofer.

 

LOEW’S WONDER THEATRES: SATURDAY AFTERNOON in NEW YORK CITY

(If you’re visiting here after you saw this post on Facebook, click here for the short video.)  
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Being a kid in New York City was great fun. There was always so much to do…but Saturday afternoon….that was time for the movies… and many of us frequented a Loew’s Wonder Theatre. There were five in NYC. I spent more than a few hours in one….the Loew’s Valencia in Jamaica, Queens.
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A few years ago, during a performance of “Crossing Boroughs” at the Museum of the City of New York, this three minute video, which I created and narrated, was presented. I pay homage to those Saturday afternoons at Loews. Looking for three feel good minutes…click here for this short video.
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FYI: Crossing Borough’s cast included Charles R. Hale/creator and narrator, Niamh Hyland/music director and vocals, Jack O’Connell/theatrical, Shu Nakamura/guitar, David J Raleigh/vocals, Laura Neese/dancer, Jonathan Matthews/dancer, Shirazette Tinnin/drums, Mary Ann McSweeney/bass and Steve Okonski/keyboard.

ALISON “NIGHTBIRD” STEELE: WOMAN PIONEER IN PROGRESSIVE ROCK RADIO

If you were a New Yorker in the late sixties and seventies, liked music and were a night owl…you definitely remember “The Nightbird,” Alison Steele.

A NYC native–Brooklyn–she was a member of a 1966 “all-girl” WNEW format. The show didn’t prove popular and all the “girls” except Alison were let go. She stayed on as the station’s night DJ–10pm-2am. Steele created a sexy, soulful “Nightbird” persona…WNEW became the flagship station for progressive radio in NY…and Alison was a big reason they succeeded.

She recited poetry, read Shakespeare and the Bible and more than anything she communicated…particularly with males. She played the Moody Blues, Incan tribal music, Andean flutes and other eclectic pieces.

“The flutter of wings, the sounds of the night, the shadow across the moon, as the Nightbird lifts her wings and soars above the earth into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird…” A number of you will remember her voice, her style, so unlike all the male DJs at the time. 

Do you remember the music Allison played to close her show…pretty famous group