Can you name a song about New York? Chicago? San Francisco? Maybe you can name two or more about each. Maybe you can even sing one or more. How about New Orleans? Very possibly. Ypsilanti? Um. It’s in Michigan. Yes. There’s a song about it. Published in New York.
From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, New York the hub of the popular music industry in the U.S. A handful of mostly Jewish songwriters congregated in a part of town called Tin Pan Alley and churned out songs week after week.
Like the music industry today, some of the songs became hits that retained their popularity for years and years. Some became hits whose popularity was measured in months or weeks. Some never caught on at all. But at least for white urban residents, Tin Pan Alley provided all the songs they ever came to know and love.
Tin Pan Alley songwriters wrote about anything they could think of that they thought might sell. That included lots and lots of towns and cities. Even if a song sold well in only one part of the country, it could make money.
I have many more songs in my collection and notes than I can fit into one post. Here are three, with at least one you might recognize.
New York was not only the source of most of America’s popular music, but also American theater. A lot of musicals were set in New York, or at least included songs about New York.
Little Old New York in Good Enough for Me / Words by Harry B. and Edgar Smith ; Music by John Stromberg (Weber, Fields & Stromberg, 1898).
Even as early as 1898, “little” hardly seems an appropriate word with New York. According to the cover, the song was “sung with great success by John T. Kelly at Weber & Fields Broadway Music Hall in Hurly Burly.
Weber & Fields began as a vaudeville act and became successful enough to own both a theater and a publishing company. Stromberg was their house composer, and Hurly Burly was their major production in 1898.
The song must have been popular enough to survive the end of that production. The following year Dan W. Quinn made a recording of first two of three verses. Recording technology has come a long way since 1899, but old recordings reveal so much about changing vocal styles and taste. The following video includes a view of the colorful color.
That longing for the comforts of home is a very common theme in city songs, although here it’s much more apparent in the words than in the rollicking waltz. I Left My Heart in San Francisco is but the best known of scores of songs that express exactly the same sentiment.
Way Down Yonder in New Orleans / Creamer & Layton (Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., 1922)
Creamer & Layton must have been a songwriting team so well known that the publisher thought printing their first names superfluous.
You may not know the words, but if you listen to Dixieland bands at all, you’ve heard the tune. It was “successfully introduced by Blossom Seeley,” probably somewhere on Broadway. She was one of the most successful entertainers of her generation.
Some videos on YouTube actually show her singing, but not for this song. But you can watch the 78 spin and hear her energy.
(Yip-si-lan-ti), Comic Song / Lyrics by Alfred Bryan
; Egbert Van Alstyne (New York and Detroit: Jerome Remick, 1915)
Actually, there are several songs about Ypsilanti, but I know of only one from Tin Pan Alley. I don’t have the music, only a card file with the words. Very likely it was introduced in a Broadway musical. According to an article on Ypsilanti Gleanings, the song had only middling success, but both Bryan and Van Alstyne wrote some major hits.
I’ll sing you a song that’s not very long
It’s crazy as crazy can be
The verse is as short as a pistol report
And the chorus is longer than me.
CHORUS: Ypsilanti, Michigan
Ypsilanti wish again
I’ve got an auntie who lives in a shanty
In Ypsilanti swish again
If you want a rhyme
For any old time
Just sing them all over again.
Auntie, shanty, Ypsilanti
Then make a wish again
A bean is a bean just as long as a bean’s
In a place where a bean ought to be.
But when it has “bean” in the soup very long
Then it’s just a “has bean” don’t you see.
The great Russian Czar threw away his cigar
Sunday night when I sang it for him;
He ordered me shot right there on the spot
And I juggled the ball on my chin.
And more verses in the link above. That site lacks the second verse and has only part of the chorus that I transcribed on my note card.
I can’t be certain, but I suspect that most of the songs about smaller and less well known cities towns that came out of New York had just as little to do with the town itself as this one.
I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, Sioux City Sue, Chattanooga Choo Choo and others that have maintained some popularity aren’t as totally silly as Ypsilanti, but they’re about girls, not the town.
Most songs that are truly about places other than the most famous cities are probably booster songs. On the other hand, the Tin Pan Alley publisher Witmark issued the hit song When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, which does not concern a big city.