Many songs, including some well-loved standards, celebrate various American cities. Of course, no place is perfect or without its detractors. I can’t think of any really negative song that has achieved the popularity of, say, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” or “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but quite a few of them exist. Chances are you have John Denver’s putdown of Toledo, Ohio.
Speaking of Chicago, the very earliest published song I have found is based on a highly insulting satirical poem the composer/publisher found in a Pittsburgh newspaper. It compared Chicago unfavorably to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Other negative songs about Chicago include “Chicago Gouge,” W.C. Handy’s blues lament about high rents and slum conditions; “Chicago Damn;” and quirky song called “Loyalty Day ’69.” The latter, referring to the medieval practice of courtiers kissing the king’s ring, goes on for more than 20 verses about various political heavyweights lining up to kiss a more intimate part of Mayor Richard J. Daley.
The famous lines, “Say au revoir but not good bye. We won’t get home till morning.” come from the description of a march issued as a musical supplement to the January 29, 1907 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Brooklyn Daily Eagle Bridge Crush March (Descriptive).” It’s a description and tribute about the travails of commuting.
Just imagine! New York being so crowded people had trouble getting to work! Even before the days of private automobiles, taxicabs, and buses on those narrow streets!
I found that piece in a book of New York songs, but of all the thousand or so songs the author had found, she chose not to acknowledge anything negative. I’ll bet there are proportionately at least as many songs against New York as Chicago or anywhere else.
On the opposite coast, I lived in Berkeley, California for a year when I was in high school. The radio station I listened to frequently played a song called “Oakland, We’re for You” by the Good Time Washboard 3. It’s the song that piqued my interest in songs about cities in the first place.
The group recorded two satirical albums of mainly local interest. Only the first was ever issued for sale. The Oakland song has gained cult status, including multiple videos.
We are sure that your aware of famous cities everywhere,
The ones that are acclaimed in song and verse.
There are songs about Chicago, Paris, London and St. Paul,
Buffalo, Miami, not to mention Beaver Falls.
But Tin Pan Alley did us wrong,
Because they never wrote a song,
About the greatest city of them all!
Now don’t go ‘way, We hope you’ll stay,
And hear this song we wrote the other day.
Oakland’s got the Tribune Tower,
Oakland’s got Lake Merritt too.
She has Jack London Square
the Raiders come from there
the Kaiser Center can be seen from anywhere
Now where did all the people go when_ Frisco burned?
They all went to Oakland – never returned.
Right outside the city limits,
Scoots a freeway called the Nimitz.
Of all the pretty_ cities she’s a leader,
And don’t forget the tube to Alameda.
She has pride! She has hope! And, oh what a view!
Oakland we’re for you!
It isn’t really negative. In fact, it has many of the hallmarks of a booter song, but it’s not exactly sincere praise, either. For example, at the time the Nimitz freeway had the bumpiest, least pleasant driving surface of any expressway in the state. Traffic on it hardly ever scooted.
Here’s the song you’re most likely to know. It’s a hit song by Randy Sparks and made famous by John Denver. I grew up a hop, skip, and a jump from Toledo. It has a great zoo and a wonderful art museum. Maybe Sparks even knew about them. But mentioning them would have ruined a perfectly good song.
Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio is like being nowhere at all.
All through the day how the hours rush by, you sit in the park and you watch the grass die.
Ah, but after the sunset, the dusk and the twilight, when shadows of night start to fall.
They roll back the sidewalk precisely at ten and people who live there are not seen again.
Just two lonely truckers from Great Falls, Montana and a salesman from places unknown
all huddled together in downtown, Toledo to spend their big night all alone.
You ask how I know of Toledo, Ohio? Well I spent a week there one day.
They’ve got entertainment to dazzle your eyes: go visit the bakery and watch the buns rise.
Ah, but let’s not forget that the folks of Toledo unselfishly gave us the scale.
No springs, honest weight, that’s the promise they made,
so smile and be thankful next time you get weighed.
And “wive and wet wive”, let this be our motto, let’s let the sleeping dogs lie.
And here’s to the dogs of Toledo, Ohio, ladies, we bid you goodbye.
Eye-Catching Music / David M. Guion. Chicago History (Fall and Winter 1987-88): 90-103
New York: Songs of the City / Nancy Groce (Billboard Books: 2003)
See also my earlier post Songs about Cities from Tin Pan Alley
Photo credit: Library of Congress