New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance…It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.
Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Every time I arrive in New York, stepping up from the bowels of a subway station or out of a yellow taxi, it feels like I’ve stepped into a moving story.
E.B. White felt the same. His testament to the city, Here Is New York, was written more than 60 years ago. The vibrations of great times and tall deeds echo still.
For me the city has always been more about the former. The hum that runs through its art, its sport, commerce and entertainment is a hook that’s drawn me back many times since I first set foot there, emerging from Penn Station 20 years ago into the humid rush hour on a September afternoon.
The vibrations are most clearly manifest in the music of the city: the sound of morning delivery trucks accelerating across junctions, the rattle of subterranean trains heard through ventilation grilles streets above, the rush and push of crowds on cramped sidewalks.
This is echoed in some of the recorded music I’ve listened on visits to the city – New York compositions, songs and performances.
Ahead of an upcoming visit I’ve put together a dozen of these on a playlist. Today, it seems, is an appropriate one to listen to it.
Some of the tracks are, at this stage, part of the fabric of the city itself – Rhapsody In Blue, George Gershwin’s attempt to capture New York’s “vast melting pot”, its “metropolitan madness”, for one.
Others are more personal. Phil Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing depicts a city seen through the eyes of the Irish immigrants of the 1980s – the “desert twilight” of Broadway at dusk, the postcards home from “rooms that daylight never sees”.
Some are well-known – Woody Guthrie’s anthem This Land Is Your Land opens by namechecking “the New York island”. Others less so.
Movement, transit, motion onwards and forward is a regular theme, from Duke Ellington’s Take The “A” Train to – two generations later – Guru’s Transit Ride – two takes on the same subway system.
And the street is ever-present: Lou Reed waiting on a corner of Lexington and 125th, Joey Ramone on 53rd and 3rd, a new-in-town Bob Dylan staring up at the Empire State Building.
It’s all New York, a place – as White wrote – “like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”.
Or one where, as the Beastie Boys put it, there’s no sleep ’til Brooklyn.