The Godfather: Peter Corris on city songs
Continuing my interest in themed popular songs, I lighted on the idea of songs celebrating the physical and social attributes of cities. There are a number of songs that mention cities, but celebrating is a different matter. Will Fyffe’s ‘I Belong to Glasgow’, for example, celebrates the working man and alcohol but not the physicality and society of the city itself, although in a way the singing of it does.
I’ve come up with a list which not all would agree with but which I stand by. Given my taste in music, I’m surprised that only one is a rock ’n’ roll song. More commonly rockers have found their geographical locations uncomfortable – John Fogerty was ‘stuck’ in Lodi as Bob Dylan was in Mobile, not to mention having the Memphis blues; Mick Jagger was alienated in ‘sleepy’ London town.
Not surprisingly for such an iconic place, Leonard Bernstein’s ‘New York, New York (On the Town)’, heads my list. Big city, great music, enormous possibilities for lyrics realised in great lines like the one about people riding ‘in a hole in the ground’.
And as a follow-up, ‘Chicago’, given the full treatment by Sinatra, scores highly. The man’s voice and delivery rhapsodised the fact that puritanical evangelist Billy Sunday couldn’t close it down.
‘We’ll always have Paris’, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca and Woody Allen reprised in Manhattan. And we always do in ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ made popular by Dean Martin. When even the taxis and their squeaky horns are praised, it must be somewhere special.
Continuing in Europe, ‘Arrivederci Roma’, a quintessentially Italian ballad, was turned into an international hit when sung, somewhat floridly, by Mario Lanza.
Staying in Europe, Noel Coward’s ‘London Pride’, despite its campy delivery, in 1941 celebrated the city’s resilience during the Blitz. Flanagan and Allen’s 1947 ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’ testified to a revival of optimism out of the rubble.
‘Wonderful Copenhagen’, featured in the 1953 Hollywood film Hans Christian Andersen, sung and made a hit by Danny Kaye (a performer whose appeal I’ve never understood), is the only song I know of to celebrate a city in the colder regions.
Returning to the USA, the supreme celebratory city song is Tony Bennett’s rendition of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ with its detailing of the city’s physical attributes. John Phillips’s later ‘If You’re Going To San Francisco’ (notably sung by Scott Mackenzie) salutes the political and sexual liberation of the city, which promised and delivered so much on both counts but ultimately succumbed in characteristic American mode to market forces.
Many American ballads praise towns and cities, mostly for their aesthetics and friendliness. One of the most charming is the nostalgic tribute ‘Abilene’, sung by George Hamilton IV, praising a place that is ‘pretty’ and where women (in an implied back-story) ‘don’t treat you mean’.
I reach back in time, but not far geographically, to the one rock song in my list – ‘Kansas City’ – written in 1952 by Lieber and Stoller and given its best treatment in my opinion by Fats Domino in his inimitable blues/rock style. The song lauded the availability in the city of what would naturally appeal most to a travelling, uninhibited rocker – crazy women.
The only song to celebrate an Australian city I know of is ‘My City of Sydney’, written by Tommy Leonetti and Bobby Troup and sung by Leonetti. It acknowledges San Francisco as a sister city and in its music and lyrics (‘I miss the warmth of you’) it owes much to ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’, but that’s no bad thing.