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The Sidewalks of New York

Discussion in 'Bad Dog Cafe' started by LGOberean, Jan 26, 2021.

  1. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

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    I’d appreciate some help here understanding the lyrics to this old song. First, some background to this request…

    I play and sing for the residents of a seniors community each Thursday afternoon. Some here may remember that I did this before the lockdowns, and I’m glad to be doing it again. A few weeks ago, the activity director of one local facility got in touch with me and arranged for me to perform, outdoors (weather permitting) for the residents again.

    The way I do it is to sing the songs they want to hear. I’ve had songs in my repertoire for decades that fit the bill. Both of my parents were musical: Dad played guitar and sang, Mom would harmonize. So what I grew up hearing them do 60 years ago works for the residents of the seniors communities for which I play.

    Additionally, I take requests. If I don’t know it, I try to learn it. Which brings me back to song “The Sidewalks of New York.” I got a request for it last week. All I could do was the chorus. I had to sing through the chorus twice just make it last a minute. So I determined then that I would learn it.

    And by “learn it,” I mean memorize it. The tune I have in my head, and I can fake the chords. What I couldn’t and can’t fake are the lyrics. For a couple of days I’ve been looking for the lyrics, but there are different versions of the song, different lyrics. I’ve lost track of how many searches I’ve done on the Interwebs, but I believe I’ve found the sheet music of the original 1894 version.

    But there are still some mysteries. And solving those mysteries will not only be a matter of satisfying my curiosity, but will help me memorize the lyrics. For me, memorization of something that makes no sense to me is really hard. But if I understand it all, geographic references and colloquialisms included, then the “story” of the song makes sense and memorization is way easier. Which brings me to my questions…

    The last line of the first verse reads “While the ‘Ginnie’ played the organ on the sidewalks of New York. The “Ginnie” and “organ” in this expression refers to what exactly? I’m guessing at it’s meaning, but I’d rather know than guess. A later version of this lyric changed “Ginnie” to “Tony.” Was this to soften a pejorative slang term?

    On to the last verse. In reference to friends from childhood, James Blake wrote “some are up in ‘G’.” This expression is even more enigmatic than the “Ginnie” reference. In my searches, I found at least three different explanations, only one of which seemed even plausible. Can anybody help with this one?

    The next line in the last verse reads “Others they are on the hog.” Now this expression sounds very close to one I grew up hearing: “living high on the hog,” i.e., living prosperously. If that, then the previous line about “G” would logically be a contrast to those that are wealthy, and therefore might shed light on that enigma.

    But the plot thickens. Sheet music from several decades later read differently: “Others they are wand’rers.” So would “G” then be some geographic reference familiar to New Yorkers, and by contrast others wandered from the Big Apple?

    Okay, there you have my query and the reasons for it. While solving these mysteries won’t give answers to the meaning of life or anything, it will help me, and make for good discussion, which is what we’re all here for, right? So here’s a chance for New Yorkers/etymologists/music historians/all of the above to chime in and shed some light.
     
  2. nojazzhere

    nojazzhere Doctor of Teleocity

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    In case folks aren't familiar, here's a version I located quickly on youtube, with lyrics. Is this "your" version?
     
  3. Steerforth

    Steerforth Friend of Leo's

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    The term “Ginnie” was a reference to the Italian barrel organ used by organ grinders and was a pejorative term for Italian-Americans at the time.

    “Up in ‘G’” was a popular phrase back at the turn of the 20th century making reference to the musical scale, and meaning that the person had attained to a high station in life, i.e., had become quite successful.

    “On the hog,” meant living or traveling as a tramp, riding the rails.

    REF: “Historical Dictionary of American Slang” by Jonathan Lighter.
     
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2021
  4. teletimetx

    teletimetx Doctor of Teleocity

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  5. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

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    Yes, Gil, thanks for posting that. I found that video early on, but also found quite a few versions out there with different lyrics. Just off the top of my head I remember from my recent research that many artists recorded this song, from Mel Tormé to the Grateful Dead!

    Here's another video that gives the backstory to the Charles B. Lawlor/James W. Blake collaboration.

     
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  6. thunderbyrd

    thunderbyrd Poster Extraordinaire Silver Supporter

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    i would wonder if your listeners are more acquainted with the later versions of the lyrics. their time would be 30s, 40s, 50s, not 1894.

    just a thought. get one of them to sing the song for you.
     
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  7. Blister

    Blister Tele-Meister

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    Ginny is pronounced with a hard G sound. As in Guinea. It's a derogatory slang in reference to the Italians. Apparently that's why it was changed to Tony. This is not intended to offend anyone I know everybody is tender today and I meant no offense just an explanation for colloquialisms from an earlier time.
     
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  8. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

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    Thanks. Regarding the "Ginnie" thing, that would have been my guess, too. And in that context, I would assume that it would have been pronounced with a hard "g" sound, as opposed to the "j" sound as sung in the video by the Sheet Music Singer above.

    And I had read that explanation of the "up in G" thing as well, and it does seem plausible. However, there are at least two other explanations out there. Furthermore, the following line about "on the hog" being a reference to a tramp riding the rails is something I've never heard before, nor did I find it in my recent searches. I'll have to follow up on that one.
     
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  9. buster poser

    buster poser Friend of Leo's Platinum Supporter

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    Can't help you on the lyrical provenance, but you are doing great work OP.

    I worked in a large assisted living facility and in-patient hospice from 2010-2013 or so and it was amazing to see faces light up on 'music day' when a performer would be there. When we get on the other side of this, I'm going to see if an opportunity like this exists locally.

    Thanks for what you're doing!
     
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  10. Steerforth

    Steerforth Friend of Leo's

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    Yes, hard “G” for “Ginnie”.

    “Up in ‘G’” was in vogue in the mid-1890s.

    13 April 1889, National Police Gazette, pg. 3:

    “The matinee actor used to be the champion masher in New York, but just now
    riding master stock appears to be booming in this direction, and by all accounts it is away up in G, too.”

    20 August 1892, Atlanta Constitution, pg. 7:

    “Atlanta's real estate market, to use the slang of the auctioneer, is going ‘way up in G’ this fall and winter.”

    8 September 1892, Atlanta Constitution, pg. 9:

    “They were all covered with railroad dust, and talked in heavy basso tones, being hoarse with whooping, but their spirits were to use a campaign slang term ‘way up in G’.”

    9 June 1895, Chicago Daily Tribune, pg. 36:

    “Last week from one of New York's ‘way up in G’ clothing makers...”

    2 August 1903, New York Times, pg. 8:

    “The simple truth is, it has become a sort of fad with a certain class to denounce the hand organ. They don't dislike that instrument half so much as they like to be thought cultured and belonging to the ‘way-up-in-G’ crowd.”

    As for, “on the hog”, there are a number of references. Take, for example, Bessie Smith’s mid-1920s recording of, “Yellow Dog Blues”, lyrics by W. C. Handy. It makes reference to someone being spotted on a southbound train, “on the hog”, that is, riding the rails, where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog. “I saw him there and he was on the hog”.
     
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  11. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

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    You do bring up a good point. The residents I play for are in typically in their 80s and 90s, which does indeed mean their childhood years would be the 1930s on.

    And actually, I confessed that I didn't know the verses to the gentleman that requested the song, to which he replied "All I know is the chorus." :lol:

    So there's no doubt I'm obsessing over details here. My youngest daughter once playfully accused me of "putting the anal in analytical." :eek::oops::lol:

    She was right, of course. It's what I do. It's just if I'm going to take the time to learn a song for its historic value, then I want to get the history right.
     
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  12. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

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    Thanks for confirming my suspicions on that pronunciation. There aren't as many Italian-Americans in south Texas as there are in upstate New York, I guess. It's not an expression I grew up hearing. And I can well believe that the derogatory term was changed to "Tony" for that very reason, which I would expect to be a common given name for those of Italian descent.

    And I get that explaining slang terms of yesteryear that have derogatory intent is not the same as condoning their use today. We're talking history here. Let's learn from it, not deny it, and move on.
     
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  13. Cpb2020

    Cpb2020 Tele-Meister Silver Supporter

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    Agreed. Several of my kids' performances have been in assisted living facilities before everything set down. I warned the activity director that they play songs like Nirvana and The Chats. He said it doesn't matter one bit. That they'll light up just to have something different on their schedule, particularly when it involves kids. The first time they played there two or three residents left the room, but three songs in and the vast majority had come out of their rooms to see what all the fun was about and spoke to the kids for 45 minutes as I broke their gear down and packed the car. Some of the residents lamented that they hadn't seen their grandkids or great grandkids in years. It is very sad.

    Three of my grandparents lived well into their 90s, but what I wouldn't give for a single day with my grandmother that passed away when I was 10 in the early 1980s. She taught me more about plants, bugs, science, you name it, than I've learned since then.

    We need more people like you, @LGOberean
     
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2021
  14. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

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    Well, gosh! :oops: Thank y'all for that. :)

    Truth be told, I feel a little selfish in playing such venues. I like doing gigs for seniors communities more than just about any other kind. I've said this before, but people today typically listen to live music like it's background/white noise. The real live musician in the room is treated as though he's little more than a flesh-covered radio.

    I would have thought that seniors might draw the line at Nirvana stuff. (I have no idea who The Chats are.) But you're right, the residents of retirement communities enjoy having live music in their schedule. The style of music I think does matter to them, but not to the extent of walking out on a performance (with I guess some exceptions).

    Before the lockdowns, at this very same venue, there was a guy named Ken that came to visit his dad ("Skip") almost every week. Once he found out that I came on Thursdays to do music, he arranged his schedule to visit on that day. Ken is a guitar player, too, and we became friends. He actually set up a time to come and play and sing for them himself, and I would come to support him when I could. His performance repertoire was pretty much exclusively Texas/Outlaw Country (e.g., Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Townes Van Zandt). The residents didn't seem familiar with anything he played, but they still came out to hear him and appreciated his coming.

    My experience is that when I play a retirement/independent living/assisted living/nursing home venue, I'm treated like a star. Their faces do indeed light up, even more so as I take their requests and play the music they want to hear. We all know that music can take you on a trip down memory lane. Of course, it's true for them as well. And the memories can be fond ones, or even painful, but in the case of the latter hearing certain songs is cathartic. I can think of several examples.

    One resident had lost her husband the year before. He was a career Navy man, and "their song" was "Red Sails in the Sunset." I hadn't heard it or even heard of it before she requested it, but I looked it up and learned it (Bing Crosby version, IIRC). A few weeks later I surprised her with it. After I finished, she said, "If you're wife wasn't here, I'd come up there and kiss you!"

    Another example was Skip. He was a younger resident (85), and was more familiar with "more contemporary" stuff. I played by request Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," and as I did, tears were streaming down his cheeks. He had gone through the pain of divorce, and the song stirred him deeply.

    So, yeah, I love playing for seniors, been doing it for years, 7+ years at the venue I've mentioned here. Even when I'm asked what I charge, I say "Nothing." I love doing it, I get so much out of it myself, and it's a way I can give back to my parents' generation, and to honor the memory of my own father, while I'm at it. When I was just a kid, he'd take me with him to sing at "old folks homes."

    Playing for them makes a difference in someone's day. If you want to be appreciated for what you play, if you want a healthy dose of adrenalin to your ego, play for seniors at a retirement community.
     
  15. nojazzhere

    nojazzhere Doctor of Teleocity

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    I don't want to side-track your original intent, Larry, (and I agree that historical context isn't always complimentary) but there's a scene in the Godfather where Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) first meets Jack Wolz (John Marley). Wolz lets go with a vitriolic stream of vicious slurs relating to the Godfather's family (Italian-Americans)....and I won't repeat them all here, but included is a reference to "ginnies" (with hard "G") referring to Italians.
    And I like your second, a cappella version of Sidewalks of New York.....very pensive and melancholy.
     
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  16. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

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    Thanks again, Gil. I didn't know about that reference in The Godfather. Some might find this difficult to believe, but I've never seen any in the series of Godfather films.
     
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  17. LGOberean

    LGOberean Doctor of Teleocity

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    Wow! Another detail conscious/research guy! That's very helpful. Thanks!
     
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  18. strat a various

    strat a various Friend of Leo's

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    Hey Big Daddy, cool old song. Like really old. Turn of the century old. Bicycle Built for Two old.

    Like everybody says, Guinea= dark skinned Sicilian ... Guinea is in Africa, so it's calling dark Italians (and all Italians often) Africans.
    Organ is a crank organ, or Hurdy-Gurdy. Cat probably had a Capuchin monkey collecting the tips.

    Good to keep these old songs in the rotation.
     
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