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I don't really listen to music. I tell people I only like ten songs. That's not true, but it's easier than getting into never-ending, soul-crushing discussions about bands. But I took a random assortment I have on my computer and just let them go while I got some reading done, and by luck a series of songs about Chicago came on. It occurred to me: there is a real historiography to be gleaned from these songs.

There have been lots of songs written about Chicago. Many of them have little to actually say about the city. "Bad, Bad LeRoy Brown," by Jim Croce simply uses the South Side as a setting for the titular character. "Sweet Home Chicago," although quite beloved, really has no lyrics at all, besides short math quizzes ("Six and Three is Nine, nine and nine is eighteen") and the incessant asking Baby whether she wants to go. ZZ Top penned the hit, "Jesus Just Left Chicago," which seems to be about how Jesus prefers the vice of New Orleans to the vice of Chicago. Beloved, talentless hipster Ryan Adams has a song called "Dear Chicago" which is, surprise surprise, a vaguely worded love song about nothing at all. When you blow away all the chaff, there are surprisingly few songs that develop any sort of Chicago lyrical literature, such as there is about New York City (especially in the hip-hop genre).

(We would do well to forget about Paper Lace's nonsensical "The Night Chicago Died," which is concerned with some mythical pitched battle between Al Capone's gang and police that resulted in the death of 100 police officers and all of Capone's gang. And, yes, the Pixies and Wilco both have songs about Chicago. Good for them.)

Aliotta, Haynes and Jeremiah wrote the folk classic "Lake Shore Drive," which, surprisingly enough, is concerned with only the northern part of Lake Shore Drive, which "starts up north at Hollywood,": "Concrete mountains rising up, there ain't no finer place to be, than running Lake Shore Drive." They don't seem to want to go too far, however, since they turn around when they hit the Gold Coast: "A ten minute ride back from Gold Coast, make sure you're pleasure bound." Not exactly adventurous.

Fitting in with this sort of melodramatic mode is Joe Pagetta's relatively unknown ditty, "Tears of Lake Michigan." The title seems promising, but it turns out that Lake Michigan is crying because Joe's girlfriend sat there and cried into it for some unknown reason — unless we are to believe she is crying because of "civil rights riots [and] bitter winter spells," which would make her a very weirdly emotional broad he'd be better off without.

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Fig1. Frank was known to hang with hoods.

Supposedly, Outfit boss Sam Giancana was upset that Frank Sinatra went around performing "New York, New York," while paying no tribute to the town that bullied all of his records onto the jukeboxes they owned. So Frank adapted an old hit, "That Toddlin' Town" and put it in his repertoire. Giancana was thrilled, and with good reason. Not only is it the most optimistic of Chicago hits, but it takes a stab at New York: "On State Street, that great street, I just wanna say/ they do things they don't do/ On Broadway." Ol' Blue Eyes' exhortation to "bet your bottom dollar" probably brought a twinkle to Mooney's eyes. Like almost every song about Chicago, this one hints at the city's overt celebration of vice: "The town that Billy Sunday could not shut down." (Billy Sunday being a radical traveling Christian evangelist of the first half of the century.)

In that vein is one of my all-time favorites, Nat "King" Cole's lesser-known "Lil' Joe From Chicago." Cole was, of course, from the South, and southern blacks viewed Chicago as a sort of promised land (before they got here, of course); successful blacks who returned to the South to visit relatives or re-settle were often treated with a sort of awe. In "Lil' Joe," Cole makes the distinction between material success and the cost it comes at: "Lil' Joe, from Chicago, wore a big blue diamond ring/ Lil' Joe, from Chicago, he never lacked for anything/ Lil' Joe, from Chicago, never spent a day in school/ Lil' Joe, from Chicago, never learned a grammar rule." As an interesting side note, this song was wildly popular in Europe and is still relatively well-known there, one of Cole's more popular tunes among Europeans.

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Fig2. Gatemouth glances over his shoulder at the woman he's leaving behind.

This song really began the Chicago-as-Promised Land theme in African-American musical literature. There are lots of blues songs with the word "Chicago" in the title, but this is usually a reference to the style of the song as opposed to any lyrical content concerning the city. One notable and amusing exception is Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's song "Goin' to Chicago." Brown was a Chicago-style bluesman from Dallas who is antsy to get going: "Goin' to Chicago, but honey I can't take you/ There's nothing in Chicago/ that a woman like you can do." Gatemouth was no sentimentalist: "If I don't get back quick enough for you, woman/ I want you to hang your head and cry." And just why can't she come? Well, because Chicago is the land of boozing and woman, and so "There's nothing in Chicago/ that a monkey woman like you can do." How sweet.

While Aliotta and friends were staying clear of anything south of Gold Coast, the promise of Chicago quickly turned into the reality of Chicago for black songwriters. Around the time cerebral MC Nas was penning the hip-hop classic "New York State of Mind," Crucial Conflict, the West Side natives, were producing "Final Tic": "Once upon a time/ In the land of gang bang mentality/ When we drop quick/ Final tic clique/ Fatality is reality" Crucial Conflict was on a label owned by a notorious Vice Lord captain who was later sent to prison for murder. They claimed their "style was based on rodeo," an homage to their neighborhood's nickname "The Wild, Wild West." Their ultraviolent lyrics belie a survivalist attitude and desperate posturing: "They spooky now nigga let's turn it on/ Fuck it, burn shit/ Let's fight till we hear that final tic/ Kill till we kill each other, click."

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Fig3. Twista tells it like it is.

A few years later, world-famous K-Towner Twista (formerly Tung Twista) released the song "Crook County," in which he decried the violence and corruption of his home county: "In the Chi, it's kill or be killed, hussle or die/ You gotsta take the pie" The violence and desperation in the lyrics transcends usual gangster rap bluster: "In the county of crooks: gangbangers, killers and slangers/ With judges be quick to hang us homies/ This Chi gotta die from a blast to the dome." Ol' Blue Eyes sang the praises of vice at the behest of a gangster, and Twista does the same: "I receive my blessings from G's and Lord." — meaning Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords.

This desperation reached a height with the local classic by D.A. Smart, "Walk Wit' Me." A long, intense song in which the narrator takes us street-by-street through black gang territory, he exhorts us, "Put your left foot in front of your right foot and walk wit' me/ to the land of the Chi where the vultures be/ Have you heard the city's crime/ sociologists be tellin' me the city's dyin?" Along the way, D.A. instructs us on how to survive in places like Austin and 61st and Cottage Grove, but some places are beyond hope: "Roseland is a living hell/ Bodies drop in Altgeld, from ten-trey to Riverdale." Maybe this narrator is the boy Elvis sang about: "As the snow flies on a cold and gray Chicago morning/ and a poor little baby child is born in the ghetto/ he's gonna be an angry young man some day/ so he starts to roam the streets at night/ and he learns how to steal and he learns how to fight/ he buys a gun and steals a car, and he tries to run but he don't get far/ and his momma cries."

Ultimately, this is the Chicago immortalized in song. This is the Chicago of today, too, if you listen closely. That fact makes it so hard to hear Frank sing, "My kind of town, Chicago is/ My kind of people, too/ People who/ smile at you." You must, like me, picture the saddest, dimmest smiles.

 

About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon takes Lake Shore all the way south at Chicago: Howtown on the Make.

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