There have been many lively, colorful streets lauded in popular song. I’ve walked a few of them, including Beale Street and Basin Street, mentioned below; New York’s Broadway; and San Francisco’s Haight & Ashbury.
“Kansas City” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, but it was in 1959 that Wilbert Harrison made it a huge hit. It’s his version that has lasted, although many have recorded it since (and every bar band in America has had it in their repertoire for more than fifty years).
Alas, Kansas City’s landmark 12th Street and Vine is only marked by a lonely street sign. It has been subsumed by a housing development. The music hub was actually 18th and Vine, a recognized jazz destination for years. It is now mostly museums.
“Beale Street Blues” W.C. Handy was not so much a songwriter as a translator of black culture, a synthesizer of others’ music and words into hit songs like “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” that resonated with Americans, black and white, in St. Louis and Memphis or in New York or Phoenix. His world was the black community entered around Memphis’s Beale Street, a place Preston Lauterbach, in his book Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, describes as “a nexus of black culture and power…unlike anyplace else in the world.”
Handy extracted the music for “Beale Street Blues” from the sounds he overheard, walking on Beale Street, of a saloon’s pianist playing away on his twelve-hour shift. He crafted the lyrics by pulling from the language he heard on Beale Street corners, and in its bars, boarding houses, and shops.
He extols this landmark Memphis street above all others: “I’ve seen the lights of gay Broadway / Old Market Street down by the Frisco Bay / I’ve strolled the Prado, gambled on the Bourse / But take my advice, friends, and see Beale Street first.”
Louis Armstrong recorded a W.C. Handy tribute album shortly before Handy’s death, and it’s this album’s version of “Beale Street Blues,” played and sung with affection by a New Orleanian, that I love best.
“Basin Street Blues” Armstrong also covered, many times, this song of a notable street in his hometown. Written in 1926 by Spencer Williams, it was recorded two years later by Satch, and has been recorded thousands of times since, by Dixieland bands, pop vocalists, and mainstream jazzers.
Basin Street was the nexus of New Orleans’ red light district, Storyville. I look at the photographs of Storyville whores taken in the early 20th century by E.J. Bellocq and try to imagine what daily (or nightly) life was like there and then. Reading about Jelly Roll Morton in Mister Jelly Roll, I imagine myself leaning over the piano as he entertains the habitués of the brothel, the working girls and the rough and tough characters who provided them with a living.
On visits to New Orleans over the years, I’ve walked around the area that Storyville occupied. It is long gone, but nearly everywhere in the heart of that city there had still been some traces of the past in the brightly painted shotgun houses and the corner package stores. But I’m afraid that may not continue to be the case. In all of the ten-years-after-Katrina stories I’ve read, the prevailing observation is that the neighborhoods of New Orleans, from Treme to Bywater, are being gentrified. The “City that Care Forgot” is now a magnet for tech dot-com developers and hipster chic boutiquers. It’s giving me the Basin Street blues.
“Dancing in the Street” A whole book about one pop song? It’s happened before, with the delightful book Louie, Louie. Mark Kurlansky devoted a volume called Ready for a Brand New Beat to the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit “Dancing in the Street.” It is as worthy of being the subject of a book as any pop song. It’s got a relentless “brand new beat,” it features Martha’s glistening vocals, and it signifies a time of change. It has a strong but unmenacing message that the younger generation is movin’ in.
“Street Fighting Man” The Stones take up the message where Martha and the Vandellas left off. No more dancing—it’s time for fighting in the streets. This is one song that blew my young mind when I first heard it. I was a Rolling Stones fan, but leaned toward The Beatles. And then I bought the Beggar’s Banquet album and my mind was opened up to the rough stuff. Keith Richards’ ringing guitar and Mick Jagger’s stinging vocals cut right through me. And it was a protest song I could belt along with, kidding myself that I was in some way a part of this big societal change taking place. I was just a kid in the suburbs. I wasn’t fighting or dancing in my street. I was playing tag and singing four-part harmony in my street. And in the house early on school nights.
Honorable Mentions: The Lonely Street of “Heartbreak Hotel”; the slinky harpsichorded mystery of Jim Morrison and The Doors’ “Love Street”; the many Bruce Springsteen song-stories of New Jersey streets, most notably “Born to Run”; the cowboy classic “Streets of Laredo,” with the parody verse: “You can see by my outfit that I am a cowboy / If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.”