The lower east side of Manhattan means many things, to many different people. For me it's the land of my ancestral dreams. It's a place where my people came to rest after many a brutal journey across land and sea. Eager to leave Eastern Europe and it's antisemitism behind, we were tailors, shoemakers, garment factory workers (sweatshops). cantors, rabbi's, peddlers and business folk.
America was the new-found-land, full of hope, promise and despair.
It was a place where a corset salesman and a necktie salesman joined forces to become the top publicists of the day; a place where a composer could write about The Sweet Sunny South, having never been there; a place where the greatest composer of the day could play in only one piano key; a place where those who had musical schooling were often looked upon with disdain and suspicion.
…Yep! This was the place where American Popular music history came to be.
It was the land of pick pockets, publishers, brawlers, gangsters, hucksters, singing waiters, arrangers, song-pluggers and salesman of every ilk. More than that, it was where we imagined who we were and who we could be as a nation. It was a place where the streets where paved with gold and Ellis Island was but one step closer to that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It was a place where stealing ideas was as common as opening the door for a pretty girl or helping a little lady cross the street.
It has been said that the lower east side of Manhattan, which was home to writers, poets, factory workers and its whole immigrant mass, was also the place where we realized that not only were the streets not paved with gold, but we were expected to do the paving!
It was brutal and beautiful all at once; or to quote the great folksinger Utah Phillips, “the melting pot was a place where the scum would rise to the top, while the working stiffs got scalded at the bottom.
It was also the place where inspiration was often hard won. How else could we have written about a tough Irishman (Throw Him Down, McCloskey!) or the dark end of the street (The Bowery), with such bittersweet candor?
It was a place where we changed the game plan that had been laid out before us by genteel publishers who believed that music instruction and classical scores where the only ones deserving of copy.
It was a place where a tear-jerker about broken hearts at the ball (After the Ball) could go on to become the top grossing sheet music of all time.
Amidst all of this comedy, there was quite a bit of tragedy (The Triangle Fire).
Day to day life was one filled with bed-bugs, hunger, low-wages, gangsters, racial violence, crowded living quarters (Tenements), flu, virus, unsanitary living conditions and horrid working conditions.
This was our life…and from this we made a living! But Oy! Such a Business!
How else could we have imagined that there was an Apple Tree in Central Park (In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree) or A Georgia Camp Meeting out on the corner of 28th street!
Let me put it another way…
My grandma often said that her matzah ball soup tasted so much better than everyone else, because she mixed the laughter with the tears.
Does this explain why our best singers (Jolson, Cantor, Tucker, Brice) wore their hearts on their sleeves and a tear in their voice?
Make no mistake! We are all a product of this domain and much of it has become public!
Somewhere inside us all, there is that old familiar, haunted smile. It’s the one we wear with a toothless grin and a blackened eye, as we race across the finish line.
It’s the one we all deserve, most covet and few retain; it’s the stuff of legends and those lucky devils whom we remember…long after the song has ended.