“The Sidewalks of New York“ is a popular song about life in New York City during the 1890’s….which was composed in 1894 by vaudeville actor and singer Charles B. Lawlor….with lyrics by James W. Blake….and was an immediate and long-lasting hit….which is often considered a theme for New York City. Many artists, including Mel Tormé, Duke Ellington, Larry Groce, Richard Barone and The Grateful Dead have performed the song over the years…..as Governor Al Smith of New York used it as a theme song for his failed presidential campaigns of 1920, 1924 and 1928. The song is also known as “East Side, West Side” from the first words of the chorus.
The tune, a slow and deliberate waltz, was devised by Lawlor….after he had been singing at Charlie Murphy’s Anawanda Club for a Ladies’ Night with a good party….when on his walk home, he thought to himself that he sang everyone else’s tunes, and he should write one of his own….but he couldn’t think of anything on his long walk home….when during the night the tune and theme came to him from the walk itself. The next day, he went downtown to John Golden’s hat store, where Blake worked, and hummed the melody for him. The melody was very similar to an 1892 song called “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” by British composer Harry Dacre. Blake took a liking to the 3/4 tune, and had Lawlor repeat it several times. “You get the music on paper,” he told Lawlor, “and I’ll write the words for it.”….so, Lawlor returned to the store in about twenty minutes with the musical notes written….and Blake was halfway through the lyrics….when he finished the words in another half-hour. The tune and words became extremely familiar and well known throughout New York City. It was first made famous by Lottie Gilson….as it had staying power because the melody was catchy and easy to sing.
The words were a shared vision of Lawlor and Blake, and recall their childhood neighborhoods and those who grew up with them. It was a universal longing for youth, yesteryear and place….although it was also idealized because both Lawlor and Blake had grown up quite poor. Lawlor said that he envisioned a “big husky policeman leaning against a lamppost and twirling his club, an organ grinder playing nearby, and the east side kids with dirty faces, shoes unlaced, stockings down, torn clothes, dancing to the music, while from a tenement window an old Irish woman with a checkered cap and one of those old time checkered shawls around her shoulders, looking down and smiling at the children.” The words of the song tell the story of Blake’s childhood….including the friends with whom he played as a child….such as Johnny Casey, Jimmy Crowe, Nellie Shannon…who danced the waltz….and Mamie O’Rourke….who taught Blake how to “trip the light fantastic“….which was an extravagant expression for dancing. The song is sung in nostalgic retrospect….as Blake and his childhood friends went their separate ways….with some leading to success while others did not….as “some are up in ‘G’ / others they are on the hog”.
In this version of the song seen in this video herewith….two iconic American entertainers. Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante, perform a song and dance routine from the 1953 movie Beau James….which is well worth the price of admission….and provides just another “nugget of gold” in our treasure chest of vintage memories here at ImaSportsphile.