The Coney Island Blues

 

Professor Longhair by my friend and neighbor Steve Hudson. It hangs on our kitchen wall.

Professor Longhair by my friend and neighbor Steve Hudson. It hangs on our kitchen wall.

 

The following is an abbreviated excerpt from my novel. Near the beginning, my young narrator, Brooklyn goes to her Uncle Max’s bar on the boardwalk (picture the Atlantis Bar from my previous blog). She’s looking for Lenny, the sleazy crooner who sang her a secret warning, but instead finds Mississippi.

 

I heard music seeping out, but it wasn’t Lenny. It was a deep twangy guitar and a man’s gravelly voice like nothing I’d ever heard before.

 

Well, I’m a pooooor boy, a long way from home

I’m such a pooooor boy, a long way from home

I’m headed someplace, where I’ll never be alone…

 

The song seemed to come from a different world, somewhere hotter and harder and slower than New York. It pounded in my blood. I never thought I’d hear a better singer than Lenny, but I was listening to one now.

 

I cracked the accordion doors open and peeked in. I could just make out the singer in the crimson light of the EXIT sign. He was sitting at one of the tables in the back, picking a guitar…

 

I pulled the doors open a little more. As my eyes got accustomed to the darkness things got clearer—stools upturned on the horseshoe-shaped bar, baby grand on the stage, microphone on its stand, everything washed in crimson light…

 

 

Turns out, in my novel, all the big shots in the afterlife are Singers.

 

When I was growing up in the 1950s there was a lot of impromptu music on the boardwalk. Most of it by immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. These weren’t buskers looking for donations but people singing and playing just for the joy of it.

 

Brighton Beach and Coney Island also spawned a number of famous singers: Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, the Tokens.

 

 

The Tokens in 1967

The Tokens in 1967

When I was sophomore at Abraham Lincoln High School in 1961 my friends and I could hardly believe the Tokens were white they were so good, let alone neighbors. Two of them, thirteen-year-old multi-instrumentalist Mitch Margo and his baritone brother Phil lived right across the street from the school! You might remember their biggest hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

 

Doc Pomus, 1947 by William Gottlieb

Doc Pomus, 1947

Another luminary was Doc Pomus, born Jerry Felder, a Jewish blues singer like my little heroine. He had polio as a child and had to use crutches. If anyone had the right to sing the blues, he figured it was him. Besides performing he co-wrote such hits as “Save the Last Dance For Me” and “This Magic Moment.”

 

 

Woody Guthrie, 1943

Woody Guthrie, 1943

Of the singers I’ve mentioned, the most influential in my story and in the world is Woody Guthrie, who lived on Mermaid Avenue. His stay in Coney Island marked his most prolific period as a song writer. He used to collaborate with his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. He was a strong influence on the singing cowboy from Brooklyn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and, of course, Bob Dylan. The Klezmatics’ 2006 album, Wonder Wheel consists of songs with Guthrie’s lyrics.

 

The Klezmatics, 2000

The Klezmatics, 2000

 

One reason I wanted to write about blues singers is that I’ve been living in Memphis, Tennessee since 1992 and the blues is my favorite kind of music.

 

Unlike my talented young narrator my singing voice is abysmal. Having said that, I must admit that writing songs for this novel and singing them in the shower where it can’t hurt anyone, has kept me happy. I’m humming one right now.

 

Many thanks to my friends at the We Grew Up in Brighton Beach…Facebook pages for all your insider information and Wikimedia Commons for the public domain photographs.

 

Some songs to listen to:

Peetie Wheatstraw—Blues Legend, Devil’s Son-in-Law:

http://youtu.be/F5Ac24bdUFM?list=RDF5Ac24bdUFM

Eleven-Year-Old Tina Siciliano, Too Young to Sing the Blues:

http://youtu.be/uOSjEKzM7io

The Tokens, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, 1961:

http://youtu.be/_LBmUwi6mEo

Doc Pomus, Call for the Doctor (1950s?):

http://youtu.be/VkI3dkoaW-U

Woody Guthrie, All You Fascists Bound to Lose (1940s?):

http://youtu.be/VwcKwGS7OSQ

The Klezmatics, Gonna Get Through this World, by Woody Guthrie, 2006:

http://youtu.be/DTQwS4Ma0jw

 

Posted in: Blog & Stories

4 comments

  1. Jane Ryder says:

    Thanks for the music history!

    I recently watched the David Simon series “Treme” and discovered a whole host of new-old blues music and musicians, including Professor Longhair, John Boutte, Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, and about a hundred more. I felt like I finally understood the blues, which I really never had before. If the blues was ever appropriate for a whole city, it was New Orleans after Katrina, boy.

    Interesting to think of it in Coney Island. 🙂

  2. Marilyn Jones says:

    Very interesting. I am so glad you sing in the shower “where it can’t hurt anyone.” So funny. I didn’t know Woody Guthrie had a Yiddish poet mother-in-law – very cool. I like this entry and all the pictures. Your blogs are just right – interesting prose, interesting info, interesting art, and interesting photos. Thanks.

  3. Jim Blythe says:

    Here is Woody singing his Happy Hanukkah: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWJ7ufEmyVw. And here is Loca Rosa (Wild Rose) singing two songs with lyrics by Aliza Greenblatt, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-pRrC5jOZs.

    Aliza Greenblatt was quite well known among Yiddish speakers (even recently Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, was once introduced as Aliza Greenblatt’s granddaughter) and also wrote an autobiography. She got on very well with Woody, since they shared many interests, including a leftist politics, and they both were fighters for justice.

    Her husband, Izadore Greenblatt, was not as happy with his daughter’s leaving of a Jewish husband for a goy and did not talk to her until she gave birth to her first child. Ironically, given Aliza, Woody, and Marjorie’s leftist politics they hired someone they called a “sweet young rabbi” for Arlo’s bar mitzvah. He later became famous as the fascist Meir Kahane, leader of the thuggish Jewish Defense League. Arlo said, “maybe I was responsible.”

    The Klezmatics also released an album, Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah, containing many of Woody’s songs (as with another release by the Klezmatics (Sheila’s post is of one of these songs) and three albums by Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue, vols. 1, 2, 3) only the lyrics survived, because Woody was incapacitated with Huntington’s Disease, and others wrote the tunes.

    There is another connection between the Klezmatics and Woody although I can’t find it now (it is in the liner notes to the Asch Recordings of Woody, but after digitizing all my music all my CDs are gone). I’m pretty sure that it is that Marjorie Mazia, Woody’s wife, who was a dancer in the Martha Graham company and later ran a dance school in Brooklyn, had a future Klezmatic as a student.

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