Hoboken Tunes: Our Musical Heritage

July - December 2007

Frank Sinatra may have put Hoboken on the world map, but his is not the only musical career this town has fostered. Stephen Foster lived here when he wrote I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair. A few years after Sinatra, and just a few doors down from his childhood home, another crooner, Jimmy Roselli rose to fame singing standards and traditional Neapolitan songs. The musical Hair was written here, and the number of bands who made the leap to national fame after playing at Maxwell’s in the 1980s and ’90s is too large to count.

From its founding in the mid-1800s through today, Hoboken has been a haven for musicians, and music has played an important role in the cultural life of the city, according to Joel Lewis, a music writer and historian who lives here and who researched and wrote the narrative for A Musical History of Hoboken. “Music is the most portable cultural artifact – unlike works of art and even literature, music is easily passed on from generation to generation, and it serves to bind people together in a community,” Lewis says. Lewis notes that it’s not surprising that Hoboken plays a larger role in the national music scene than others of its size. Hoboken’s advantages include its history as a seaport, its heritage as an immigration center, its proximity to New York City, last but not least, its affordability.

Hoboken has played host to many diverse musical communities in its 150-plus years, including German social clubs, Irish music bands, Italian vaudeville, salsa clubs and Club Zanzibar, which was a frequent after-hours stop for jazz and R&B performers after their gigs at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Music thrived and evolved here among the many immigrant communities.

The exhibit traces the role of music in the cultural life of Hoboken, as well as the contributions Hoboken’s musicians have made to the national music scene. Naturally, center stage is given to favorite son Frank Sinatra, whose career might not have taken off as quickly if he hadn’t grown up so close to “New York, New York.” His big break was performing on Major Bowen’s Amateur Hour radio show in New York in 1935 with his fellow singers in the Hoboken Four.

But like many musicians and singers before and after him, Sinatra’s success was partly rooted in Hoboken’s proximity to New York City, where the popular music industry was centered before much of it shifted to Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. Before high-fidelity recording technology, most music played on radio or in theaters was performed live, Lewis says, and most popular music in the first half of this century was published, performed and broadcast from New York City.

Until very recently, Hoboken was an affordable place for struggling music-makers. In the 1960s, a pair of struggling actors, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, holed up in a Hoboken apartment to write the book and lyrics for the musical Hair, which revolutionized the Broadway musical with rock-and-roll spirit. Also in the ’60s, a band called the Insect Trust put out a record titled, Hoboken Saturday Night, and influenced the growing “underground” music scene.

In 1978, a popular restaurant for workers at the Maxwell House plant was transformed in the evenings into a neighborhood spot for bands to try out their new sounds in front of a hip, young audience. Hoboken’s infrastructure as a factory town also supported the musical industry. Guild guitars, cherished by top rock and folk guitarists, were made here in the 1950s. The International Music Corporation distributed hybrid instruments such as the ukelin (a cross between a ukulele and violin) in the 1920s and ’30s, from offices at 14th and Bloomfield St.

The exhibit offers listening stations for visitors to sample music of all kinds that have roots in Hoboken. Fans of Frank Sinatra a chance to see some rare memorabilia, including a microphone he once used, and fans of the 1980s music scene can relive the glory days of independent music through posters, album covers and a few reunion concerts. The exhibit pays homage to artists who have performed at the city’s Arts & Music Festivals over the years.

Lewis has written about music for The Wire, Time Out, The Forward and Moment and is currently a staff writer at NJPAC, interviewing musicians ranging from Ornette Coleman to Moondog. He says he’s “old enough to remember doo-wop quartets harmonizing under the awning of Seid’s Pharmacy in West New York.” A poet Lewis is widely published and anthologized, with a new book Learning From New Jersey, due out in the fall.