There are literally thousands of songs about New York City. Countless musicians have been so inspired or driven mad by New York, and often it seems like the streets ache and echo with melodies just waiting to be found and recorded.
You know the most famous songs about New York City, like “New York State of Mind” of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys fame, and Sinatra’s classic “New York, New York.” But almost every landmark in the city has its own theme song (or in most cases, many theme songs). Coney Island, the Chelsea Hotel, Tompkins Square Park, and the subway are only a few of the places that have conjured up amazing music.
New York City has also inspired every kind of musical culture with a history that spans an impossibly diverse array of sounds. So much jazz, classical music, punk, and more was born and grew up on these streets, though this list will not attempt to summarize the births of these movements. Instead, this is a curated selection of a precious few of the many songs that have been written about specific places in New York City.
If you want to recommend a song about a specific place or a location, contact the writer at @edenarielmusic. For a playlist of the songs in this article and more, check out this “Untapped Cities: Tour of New York” playlist on Spotify and listen along!
For even more, check out this interactive map that pinpoints New York locations found in songs. Using a Google Maps format, it highlights songs about New Jersey, Montauk and everything in between.
1. Coney Island
Images from Library of Congress, Boston Public Library
Coney Island, America’s whimsical, decaying dreamland, has inspired a tremendous amount of music. One of the earliest musical references can be found in the 1926 “Coney Island Washboard Roundelay,” with music by Hampton Durand and Jerry Adams and words by Ned Nestor and Aude Shugart. The song references Coney Island’s famous boardwalk, which is technically known as the Riegelmann Boardwalk after Edward J. Riegelmann. It was constructed in 1923 and stretches for 2.51 miles, making it the second longest boardwalk in the world. “Coney Island Washboard she could play, you could hear her on the boardwalk everyday,” the singers croon in harmony through a staticky recording.
In 1948, Les Applegate wrote the classic barbershop number “Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby.” The Coney Island Baby refrain would become a staple of music about the place, and in 1962 the American Doo-Wop group, The Excellents, released a song called “Coney Island Baby,” which, with its swinging rhythm and emotional muscle, soared to #51 on Billboard’s Top 100 that year.
In addition, Coney Island has entered the vocabulary of many famous rock musicians. There’s Barry Manilow’s Coney Island and Lou Reed’s album called “Coney Island Baby” was released in 1976. In 1986, his band, the Velvet Underground, also released a song called “Coney Island Steeplechase.” In both songs, Coney Island is used as a symbol of escapism, euphoria, and of course, love.
Music and Coney Island are an easy match because both touch upon the furthest and most extreme extents of human feeling. Love, a perpetual theme in both music and Coney Island lore, often exists in the space between dream and nightmare, ecstasy and agony. No place better represents the duality of pleasure and pain than good old Coney, also named “Sodom by the Sea,” with its history of both escapist surreality and seedy underground horrors.
Coney Island is as associated with darkness and loss as it is with summertime and freedom. In the modern era, as Coney Island has fallen into disrepair, it has been turned into a symbol of overwhelming nostalgia. The 27-minute track “Sleep” by indie band Godspeed You! Black Emperor begins with a 30-second monologue commemorating what Coney Island used to be. Then there’s the brooding “Coney Island” by Death Cab for Cutie, which laments, “Everything was closed at Coney Island. I can hear the atlantic echo back roller coaster screams from summers past.” The haunting, impossibly eerie soundtrack for 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, composed by Clint Mansell, is called “Coney Island Dreaming.” More recently, Lana Del Rey has called herself the Queen of Coney Island in several songs.
(To hear this song and 55 other hymns to America’s playground, check out this playlist.)