2. The New York City Subway
A lot happens on the subway. Although New York City’s underground transit system seems to be undergoing a bit of a breakdown of late, the subway is a place where New Yorkers have the chance to think, reflect, and convert their experiences into art.
One of the most famous subway-inspired songs is Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train,” the exuberant, horn-heavy jazz number used in the 1939 film “Reveille with Beverly.” The Eighth Avenue Line had opened only seven years before the song was composed. If you want to follow the song’s instructions, then “You must take the A train, to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem,” as the lyrics instruct.
Among the many other songs about New York City transit, there’s Petula Clark’s “Don’t Sleep on the Subway,” and Tom Waits’ rousing “Downtown Train.” The subway is a place of missed connections and new opportunity, and these songs encapsulate the simultaneous energy and desperation that anyone who’s taken the trains must feel. There’s also Guru’s “Transit Ride,” which advises the rider in classic New York fashion, “don’t smile at anyone” and “watch the closing doors,” a refrain glossed over by the smooth peal of a saxophone. One of the more famous numbers about the subway is the New York Dolls’ “Subway Train,” which laments the length of a long subway commute. With its spidery vintage guitar riffs and rollicking bass, this song might be one of those tracks ones that makes the inevitable subway delays bearable.
One of the more famous lines about the New York City subway is whispered near the end of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic “Sound of Silence.” The duo got their start performing in Queens, and were discovered by Columbia Records while performing at Gerde’s Folk City, a Greenwich Village Club.
In “Sound of Silence,” which led to their signing with Columbia Records, the due presciently sing in perfect harmony, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls.” These lyrics are odes to the unseen and forgotten poetry and hope found buried in the architecture and history that lines every inch of the city. (Untapped Cities has a lot written about little-known and abandoned subway stations, so take note of Simon and Garfunkel’s advice and check out the writing on the walls).
Although there are many songs written about the subway, no one will ever know how many songs have been written on it. Lin Manuel Miranda, writer of Hamilton, said that he came up with the refrain for Aaron Burr’s emotionally charged solo “Wait For It” while taking the A and L trains from 207th Street to Williamsburg one night. The lyrics “death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes and it takes, but we keep living anyway. We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes” emerged in his mind like lights out of a subway tunnel, he said, adding that the moment he got to where he was headed in Brooklyn, he turned around and left to write the lyrics that would eventually give tens of thousands of audience members the chills.
Additionally, Miranda’s first musical In the Heights was all about Washington Heights, so the writer had long been using New York as a palate for his creativity, and New York City has been the subject of many a Broadway musical.