Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York

By Susie J. Tanenbaum | Go to book overview

Introduction
Venturing Down

The New York City subway system has become a locus of activities that seem to have nothing to do with transit. Unlicensed vendors set up their wares on easily collapsible cardboard display cases, visible representatives of an "underground economy" that grew apace with the economic crisis of the 1980s. 1 Panhandlers are living reminders of political leaders' failure to address that crisis adequately. Members of the Nation of Islam preside over tables of books and incense, and Jews for Jesus and Straphangers' Campaign volunteers distribute leaflets. And then there are the musicians.

In the subways, as in the streets (really sidewalks) above, performance includes magic, comedy, mime, and breakdancing, but music is the predominant entertainment form. Like the vendors, panhandlers, religious devotees, and political activists, musicians are drawn to the subways by the prospect of making contact with riders. They set open instrument cases, shoulder bags, upturned hats, plastic buckets, or tin cans in front of them to collect donations. As they perform, some riders rush past to catch a train; others pause momentarily; but often people gather to listen and also to smile, talk, laugh, sing, cry, even dance, and applaud.

This book is about New York City subway musicians. It explores who these individuals are and what motivates them to perform in an urban space that was not designed with their activity in mind. This book is, moreover, about New York City subway music, an urban ritual that challenges the way we think about public space by promot-

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Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page ii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction - Venturing Down 1
  • Part 1 - Making Music Underground 9
  • 1 - Setting Up 11
  • 2 - The Beat Goes On: History 27
  • 3 - The Partners: Subway Musicians and Their Audiences 48
  • 4 - Boundaries and Bridges: Relationships in Public Space 97
  • Part II - Seeking Harmony Kunderground 123
  • 5 - Music under New York: Official Sponsorship 125
  • 6 - Sounds and Silence: Regulating Subway Music 148
  • 7 - Walking the Beat: Transit Police 170
  • 8 - Music on the Job: Subway Workers 185
  • 9 - Prospects for Change 209
  • Appendix 1 - Subway Homelessness 227
  • Appendix 2 - New York Street Music 234
  • Notes 241
  • Bibliography 255
  • Index 263
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