USA: Five Music Mad Cities

By: andrewbowman

May 19, 2010

If you ask most people to name five places of musical importance, chances are at least two of their choices will be American cities. You might get your Liverpools, Londons or Manchesters thrown in there, but when it comes to pop cultural influence, you simply can’t top the USA. Sure, the classical era belonged to Europe, but America owned the 20th Century outright.

Come with us on a tour of five legendary locales that have made their musical mark.


New York States of Mind

America’s most populous city, New York has given us a lot more than skyscrapers and pastrami on rye. Any visitor’s first (and possibly only) music-related stop will likely be the gorgeous Art Deco-styled Radio City Music Hall, but you’d be crazy to leave it at that. Any stroll beyond the main Manhattan thoroughfares will likely lead you towards somewhere where something happened or is maybe happening.


Styles not even invented there – folk, jazz – found their homes in NYC, but the Big Apple has birthed enough genres of its own, punk and hip-hop being the most notable. Though many of these scenes’ historical haunts and hangouts have disappeared, the vibrations can still be caught if you’re willing to feel them out. If you don’t know where to start, All New York Tours offer a great walking tour taking in tales of The Ramones, The Velvet Underground and even a peak at Madonna’s first NY apartment.

For the extra adventurous: head uptown with Soundwalk’s award-winning Bronx Hip-Hop Walk audio tour. Here’s a video teaser featuring your guide, pioneering DJ, Jazzy Jay.


SOUNDWALK: Bronx Hip Hop Walk from Soundwalk on Vimeo.


Sweet Home Chicago

Chicago is a bustling hub with bags of culture; a thriving theatre scene, one of the world’s best orchestras, ballet, opera, you name it. There are plenty of attractions and highbrow distractions. The Windy City also has an extra special, gritty kind of beauty about it, as one would expect of the “home of the blues”. Of course, the city didn’t start the blues; poor southern migrants brought it with them, Chicago just plugged them in. Then the amplified electric guitar took over the world.


Rightfully proud of its achievements, the city still shows off its status, attracting high calibre line-ups for its annual Blues Festival. If you can’t make it there in June though, no problem; Chicago has the blues (in the best way) all year round. The excellent Chicago Blues Tour, narrated by legendary singer-guitarist Buddy Guy, is all the prep you need.

As it’s also the birthplace of house music, club-lovers too will find Chi-Town is the place to get down. The city’s own 5 Magazine offers the most comprehensive listings.

Blue Chicago

Blue Chicago by frozenchipmunk on Flickr



The Big Easy, The Original”¦New Orleans

According to Ernie K-Doe, who sang the original “Here Come The Girls“, “All music comes from New Orleans.” The thing is, he wasn’t exaggerating that much; such is the influence of the place. While the city is world famous as the birthplace of jazz, its impact on rhythm & blues, early rock ‘n’ roll and funk is also immeasurable.


Nowhere else are sites and sounds so intertwined. In the Big Easy – America’s original melting pot – everywhere seems to have a musical tie, the bars, the restaurants, every street and even the cemeteries, where the joyous “second-line” parades begin.

Even outside of Mardi Gras season and after the horrendous devastation of Hurricane Katrina, there are more than enough spots to see (and hear) in the Crescent City. A good starter is the Preservation Hall New Orleans Music Tour.

This lovely video of New Orleans musicians on their city and music will surely whet the appetite:


Origins: Jazz music in New Orleans from mk smith on Vimeo.


If you’re going”¦

Maybe not an outright innovator in the way some of the Southern cities are, San Francisco is still an important stop on the musical heritage tour. Perhaps it’s the breezy bay vibe and abundance of hills and parks that have made it a constant sanctuary for the positive and progressive. Its air of liberty and ease make it all the more inviting for the short-term visitor too, of course.


San Francisco’s first freethinking “invasion” came with the beat generation in the fifties. Following this, the path was paved for creation of the hippie haven in leafy Haight Ashbury. Here in (then) cheap Victorian houses, the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane cooked up magical musical potions that laid the foundations for the late-sixties counter-culture, which brought the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to play at the famous Fillmore.

Though the neighbourhood’s gone through a lot of changes, its psychedelic secrets can be uncovered on the Haight Ashbury Tour .

This great video postcard shows the legendary district as it is today:


From Shopping to Drum Circles: A Portrait of the Haight from Moving Kaleidoscope Expressions on Vimeo.


Music City X2

OK, so we’re cheating a little bit here, but Tennessee has two Music Cities and no pilgrimage would be truly complete without the pair.


Nashville is the “official” Music City, the country fan’s Mecca, with the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame et al, but Memphis is equally deserving of the name. Between its two essential stops, Sun Studio and the Stax Museum, you’ll essentially get to walk in the shoes of Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Otis Redding. Oh, then there’s the Presley fella’s house, of course. You’d have a hard time taking in anything but pop music history in these surroundings, but that’s not a bad thing.

This film gives a perfect taster of Memphis’s sites and sounds. You can almost smell the soul food too.


More great city stuff on the blog: Five Unmissable City Time-Lapse Films.

Virgin Atlantic fly direct from London Heathrow to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, and for an amazing tailor-made itinerary which takes in anything from one to all five of these cities, check out Virgin Holiday’s USA selection.

Sun Studio image by theogeo on Flickr.

Categories: Our Places