In Defense of Subway Music

The music on the subway has improved dramatically, don’t you think? Recently, I saw Floyd Lee, an electric blues musician, in the 34th Street station (at Sixth Avenue), backed by two extremely thin Japanese musicians: a bass player and a drummer. Mr. Lee is an up-tempo showman. After one blistering solo, he took off his hat and fanned the strings, to “cool off” the guitar. His version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” was so infectious, three generations of music lovers gathered, smiling. Mr. Lee, who was sitting in a chair, stood up, spurred by the crowd’s delight. He also slightly altered the lyrics:

Baby, what’d I say?

Baby, what’d I say?

It’s all right—

Let’s party tonight!

The Blues WORKS in a subway station!

Floyd Lee’s drummer wore a Mecca Bodega T-shirt. He also performs with that (two-man) group, at Grand Central Station. I knew the original Mecca Bodega in the East Village in 1994, and a year ago saw them playing in the subway. Their sound has evolved into interweaving melodies from a hammered dulcimer: New Agey, but not trite (if you can imagine that).

Ten years ago, subway music consisted mostly of homeless guys singing “Lean on Me” off-key, and that 62-year-old (Italian?) man at the 51st Street station wanly playing the accordion.

What happened? No doubt immigration is a factor. Certainly one may hear mediocre trio jazz, but I’ve never encountered a mediocre norteño band. (I’m referring to the Mexican guitar-and-accordion trios now subway-serenading.) The Chinese zhonghu (that instrument similar to a cello) produces an arresting, stately music. Peruvian panpipes are always enjoyable for at least two minutes.

Also, I hate to endorse the free-market theory, but competition may play a role. As IRT musicians improve, other guitarists begin rehearsing.

And demographically, New York City is growing younger. Recent college graduates (when they’re not on their iPods) are more generous to duetting saxophonists, I suspect. Just 2 percent more commuters giving quarters completely changes the economics of subway music.

A month ago, my daughter and I were sitting on the F train when a four-man doo-wop group suddenly appeared, singing “Up on the Roof.” My daughter, who is 16, had never heard this song, which was once as ubiquitous as “(Way Down Upon the) Swanee River” (which has also disappeared, come to think of it). The group’s harmonies were exact, and there’s a searching look on a man’s face as he sings:

When this old world starts

getting me down

And people are just too much

for me to face,

I climb way up to the top

of the stair

And all my cares just drift

right into space …

I didn’t know doo-wop still existed!

Actually, I have met one untalented musician in the past few months. My wife, daughter and I were coming from Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming when we saw a violinist in Times Square station. He was in his late 40s, with dark hair, and played consistently out of tune. This busker must have read the look on my face as I walked down the steps, because he wordlessly handed his violin to me.

I took up the bow and began to perform. (I played the cello at Junior High School 52, in 1967.) “You very good!” my benefactor announced, in some indeterminate accent—though in fact, I was no better than him. A woman in a gray skirt donated thirty-five cents. I began an improvisational pizzicato.

This sounds like a dream, but it’s true.