Autumn in New York

(Listen to this and other Hi-Lo’s tracks on Spotify.)

Why does it seem so inviting?

In my hometown, seasons hardly change; growing up, the turning colors were depicted in school materials and popular media, yet rarely mirrored in our thirsty desert environs. To be in a place — in emotional state as much as physical location — to eagerly welcome the fall as much as this year has prompted, must be signaling something. Vernon Duke’s lyrics — immortalized by performers such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong (and not the Richard Gere/Winona Ryder movie) — may yield some space to catch our collective breath as the new season, with all of its concomitant societal ripples, settles into place:

Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?
Autumn in New York, it spells the thrill of first-nighting
Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel
They're making me feel I'm home

First-nighting sounds antiquated, but the general notion survives: one of being with the ‘in’ crowd — today’s hip bourgeoisie — and catching a new show on its opening night. Personally, it might be fun to more widely attribute it to attending any of the social gatherings that typify the fall (I now regret not taking advantage of the orchards and maize mazes during my years upstate). Added bonus: embracing new sartorial freedoms and leaving behind the sweaty frustrations of summer.

It's autumn in New York that brings the promise of new love 
Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain
Dreamers with empty hands may sigh for exotic lands
It's autumn in New York
It's good to live it again

For those who pine for tropical climes*, the crisp cool of autumn may seem like a harsh reminder of reality.

*tropical climes = summer flings or, at least, summer Fridays.

Autumn in New York, the gleaming rooftops at sundown
Autumn in New York, it lifts you up when you're let down
Jaded roués and gay divorces who lunch at the Ritz 
Will tell you that it's divine

The Ritz (Carlton) appears to occupy a special place in the New York imagination, whether playing host to dining angels or fabulously ambivalent clientele. To still be enamored of autumn in spite of such opulence is, for the speaker, noteworthy.

It's autumn in New York transforms the slums into Mayfair
Autumn in New York, you'll need no castle in Spain
Lovers that bless the dark
On benches in Central Park
Greet autumn in New York
It's good to live it again

Another luxury hotel reference! Apparently there was an age wherein hotels constituted the best barometer by which to measure other experiences. Here, autumn seems to have a democratizing effect, as even the city’s most downtrodden denizens are not subject to classist barriers in order to enjoy its gifts. (Interesting, too, that ‘autumn’ resists any gendered anthropomorphism here — good job, Vernon!)

The 1960 Hi-Lo’s album upon which this appears, All Over the Place, features a number of tunes that reference global locations in keeping with its titular theme — Bali Ha’i, Capri, Hawaii, the West Indies — in addition to a number of destinations in the States. While the sentiment may have read as charming at the time, I can’t help but cringe at the colonial overtones and brazen lack of sympathy for evoking the painful and divisive history of the American south with the inclusion of “Dixie.” The most sumptuous harmonic stylings of Gene Puerling still can’t make up for any glorification of any ideals in support of racism or exploitation, however unintentional on the part of the performers.

And yet, so many of the songs of the Hi-Lo’s golden years are cultural classics, beautifully executed, which begs exploring myriad avenues of inquiry: when can you divorce a song from its original context? Where do you draw the line between its intrinsic musical value, its ‘objective’ cultural worth, and whatever racist/sexist/insensitive/myopic narratives it has inherited as a product of a particular social ethos in that particular time period?

White artists appear to have long been free of the onus to be so aware of their self-advantaging history. Closer to my own field, that four white academics are listed as the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is disconcerting, despite that their intentions are no doubt noble, and that they have worked hard to collect and streamline writings from authors from many international identities.

Perhaps these truths sting more deeply because of the immediacy of Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, or because today is Indigenous People’s Day, which attempts to wrest away the valorization of Columbus’s inhumane legacy and the once God-given entitlement to claim whatever lands we wanted, current occupants be damned (the atrocities of manifest destiny later justified by those positioned to do so).

To have been born and trained into an institutional position that continues these lines of exploitation, whitewashing, and pillaging cultural capital for the sake of sustaining Western monoculture is of no small concern, and constitutes a troubled undercurrent that belies my day-to-day teaching. Cultivating awareness is an ongoing process; ‘woke’ is not a binary, but a state of expanding.

Kari Francissketches