​Tony Schwartz’s New York Recordings: Sound, Place, and Civic Identity

By Benjamin Serby


Eight years ago, I was sifting through old LP’s at a Brooklyn record store when I came across an album entitled New York 19. The cover illustration showed a microphone and recording device, situated on a balcony, overlooking a New York City neighborhood. The sleeve announced that it had been released in 1954 under the Folkways label. My interest piqued, I put the record on the turntable. I watched the grooves rotate as I waited for whatever was about to happen.

What I heard was an astonishing array of songs, snippets of speech, and utterly ordinary, everyday sounds. A children’s gospel choir. A street peddler making his sales pitch. A jackhammer pounding the city sidewalk. Horns honking in the distance. An Italian festival marching band. A gathering of Nigerian students singing folk songs from their homeland. And many other individuals, whose origins spanned the globe, playing folk music from their homelands. The recordings were intimate, informal, unpolished, and yet many of the musicians were undeniably virtuosic.

Not far into New York 19, a narrator explained that nearly all of these recordings came from the same neighborhood — Manhattan’s postal zone 19 (today’s 10019). The elegant simplicity of this concept impressed me: someone had set out to document the sonic life of an extremely cosmopolitan urban community. At only thirty-eight minutes in length, the record seemed to capture a particular corner of the world, at a particular moment, with all of the variety and depth of a film or a work of literature. It struck me as being so many things at once: a loving portrait of New York City, a social document of midcentury culture, and a treasure trove of folk songs. As a New Yorker, a historian, and a fan of folk music, I was captivated. But I wanted to know more about the album’s origins -- and about its creator, the gentle voice narrating this selection of sounds. The cover declared that the album had been “conceived, recorded, edited and narrated” by someone named Tony Schwartz. Who was that, and why had he made this strange record?


Tony Schwartz was born in 1923, and grew up outside of Peekskill, New York. After studying graphic design at the Pratt Institute in the 1940s, he embarked on a career as an art director in the New York City advertising industry. But graphic design was just his day job. Schwartz experimented with sound as a hobbyist, purchasing his first tape recorder in 1945. That same year, he began broadcasting his weekly radio show, “Adventures in Sound,” on WNYC, which would air for the next thirty-one years.[1]

Tony at the recording console of his basement studio (1960s)

Tony at the recording console of his basement studio (1960s)

Schwartz recorded a remarkable list of musicians -- Josh White, Harry Belafonte, The Weavers, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and many others -- in his home studio, a converted church in the west 50s. But his enthusiasm for vernacular expressions of “folk” culture -- sounds and stories that were rooted in the traditions of different national, ethnic, and religious groups -- drew him into a frenzy of exchanges with other people from around the world, including many far-off places that he would never have the opportunity to visit. After placing ads in foreign journals and sending out his own tapes to international radio stations, he had, by 1958, “exchanged recordings in the mail with people in over 43 countries and [...] collected more than ten thousand songs.”[2] Schwartz’s experiment in global musical exchange drew the attention of powerful cultural brokers: Voice of America (the US government’s broadcasting station) and United Nations Radio each broadcast his recordings on over 5,000 stations throughout the world.[3]

In the late 1940s, as he steadily accumulated an enormous archive of sounds, Schwartz had a revelation. As he later recalled, “I decided that if I was going to ask people of the world to exchange with me, I really should know my own neighborhood in depth.”[4] With the financial backing of William Rosenwald, heir to the Sears-Roebuck fortune and fan of his radio show on WNYC, Schwartz dedicated his time to a sprawling study of “the non-commercial music of [his] postal zone.”[5] The project would take him nearly a decade.

Tony interviews a shopkeeper. New York, NY.

Tony interviews a shopkeeper. New York, NY.

In the early 1950s, Moe Asch, the eccentric owner of Folkways Records, asked Schwartz to compile some of his recordings, most of which had aired on his radio show, to be released as albums. The result was a series of highly original records, released in a steady stream over the course of the 1950s, that showcase New York City -- and especially West Midtown -- as Schwartz experienced it. (Samples of these recordings can be heard on the Smithsonian Folkways website, and more recordings are available at WNYC’s online Tony Schwartz archive.) New York 19, which Schwartz described as a “record [of] the folk expression of the community I live in,” was among the first of these albums.[6] As described above, it is a sort of audio postcard of the blocks that made up his zip code. By walking only a short distance from his home, Schwartz was able to collect a dazzling array of folk songs from Nigeria, India, Romania, Mexico, France, Yugoslavia, Israel, and elsewhere. His recordings provide a snapshot of a diverse neighborhood -- and a city -- that seemingly contains the world in microcosm.

Some of the most fascinating recordings that Schwartz made came from an improvised recreation room in the basement of a public housing complex, to which he had been attracted by the sounds made by a group of teenagers as they beat out rhythms on chairs, trash bins, coke bottles, sticks, and bongos. New York 19 includes an unforgettable rendition of this band playing the South African folk song “Wimoweh” with the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. The young musicians go wild for “Wimoweh,” but it’s clear from the recording that they have no idea that Seeger’s performance of the song helped to popularize it in the United States.

Tony records young Darryl Cherney, with dog Tina (the subject of Folkways record “A Dog’s Life”).

Tony records young Darryl Cherney, with dog Tina (the subject of Folkways record “A Dog’s Life”).

The songs and sounds of young people, and especially of children, were at the center of Schwartz’s work throughout his career. In his view, children are “the real New Yorkers… who make the folk music of the city.”[7] (His very first album, accordingly, was entitled 1,2,3 and a Zing Zing Zing: Street Games and Songs of the Children of New York City.) Walking around with his portable tape recorder, he was able to discover some undeniably impressive examples of children and teenagers making music. These are usually collaborations between individuals who teach one another folk songs, often in some form of cross-cultural exchange.[8] For example, a recording of two Puerto Rican children singing together in a public school classroom finds them sharing a moment of recognition and joy in an unfamiliar environment. “Singing their own Puerto Rican songs,” Schwartz writes, “broke down the feeling of being strangers and made them feel at home.”[9]

As the child of an immigrant father, Schwartz was drawn to the story of Puerto Rican migrants adjusting to life in New York City. This subject became a focal point of his recordings from the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the decade of the so-called “Great Migration,” when tens of thousands of islanders came to New York every year. On his 1955 album Nueva York, which features a large number of short interviews in which Puerto Rican New Yorkers that he compiled over the course of nine years, Schwartz documented the social tensions that accompanied the city’s changing demographics, the increasing use of Spanish as a spoken language, and the introduction of new musical styles.[10] In contrast to all of Schwartz’s other Folkways albums, Nueva York does not feature the sound of his voice. Instead, he recorded his neighbors as they described the bigotry and adversity that they endured in their new home. In the liner notes, Schwartz expressed a wish that his record would serve as “a bridge between the Puerto Rican New Yorker and the other New Yorkers.”[11]

Photo by Ken Heyman

Photo by Ken Heyman

Photo by Joseph Foldes. New York, NY

Photo by Joseph Foldes. New York, NY

Schwartz’s capacious idea of “folk music” and “folk culture” allowed him -- and his audiences -- to encounter a wide array of sounds and voices. But his selection of material also speaks volumes for what it does not include, given the geographic parameters of his project. Consider the fact that zip code 10019, the area of West Midtown, was very much at the center of the commercial recording and broadcasting industry in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Within walking distance of Schwartz’s home were the following: Tin Pan Alley, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, the large television recording studios, radio studios such as CBS, NBC, and ABC, music publishing firms, Broadway theaters, and nightclubs.[12] And yet, Schwartz eschewed studio recording: “Studios are for silence, not for sound,” he once drily remarked.[13] Instead, he carried his recorder wherever he went, picking up the music and sounds of the street, often on a whim.

“The things that interest me,” Schwartz wrote in 1956, “are the things that happen in the course of every-day life and these things cannot be repeated effectively.”[14] His subjects were the informal and the vernacular: the sound of a clothesline, a dog barking, a gospel church service, an auctioneer rattling off numbers, a sidewalk preacher, a neighbor telling a story. There is, however, a central theme underneath it all: the relationship between people and the places that they call home. So much of the folk music that Schwartz collected from around the world and around his city is about that relationship, and at the same time helps to preserve it in memory through song. Similarly, we can think of Schwartz’s New York recordings from the 1940s and ‘50s as documenting his relationship to his city. It’s a relationship that was complicated by the important fact that Schwartz was agoraphobic, and that he would, under most circumstances, become panic-stricken if he ventured too far from home. In light of this, we can perhaps make sense of his single-minded determination to accumulate audio material from all across the world. We can also understand his intense fascination with the city around him, a place that was at once menacing and alluring. That Schwartz never made audio recording into a career suggests the extent to which he regarded it as a personal pursuit, perhaps even as a therapeutic way to navigate the modern city. As Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has written, “[Schwartz’s] recording equipment enabled him to turn a concrete grid of strangers into a familiar home filled with potential friends.”[15] In his own words, he described audio recording as a method of “getting closer to life.”[16]

As a document of a moment of immense social, economic, and physical upheaval in New York City, Schwartz’s recordings from the 1940s and ‘50s chronicle the destruction his neighborhood and its transformation into something else. These were the years of massive public works under Robert Moses: highway construction, slum clearance, and urban renewal. In the early 1960s, the area of west side of Manhattan known as San Juan Hill, located just a few blocks from Schwartz’s home, was demolished to make way for a flashy new arts complex called Lincoln Center. In a WNYC radio broadcast from the time, Schwartz recorded the folk songs and oral traditions of the many Italian, Puerto Rican, and Jewish immigrant residents of the area, reprising his documentary work of the previous decade. He concluded the program by commenting on the changes being wrought in his usual understated manner, saying that he hoped that Lincoln Center “brings as much culture to the community as did the people who were displaced.”[17]

This episode epitomizes the democratic view of culture that drew Schwartz to “folk” expression, the voices on the street, and the talented amateur. He was interested in how ordinary people express themselves and pass along the traditions that they had inherited. Where professional and commercial cultural production appear in his work, they often serve as a foil, a shallow and homogenizing influence with far less resonance. There are other political valences to his work, as well: his interest, for example, in seeking out and promoting transnational musical exchanges at the height of the Cold War; and his celebration of a multiracial and multilingual working-class urban neighborhood at a moment when racial and socioeconomic geographies were become more rigidly divided and large numbers of white middle-class people were fleeing the city for the suburbs.[18] But Schwartz’s deep curiosity about the world around him transcended political commitment. His recordings document, in a fine-grained and unvarnished way, the many mundane aspects of his neighborhood and the people in it -- people whom he got to know in the process. By disclosing an intricate web of relations between people and places, he turned the metropolis from a symbol of alienation and isolation into a symbol of community. Recording was his way of discovering and connecting to that community, becoming affectively invested in it, and caring for it. This kind of civic concern is, perhaps, a precondition for what we more conventionally refer to as politics.

Tony records New York Mayor Abe Beame. A conversation on West 57th Street, outside the old Horn & Hardart “Automat.” Photo by David Gahr.

Tony records New York Mayor Abe Beame. A conversation on West 57th Street, outside the old Horn & Hardart “Automat.” Photo by David Gahr.

Schwartz sought to cultivate that concern. He hoped that his recordings would inspire other people to go out and record the sounds of their neighborhoods, and his liner notes include instructional material on what equipment to use, as well as tips on how and where to record. Schwartz also mentored children in New York City, teaching workshops in public schools and designing recording projects for students of different ages. In the late 1950s, for instance, he led a high school group from the Walden School on the Upper West Side to do an “in-depth study of a Puerto Rican Gospel Church and the relation of the people to this church.” For this, he received an award designating him the year’s “Best Social Studies Teacher in the United States.”[19] Later in life, Schwartz sought to use media as a tool of public service -- for instance, to campaign against the tobacco industry, to lobby for better funding for public schools, and to raise awareness about nuclear weapons. Today he is in fact best known for his role in creating the 1964 “Daisy” ad, which is among the most famous television commercials of all time. Clearly, there is much more to his career than the Folkways recordings of the 1940s and ‘50s. But those records are still worth listening to because they compel us to regard even the most mundane aspects of the everyday world around us with a sense of wonder. As Schwartz wrote in the liner notes to New York 19, “I hope… to enable you to hear the people around you with a new awareness and enjoyment.”[20]

Certain documents of the city from the same years -- the photographs of Helen Levitt, for instance, or the short documentary, In the Street -- provide a visual perspective on New York that does something similar. But Schwartz, who was temporarily blind for a brief period in his teenage years, had an acute sensitivity to the aural, and an obsession with recording everyday sounds in his environment. And he was fond of saying, “We can shut our eyes, because we have eyelids, but we can’t shut our ears because we don’t have earlids”: in other words, sound is distinguished by its immersive quality. Far from taking a specialist’s interest in sound, though, he was interested in the relationship between people and the sounds that they both hear and make, the personal and social meanings that those sounds can acquire. Recorded sounds of everyday life, he believed, have the potential to give access to people’s inner lives, to endow their experience of place with a rich store of meanings, and to collapse the distances between cultures and individuals, thus fostering greater understanding and unity.[21] In the concluding voiceover to his 1956 album, Sounds of My City, he declares: “The city of New York is made up of millions of people and of perpetual sound, and it’s in these many and endless sounds that you find a single rhythm and a single voice... The rhythm is everywhere. If you listen, you can find it right beside you.” Perhaps even in a box of old LP’s at your local record store.

Benjamin Serby is a PhD candidate in U.S. History at Columbia University. Last year, he was an Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York.

[1] For details about Schwartz’s life, see David Suisman, “Listening to the City,” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, Fall/Winter 2012, and the short biographical summary at www.tonyschwartz.org.

[2] Liner notes, The World in My Mailbox, Folkways 5562, 1958.

[3] Jeanne Lowe, “Tony Schwartz: Master Tape Recordist,” liner notes, Sounds of My City, Folkways 7341, 1956, p. 4.

[4] Steve Peters, “Interview with Tony Schwartz (1985).”

[5] Richard Kostelanetz, “Interview with Tony Schwartz, American Hörspielmacher,” Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), 57.

[6] Liner notes, New York 19, Folkways 5558, 1954.

[7] Liner notes, Sounds of My City.

[8] See Lisa Hollenbach, “Sono-Montage: Langston Hughes and Tony Schwartz Listen to Postwar New York,” American Literature 87, no. 2 (2015): 275-302.

[9] Liner notes, Nueva York: A Tape Documentary of Puerto Rican New Yorkers, Folkways 5559, 1955.

[10] See Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York,Social Text 28, no. 1 (2010): 59-85.

[11] Liner notes, Nueva York.

[12] Lowe, “Tony Schwartz,” 6.

[13] Quoted in Stoever-Ackerman, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” 72.

[14] Liner notes, Sounds of My City.

[15] Stoever-Ackerman, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” 59.

[16] Lowe, “Tony Schwartz,” 4.

[17] Quoted in Stoever-Ackerman, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” 71.

[18] See Hollenbach, “Sono-Montage,” 295.

[19] Peters, “Interview with Tony Schwartz (1985).”

[20] Liner notes, New York 19.

[21] See Karl Whitney, “Tony Schwartz: An Ad Man’s Artistic Legacy,” JSTOR Daily, December 16, 2015.