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.
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.” 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.” The project would take him nearly a decade.
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.
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. And yet, Schwartz eschewed studio recording: “Studios are for silence, not for sound,” he once drily remarked. 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.” 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.” In his own words, he described audio recording as a method of “getting closer to life.”
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.”
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. 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.
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. 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.
 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.
 Liner notes, The World in My Mailbox, Folkways 5562, 1958.
 Jeanne Lowe, “Tony Schwartz: Master Tape Recordist,” liner notes, Sounds of My City, Folkways 7341, 1956, p. 4.
 Steve Peters, “Interview with Tony Schwartz (1985).”
 Richard Kostelanetz, “Interview with Tony Schwartz, American Hörspielmacher,” Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), 57.
 Liner notes, New York 19, Folkways 5558, 1954.
 Liner notes, Sounds of My City.
 See Lisa Hollenbach, “Sono-Montage: Langston Hughes and Tony Schwartz Listen to Postwar New York,” American Literature 87, no. 2 (2015): 275-302.
 Liner notes, Nueva York: A Tape Documentary of Puerto Rican New Yorkers, Folkways 5559, 1955.
 See Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York,” Social Text 28, no. 1 (2010): 59-85.
 Liner notes, Nueva York.
 Lowe, “Tony Schwartz,” 6.
 Quoted in Stoever-Ackerman, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” 72.
 Liner notes, Sounds of My City.
 Stoever-Ackerman, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” 59.
 Lowe, “Tony Schwartz,” 4.
 Quoted in Stoever-Ackerman, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” 71.
 See Hollenbach, “Sono-Montage,” 295.
 Peters, “Interview with Tony Schwartz (1985).”
 Liner notes, New York 19.
 See Karl Whitney, “Tony Schwartz: An Ad Man’s Artistic Legacy,” JSTOR Daily, December 16, 2015.
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