Sound and the City: Nick Spitzer on Philadelphia

Consider the musical soundscape of Philadelphia. From City Hall’s clock tower to a drumline on impromptu parade. What a city sounds like is an important reflection of who we are as a people in this place. Folklorist and radio host Nick Spitzer joined the Penn Institute for Urban Research in February for a talk about how music and musicians express urban life in Philly. In his opening remarks, Spitzer reminded the crowd at PennDesign:

“Urban planners all tell me now, we need informal culture as much as the formal. Yes we do. We live by informal culture and we put up with the formal. We work through the formal but we need the informal. Call it what you want but take care of it. Philadelphia is a city that has great informal culture.” 

To illuminate Philly’s musical culture, Spitzer played segments of a Philadelphia special from his radio show American Routes, featuring the sounds of mummery via the Joseph A. Ferko String Band, Monumental Baptist Church’s choir practice, a visit to Sun Ra’s house, and Mayor Nutter’s past as a disco DJ. To complement that Spitzer welcomed Philadelphia musicians on stage to perform and share reflections on places like the Uptown Theater on North Broad, the Elate Ballroom on South Broad, the Curtis Institute, and 52nd Street’s Aqua Lounge

Frankie and the Fashions sang talked about the legacy of street corner doo-wop.  Mother-daughter klezmer duo Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Watts shared a piece of Philly’s Jewish musical heritage. The Budesa Brothers organ trio, saxaphonist Jimmy Heath, and the Uptown’s bandleader Sam Reed brought Philly’s jazz traditions to life. 

Here’s the full video of this musical portrait of Philly: 

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