Everybody's heard "Sweet Home Chicago" and "My Kind of Town." But these beloved songs are only a small part of our local musical heritage. Most of us don't know this classic from way back in 1926:
My heart's in Niles Center
Niles Center, the place for opportunity
It's the best for the investor
Looking for real prosperity
Make up your mind to get a lot
Right in Chicago's garden spot.
Or this regional hit from the 1960s:
This is it, Wilmette our home;
There is no other like it.
Oh, you'll have mighty far to roam
To find another like it.
We're quiet, peaceful--we feel no stress
Unique within our nation
Except to catch the Evanston Express
That stops at Linden Station.
You don't have to be a big city to inspire a song. Plenty of suburbs surrounding that toddlin' town have had their own virtues set to music. "The Pride of Niles" boasts of "New police headquarters, fire station, too / A mayor devoted to our problems / Fine shopping at Golf Mill and Lawrencewood." And "Dear Old Elmhurst" promotes a paradise where "there's a patch of sky that's bluer / And a ray of sun more bright." A great song can lift a small town into the nation's consciousness. But for every "Okie From Muskogee," there are a hundred songs that have no appeal beyond the city limits.
Most booster songs were written in the first three decades of the 20th century. There was no radio, so a lot of towns had their own bands. People traveled less in those days and were more likely to consider their hometown the most perfect spot in the United States. And to write a song about it.
"The golden age of the band, of sheet music, was from the turn of the century to the 1920s, 1930s," said Dennis Buck, curator of the Aurora Historical Society, which has preserved "Aurora, Our Own" as well as "The Aurora Two-Step," a march written for the Zouaves, a local military drill team. "It was a big period for just writing songs. The widespread use of radio killed off the local band. Once you get to the big-time era of radio there are only four or five big bands. By then, you're writing for a bigger market, and the only way you can sell a song is to make it universal, or about New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, someplace people want to go."
In the 1920s, Agnes Robinson Kirsch didn't want to go anywhere but Aurora. She loved the place so much that she penned "Aurora, Our Own" and published it herself, under the pseudonym A.R. Kay.
Aurora, city of lights we laud you!
Aurora, we prize your zest and zeal!
Sometime the world will bow to you as we do now
Aurora, our own, of all we love you best.
A chamber of commerce official was so impressed that he offered to propose it as the city's anthem. It was never adopted, but the Saint Cecelia Society, a local women's club, invited Kirsch to sing it at one of their luncheons. Elza Bauman, Kirsch's daughter and the guardian of the song's flame, has a copy of the original sheet music and still wants to see "Aurora, Our Own" adopted as the city's official song.
"It's just beautiful," she said. "Every day on the radio, WLS opens the five o'clock news with the Chicago song. Our song is so much prettier. New York has their own song, and I hope someday Aurora will have its own."
Casper Nathan and L.E. Delson, the Tin Pan Alley-type hacks who penned "My Heart's in Niles Center," weren't moved by local pride. Niles Center--which later changed its name to Skokie--was a small town on the cusp of becoming a suburb in 1926. The Greater Niles Center Association had just laid out a lot of streets, and it figured a jingle was the best way to lure city dwellers. Nathan and Delson were professionals and came up with clever rhymes ("Located well, right by the 'L'") and trendy references ("It brings before your view / The same chance for investment found on Wilson Avenue"). "My Heart's in Niles Center" is at once the most accomplished and least sincere of all booster songs. It was also a flop, though this wasn't the songwriters' fault. The Depression arrived three years later, and the streets of Niles Center remained empty until after World War II.
Thomas Bauman, a professor of musicology at Northwestern and an expert on early-20th-century pop music, agreed to bang out some of these songs on the upright piano in his office. He was quite impressed with "My Heart's in Niles Center."
"That's a very good song, actually," Bauman marveled after playing the jaunty ragtime melody. "That's a very well developed song. The others are probably more cheesy."
On Bauman's piano, "Aurora, Our Own" had the spareness and the plodding tempo of a Protestant hymn. It was also, he said, more backward lyrically, with its evocation of a paradise "Beside the gentle river Fox / Mid scenic beauty rare."
Many of the old songs are boilerplate descriptions of an ideal city, written in ornate, artificial English. The Evanston of "Evanston, We Love You So" is a place "where Peace and Plenty reign and Joy and Love abide." But the music, for the most part, sounds like it was written to be played by a brass band at a Fourth of July celebration on the village green.
"It's funny, because most of the lyrics are sentimental," Bauman said. "They're bright marches, but it's that wretched poetry from the Victorian era that everyone was taught to write."
While Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin were writing vernacular lyrics with clever rhyme schemes, the small-town songwriters clung to the language and the rhythms of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
"The tone is different, because you're celebrating small-town values," Bauman noted. "So it's going to be a little more parochial, and the local references would be lost on most people."
The advent of radio, and its demand for homogenous songs, didn't entirely kill off the village tunesmith. Even in recent years some songwriters have celebrated suburbs that most outsiders didn't realize were worth celebrating. Like Tom Malouf, who wrote "There Are No Strangers in Roselle, Only Friends You've Never Met."
"About five or six years ago, I was on vacation and I ran into a couple who did concerts in the North Woods," said Malouf, a music teacher at Saint Walter's School. "They said they'd go into a town and study the town and write five or six songs. I was getting ready to play at Taste of Roselle, and I thought, 'I could do that for Roselle.' I've lived there for a long time. I love the town."
A few weeks later, Malouf serenaded his fellow Roselleans with their virtues.
There are no strangers in Roselle
Only friends we've never met
And the time you're here is time well spent
What you see is what you get
Take your time and look around the town
See the charm, be at home, don't forget
There are no strangers in Roselle
Only friends we've never met.
It was a crowd-pleasing song, performed for the only crowd it could have pleased.
"It was kind of cool the first time I played it," Malouf recalled. "You could tell there was some pride. They didn't have any words, but they sang along with the refrain. I perform every year at the Taste, I do Oktoberfest. Every time I play in Roselle, I use it."
Building a town's morale is a good reason for writing a song. Especially when the town is Robbins, the impoverished south suburban village best known as the home of a garbage incinerator. In 1989, Mary Hamilton wrote "Our Town, Robbins" as a theme for her husband's successful mayoral campaign. Hamilton laughed when she was asked to sing it.
"It's done to the tune of 'This Land Is Your Land,'" she said, then broke into song. "'This town is your town / This town is my town / From the railroad tracks to Kostner Avenue / From Cal-Sag Canal to 142nd Street / This town was made for you and me.'"
Not as evocative as Woody Guthrie's lyrics, but Hamilton had much less territory to work with--Robbins only takes up about five square miles. Yet Hamilton wrote about her little town precisely because it has so little to sing about. If Robbins couldn't have riches, she figured, at least it could have music.
"We don't have anything, hardly," she said. "It's a very poor town. We're trying to make the town viable, visible. We sing it at affairs at the community center. The adults did a play about Robbins" and used "Our Town, Robbins" as a musical number.
The newest town song is "The Glenview Anthem," which was written for last year's town centennial by all the sixth- and eighth-graders in the local school district. The eighth-graders wrote the refrain and the sixth-graders wrote the verses about local history.
Gary Wendt, the music teacher at Hoffman Elementary School, arranged the anthem, which is, as far as he knows, Glenview's only mention in American music.
"I was on the Glenview Centennial Committee" when inspiration struck, he said. "I was thinking about ways the kids could get involved. I thought, 'Hey, Glenview doesn't have a song.' Chicago has a lot of songs. Everybody knows 'My Kind of Town.' They sing it at the top of their lungs whenever it comes out of a jukebox."
Will "The Glenview Anthem" ever be sung as lustily?
"The song is a little bit long," Wendt admitted, "but I hope the refrain of it will keep going."
So if you're reading this in Glenview, sing along:
We are the village of Glenview
Our bear is strong and proud
We have survived one hundred years
Come and join our crowd
Our schools of learning are the best
Put all of your fears away
We have worked for a hundred years
Now's the dawn of the new day.
If you're reading this somewhere else, you can just smile indulgently.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.