There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of songs about Jersey City and Hoboken’s more famous neighbor across the Hudson River. (We won’t even get into the thousands of movies and TV shows that feature New York City’s iconic skyline.) But where are the tunes that celebrate our landscape, the neighborhoods and streets that we travel each day?
Well, some of these stories can be found in Robert Albrecht’s new CD “A Tale of Two Cities,” a collection of 12 songs about the mile-square city and JC. In a true spirit of equality, the album includes six songs about Hoboken and six about Jersey City. Most of Albrecht’s folk-oriented lyrics focus on the Jersey City and Hoboken of old.
Albrecht’s folk-oriented lyrics focus on Jersey City and Hoboken of old.
“Pack my bags/ I’m going away/ I can’t afford to live here no more/I don’t want to live in a condominium/built on the ashes of the poor,” Albrecht sings.
“We have a lot of people in Jersey City and Hoboken who are new and they don’t know about this history. They’ve never heard about it,” said Albrecht, who lives in Jersey City’s Journal Square neighborhood. An assistant professor in New Jersey City University’s Media Arts Department, Albrecht added, “When I talk to my own students about some of the history of the area, they’re really surprised. Many of them know Hoboken as a great place to go for bars and nightlife, but they don’t know that the city was once a working class city of people who were literally forced out of their homes.”
Another song on the CD, “Saturday Night in Hoboken” speaks to some of the difference between Hoboken’s old and new residents. The song paints a picture of two people – a young woman and an old former dock worker – on the streets of Hoboken one Saturday night. The young woman sips a drink in one of the city’s tony new “gold coast” bars, while somewhere else a “frightened” Walter O’Malley languishes in an alley.
The song describes how disorienting rapid change can be for longtime residents of a community. Another song, “The Ballad of Old Gus,” is similar, but deals with a Journal Square resident.
In that song Albrecht sings: “He met his wife Flo /at a downtown picture show /ain’t been the same /since she died six years ago/he just walks through the Square /seeing things that aren’t there/ anymore.”
“Gus is a composite character,” said Albrecht. “Part of him is based on my father and part of him is based on a man I knew who used to live in a rooming house around Journal Square. There are a lot of Guses out there. They’re these old men who worked in manufacturing. They raised a family. But now that the city is changing, these men have kind of been left behind.”
None of which is to say that Albrecht opposes change or modernization of run-down cities, he insists.
“I just wish there was more of a balance and more discussion within the community about how this change is going to take place,” he said. “I’d like to see improvements in housing and neighborhoods done in a way that protects the people who are already these, even if it means we’re reaching out and welcoming lots of new people.”
Albrecht’s melodious and lyrical voice allows his subject matter to be appropriately mournful without becoming maudlin or morose. And not all the songs on the 12-tract release dwell on displaced residents. Some, like “The Streets of Marion,” and “Jersey City Summer,” pay homage to the ordinary everyday lives lived in New York City’s shadow. After all, if you can make it here, well…
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.