This study details New York City's Depression-era street music ban and concurrent noise abatement campaign to reveal the relationship of changing definitions of work with sound. New York had issued street music licenses for a fee, but Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia put an end to the practice. While some have assumed LaGuardia banned street music to combat Italian stereotypes associated with organ grinders, this essay demonstrates that efforts to reconcile changing social policy with the work ethic motivated both LaGuardia's ban and public resistance to it. Street musicians occupied an ambiguous space between begging and self-employment and, as relief programs provoked public concern over economic individualism, confusion between honest unemployment and willful dependency was a political liability for the Mayor. Yet, while the Mayor condemned busking as begging, citizens sprang to street music's defense, arguing the ban would force practitioners onto the relief rolls; while municipal policy proclaimed street music was no longer work, some New Yorkers suddenly believed the opposite. Simultaneously, LaGuardia launched an antinoise campaign that evaluated sounds on the basis of economic necessity. Noises essential to work were moderated while "unnecessary" noises were silenced. Redefined as beggars under LaGuardia's ban, street musicians lost their claim to legitimacy and became vulnerable to noise ordinances. Citizens protesting that street music was necessary work, preferable to accepting relief, also insisted it was not noise. Consequently, this study argues that new commitments to the well-being of unemployed citizens prompted New Yorkers to reexamine definitions of work, reevaluate which noises were necessary, and hear street music differently.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 106-123
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.