Cincinnati has promoted itself as the City That Sings since hosting the World Choir Games in 2012. There’s a mural downtown on the riverfront with that motto and a bright sculpture near the Roebling Suspension Bridge spelling out a variation, “Sing the Queen City,” in large red and white letters. Another popular mural on the CET studio building portrays famous folks—plus Mr. Redlegs and Cincinnati Police Officer Alphonso Staples—belting out tunes.
But maybe a more appropriate slogan would be The City That’s Sung About. That’s because there are recordings of more than 200 (and counting) separate songs using Cincinnati in the title. They go back to 1924 and William B. Houchens’s “Cincinnati Hornpipe and Devine’s Hornpipe,” a devilishly fast fiddler’s delight from an artist who played folk songs but also taught at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. And they continue right through 2019 with Texas Troubadour legend Kinky Friedman’s “Greater Cincinnati.”
In between those two titles are all manner of Cincinnati songs—by turns sublime, dull, strange, silly, comforting, challenging, tender, profane, and mysterious. Some are by well-known artists like The Beach Boys (“Susie Cincinnati” in 1976), Dwight Yoakam (“South of Cincinnati” in 1984), Ray Charles (the title song from the 1965 film The Cincinnati Kid), and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio (“Cincinnati” in 2006). Some are by local acts, like Jake Speed & The Freddies and Tracy Walker’s 2007 “All Roads Lead to Cincinnati” or boogie-woogie stalwart Big Joe Duskin’s “Cincinnati Stomp” from 1978. And some are by acts with such unusual names—My Name Is Ian, Banned from Atlantis, The Sexual Objects, and Boll Weevil Jass Band—that you have to wonder what about Cincinnati caught their attention. Was it our boll weevils? Our infamous sexual repression?
For making us aware of the breadth and scope of Cincinnati songs, we have the self-described “pop music archeologist” Chris Richardson to thank. Since 2014 he’s been methodically discovering and listing recordings that mention Cincinnati in the title on his website Zero to 180: Three Minute Magic. With several exceptions, each is an unduplicated individual title. He’s also learned from his research that, no surprise, Cincinnati gets misspelled occasionally. “Without trying to over-exaggerate, it looks like there will be a never-ending supply of songs about Cincinnati,” says Richardson. [See his 10 favorite Cincinnati songs here.]
Richardson, 56, grew up in Roselawn and now lives with his family—wife Melanie and a 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter—in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has a graduate degree in library information services from the University of Maryland and started Zero to 180 on December 12, 2012, because, he says, he liked the numerology. The Cincinnati in Song category is but one—an extremely important one—of the website’s more than 100 music-related topics. Several others relate to Cincinnati music as well, including King Records, but he’s built quite a fascinating and varied collection. Other topics include African Pop, Bagpipes in Popular Music, Concept Albums, and Truck Driving Songs. “I have the most authoritative list of songs that have Library in their title,” Richardson informs me.
“Cincinnati is hardly the first American city to be celebrated in popular song. Nevertheless, I find it curious how frequently Cincinnati has appeared in a popular song title in the past 95 years.”
As he writes on Zero to 180, our city isn’t unique in having songs named after it. Still, there’s something special at work here, he believes. “Cincinnati is hardly the first American city to be celebrated in popular song,” he says. “Nevertheless, I find it curious how frequently Cincinnati has appeared in a popular song title in the past 95 years.”
Richardson has all sorts of provocative ideas about why that’s so. The city’s name is blessed with the gift of sibilance, he says, a linguistic technique of producing pleasant hissing sounds through speaking or singing soft consonants. “That’s illustrated in song titles like ‘Susie Cincinnati,’ ‘Cincinnati Cindy,’ ‘Cincinnati Sammy,’ and ‘Cincinnati Slick,’” he says.
He’s especially intrigued that the city’s name turns up in songs and entire albums from foreign countries. He believes that might be because it resonates with those who speak the Latin-influenced Romance languages of Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian, since the ancient military hero Cincinnatus famously saved Rome from invaders and then gave up power to return to farming. “It’s just fun to think why there’s use of the name on electronic dance tracks out of western Europe,” says Richardson. “It’s also interesting to see the genres of songs from Spain, and I wonder if the Cincinnatus mystique explains the presence of songs from Italy.” On the other hand, he acknowledges, the city’s musical popularity could be due just as much to the popularity of the WKRP in Cincinnati sitcom and its theme song.
Looking at the early decades of Cincinnati in song, one can find quite a few blues and country titles, perhaps befitting a city just above the Mason-Dixon Line and a state that includes rural Appalachian areas. Walter Coleman’s 1936 “I’m Going to Cincinnati” is an enduring blues standout. Cincinnati native Steven Tracy, author of the book Going to Cincinnati: The Blues in the Queen City, says that song is distinctive for its intimate knowledge of the city’s pleasures of the day. Coleman sings with gusto to a driving rhythm, “I’m going to Cincinnati, where they eat fried food / I’m going to Cincinnati, boys, where the bottle is good… / Now when you come to Cincinnati stop on Sixth and Main / That’s where the good hustlin women get the good cocaine.”
In his book, Tracy writes it’s “undoubtedly the most fascinating of all Cincinnati blues recordings for Cincinnati history buffs; it can also rank as a bona fide classic of recorded blues.” Tracy even recorded his own variation, issued on the 1987 WEBN Album Project, called “Goin’ to Cincinnati.”
During a phone interview from the University of Massachusetts, where he teaches in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, Tracy explains how Cincinnati was a destination and topic for blues singers raised in the south, like Coleman. “It liked to think of itself as the Queen City of the west, and that contributed to it being mentioned in songs like ‘Cincinnati Southern Blues’ and others,” says Tracy. That song, inspired by the city-owned Cincinnati Southern Railway, was recorded in 1927 by blues pianist Cow Cow Davenport with singer Ivy Smith.
Among the country songs about our city is what’s perhaps the most recognized of all Cincinnati songs: Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson’s 1964 tune “Cincinnati, Ohio.” While the South Carolina–born and Georgia-raised Anderson didn’t have a hit with his original recording, Indiana-born and Ohio-raised Connie Smith did in 1967. You’ll often hear her version played at Reds games in Great American Ball Park.
Anderson, a consummate songwriter who also wrote or cowrote such country classics as “City Lights” and “Saginaw, Michigan” (rhyming the state’s name with fisherman), envisioned this one while changing planes in Cincinnati. It communicates a powerful desire to return here after being away: “I walked halfway from Louisville / Now there she lies at the foot of the hill / Shinin’ like a jewel in the valley below / Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati, Ohio.”
In a phone call from Nashville, Anderson recalls his inspiration for that verse. “In the old days before interstates, we used to travel in cars rather than tour buses, and I remember going up Kentucky Highway 42 between Louisville and Cincinnati,” he says, referring to U.S. 42. “Riding around at night, you’d come around a curve and in front of you, down the hill, all of a sudden were all these lights of Cincinnati. That stayed in my mind.”
Before Anderson’s hit, a popular postwar country swing tune had fun with the city’s name and, possibly, its desire for a respectable image. “Cincinnati Lou” by Merle Travis, a chart hit in 1946, establishes a jaunty, lively groove as he tosses off effortlessly amusing lines like, “When they see my Lou, they holler ‘Oh my, oh’ / She put the ‘oh’ in Ohio / She put the sin in Cincinnati, too.” Travis, a Kentucky native, established his music career in Cincinnati by working for radio station WLW and recording at King Records.
Richardson believes that the rhymable nature of the word Cincinnati may attract composers, especially those with a sense of humor. The Wonderland Chorus and Orchestra released “Fatty from Cincinnati,” which appears to be a children’s jump rope song.
Shel Silverstein, the sly writer of humorous hits like “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Cover of Rolling Stone,” really stretched his poetic skills on 1970’s “The Cleanest Man in Cincinnati,” a funny song that failed to be a commercial hit. It’s about a man trying to remain true, or at least follow good sanitary practices, while his beloved is gone: “If you don’t hurry up and bring your sweet love home to daddy / I’m going to turn into the dirtiest man in Cincinnati.”
There are memorable Cincinnati songs in such genres as jazz (pianist Ran Blake’s “Cincinnati Express,” from his 2015 Ghost Tones tribute album to Cincinnati-born composer George Russell); country-rock (Julie Neumark’s powerful “Cincinnati”); and funk-rock (Roogalator’s “Cincinnati Fatback,” a tribute to soulful Cincinnati musicians from a British band fronted by Cincinnatian Danny Adler). And yes, Spanish power ballads are also well-represented (Dani Flaco’s “Cincinnati”).
Beyond all the traditional music categories and their hybrids, though, Cincinnati really excels in being named in the title of songs about animals. And not just household pets—songs about pigs, bears, pigeons, and cockroaches, too.
Not so well known today, the 1950 novelty hit “Cincinnati Dancing Pig” generated at least 15 versions (according to Secondhandsongs.com) by a who’s who of that era’s recording stars. Red Foley, a Kentucky-born country musician, had a Top 10 pop hit with it, but there were also versions from Tennessee Ernie Ford, Vic Damone, Teresa Brewer, Hoagy Carmichael, and even jazz great Gene Krupa’s orchestra. Some, like Cincinnati Magazine’s own Dr. Know, consider the song “wretched,” but it also has an infectiously up-tempo dance beat and lyrics about a “pork chop dapper Dan” that are hard to resist, no matter how much one might try.
But why would anyone want to write or record about such a bizarre subject? First of all, if you were determined to create a novelty song about Cincinnati for a national audience, one that slightly made fun of the city, pigs would be a likely subject. The city was widely known as Porkopolis in the 19th century for its filthy pig slaughtering industry. Also, there was some precedent for the conceit of a dancing pig—a 1907 French short film, Le Cochon Danseur, depicts a pig-disguised performer dancing with a young woman.
“Cincinnati Dancing Pig” was written by two music-biz veterans, lyricist Al Lewis (he also wrote the classic “Blueberry Hill”) and music composer Guy Wood. The latter once said with pride that Mickey Mantle told him he loved the song. Another fan was the young Eric “Hambone” Buhrer, who went on to cofound the popular jug band The Cincinnati Dancing Pigs, which has been around since the late 1960s (although it’s on hiatus during the pandemic). “I picked the name,” Buhrer says. “It was a big hit in 1950 when my brother Jeff was a baby. Mom used to bounce him on her knee to it.”
The city’s days as Porkopolis also inspired at least one serious entry, the experimental composition “Cincinnati 1830–1850” from the 1991 album Music as a Second Language by Paul DeMarinis, an associate professor of art, art history, and music at Stanford University who also exhibited work at Carl Solway Gallery in the 1990s. For roughly six minutes, an electronically manipulated male voice intones the grueling process of hog slaughtering to minimalistic electronic accompaniment. The source is Siegfried Giedion’s book Mechanization Takes Command. It’ll make you seriously consider vegetarianism. “I had a professional voice actor record the text, did a digital analysis of it and a re-synthesis employing the melody of the voice to digital synthetic instruments, re-creating the voice with alien, algorithmic melodies,” explains DeMarinis.
In more recent times, a novelty song with a surprisingly long life was 1973’s “The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati” by a California group called Rose & The Arrangement, who first released it under the pseudonym Possum. It became a sensation when Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen) played it on his nationally syndicated radio show devoted to novelty songs. As he tells me, the group was a show band that played at Holiday Inns along the West Coast and wrote some comedy songs to spice up their act. They sent him a single featuring “Chula Vista,” about a San Diego suburb where people played their “magic twangers,” with “Cockroach” on the other side.
“They said to play ‘Chula Vista’ because that’s a hit, and it was about a week or two until I got around to playing the other side and realized that it had national potential because it’s funny and doesn’t refer specifically to San Diego,” says Hansen. “Cockroach” was featured on 1991’s Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection album, which went gold, and on the 2018 Dr. Demento Covered in Punk collection, in a thrashing, pummeling version by The Misfits.
An animal long revered here is Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, whose death at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 became a cautionary tale about species extinction. She figures in a short but sweet song, “Martha (Cincinnati, 1914).” At first it sounds like something from the vaudeville era, but a sizzling guitar solo and the rueful lyrics clue us that this was recorded in 2015. The artist is the California indie-pop band The Corner Laughers, featuring singer and ukuleleist Karla Kane.
“We do tend to write and record a lot of songs with environmental and nature themes, especially birds,” says Kane. “Although it’s a very sad song, one happy aspect for us was that because of it we were able to connect with nature writers and conservationists across the world and made some dear friends.”
The fact that there’s been no anthemic, hugely popular Cincinnati song in recent decades is disappointing, especially when you listen to the songs on Richardson’s list. There actually are quite a few gems.
Scott Walker’s “The Lights of Cincinnati” is a beautifully sung and orchestrated pop ballad written by two British composers. “Lights” describes a young man leaving here to start life (and love) over, but who is sadly resigned that “The lights of Cincinnati / will be calling me back home.” It was a moderate British hit in 1969 for the singer born in Hamilton, Ohio, who had gone solo after being in UK pop sensations The Walker Brothers.
The 1995 song “Cincinnati Motel” by Neal Casal has him sounding like a deeply committed Mick Jagger singing a Bruce Springsteen rocker. Casal, a respected midlevel singer-songwriter originally from New Jersey, sadly took his life in 2019.
But those two, and others, have been overlooked in this country and this city as well. When Spinditty.com compiled its list of “100 Best Songs with Names of Cities in the Title” in August, nothing from Cincinnati made the cut. But that doesn’t faze or disappoint Richardson, or cause him to stop researching and championing Cincinnati songs.
“I look at the totality of it,” he says. “I’m not worried about the fact Cincinnati hasn’t had a catchy song in recent decades, because I think there is plenty of richness already in the songs that celebrate the city.”