Similar to our mantra to use the architecture of our cityscape to tell its history, I decided to dig into the history present in songs about Chicago. Like buildings, popular culture and its music can be our history books.
I realized this a few weeks ago when I was toddlin’ down Logan Boulevard with a friend past one of the newer editions to our Logan Square neighborhood, Billy Sunday. My friend confessed not knowing the reference, and I found myself crooning, “The town that Billy Sunday could not shut down.” By the look on his face, I could tell the lyrics weren’t enough. I had to explain it was a Frank Sinatra song about Chicago and said simply that Billy Sunday was an evangelist and prohibitionist.
Then I decided to dig a little deeper into the history presented by this Logan Square, prohibition-styled bar and the song about Chicago. I found that Sinatra had revived one of the songs about Chicago that was originally written by German-born Chicagoan Fred Fisher in 1922. So the song was popular in tandem with Billy Sunday’s preaching. This begs a question: Why was Billy Sunday a big enough deal to show up in songs about Chicago? Billy Sunday’s name first hit popular culture in the 1880s as an outfielder for the Chicago White Stockings. By the turn of the century he was fully reformed and left the field for the pulpit.
From the multitude of preachers around Chicago or hanging out at Bughouse Square, what truly made Billy Sunday stand out was his working-class preaching style. Versus taking on an air of superiority, Billy Sunday “discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back,” according to journalist H. L. Mencken. Billy Sunday got supporters nationwide, yet his following was never strong enough to shut down that Toddlin’ Town.
–Elizabeth Tieri, Tour Guide