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October 11, 2013

By Brian von Rueden, edited for the blog by Catie Huggins

From the end of the 19th century into the early 20th century, Tin Pan Alley, a literal row of music publishing houses in New York City, cranked out popular tunes by the likes of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Harry Warren. Their tunes could be heard wafting through the boroughs from radios or seen on the big screen, sung by Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, or Dean Martin.

Although many of the singers of this era became iconic, (ok, they became LEGENDARY!!! *cough* “Judy Garland”) the song itself was more important than the performance – no one voice or personality “owned” a song. In fact, in the era of Tin Pan Alley, from about 1890-1940, a song’s popularity was determined not by the number of records sold, but by the copies of sheet music sold. You heard a tune and you liked it.  It was possible to purchase it, take it home, and learn it yourself.

During these years, like today, there was a variety of styles in popular music: you had sentimental love ballads, syncopated tunes meant for dancing, funny nonsense songs, music influenced by African- American or Latin cultures… In short, Tin Pan Alley does not mean just one sound. This is why we have chosen to call this program Broadway, Barbershop and Ballads. These were some of the ways that Tin Pan Alley tunes became popular: performed on the stage, harmonized by barbershop quartets or other informal groups, or sung at the spinet in a home salon.

Let’s take a moment for a legend.

In the 1890s, Ragtime became the first popular type of music craze since the waltz. Usually in 2-4 time, characterized by syncopation, emerging from the minstrel show/ coon song tradition, where often white showmen imitated people of color.

Before the 1890s, there were no publishers of “popular music,” and certainly no one made their name by writing words and tunes. Existing music publishers printed only classical music, generally from Europe. Sometimes a printer of paper effects, like stationery, might print a short song with a lavishly illustrated cover. This was usually meant as a souvenir or extravagant romantic gesture, than to convey the musical contents. These trash tunes would often be hawked by traveling salesmen, who eventually realized they could produce better material themselves for minimal investment. So, traveling salesmen in alexanders-ragtime-band-222x300Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, and of course, New York, set up shop. These fellows created the first “song factories” which sought an audience for their musical product. And to get people hooked, they needed to promote their tunes. Anywhere was fair game: bars, vaudeville houses, nickelodeons, and beer gardens, lobster shacks, brothels- anywhere there was an audience looking to be entertained! First the publishers made the rounds themselves, plunking out music and singing themselves wherever a piano could be found. Later, they hired “pluggers,” pleasant but pushy fellows whose job was to promote music wherever they could.  It is the sounds of these pluggers, playing away at bad pianos to grab the attention of passersby below, from which Tin Pan Alley got its name.

Was Tin Pan Alley an actual place? Over the course of 30 years, New York City’s popular music publishers moved uptown, following the theater district. In the 1880s, publishers were clustered around the Bowery in Lower Manhattan. In the 1890s, west 28th street attracted 5 of the major publishers. This is the stretch of road that has been memorialized as Tin Pan Alley. But between 1903 and 1908, publishing houses moved 250px-tinpanalleyagain, to west 42nd street. In the 1920s, another shift came, so that the district was centered between 42nd and 56th, where The Great White Way of Broadway’s theaters is still found. The Brill Building, built in 1931 at Broadway and 49th street, gave popular song writers a permanent home. Named for Morris Brill’s clothing store on the ground floor, the upper levels housed Mills, Famous, Fisher, and Irving Caesar music, some of the most famed of the day. The energy was there, and stayed there until the advent of rock-and-roll changed the industry.  With the rise of the rock-and-roll, people were less able and therefore less likely to recreate that music in their home.

Another influence in the music of this era came from the cultural traditions of Eastern European Judaism.  George Gershwin was born to first generation Jewish immigrants living in New York.  Born Jacob Gershowitz, the name was changed to fit in better when he sought a musical career.  And indeed, much as there were separate songs and styles for black and white musicians in the 1950s, as rock and roll came on the scene, Jewish musicians faced a choice either to quietly hide their roots to achieve mainstream success, or languish in the clubs of Borscht Belt resorts with their own people.  A good example of this is “Bei mir bist du schön.”  Written in a vaudevillian style for a 1932 Yiddish musical called You Could Live, But They Won’t Let You, the song functioned as a dialogue between two lovers.  In 1937, Sammy Cahn heard the piece performed in a Harlem theater, and then bought the rights for $30.  He outfitted it with new English lyrics and trendy swing rhythms…and the song grossed over $3,000,000.  The wit and melody from the Jewish cultural tradition heavily influenced writers including Gershwin and Berlin, but the indebtedness would not be widely realized until much later.

The music of this era is certainly memorable!  -the songs have stood the test of time, becoming standards of the repertoire.  Today, these songs belong to all of us.  We may fondly recall a our favorite iconic performance, but many musicians still feel compelled to create their own interpretation which shows just how deeply this music still moves us.

(From the Puppini Sisters 2007 album ‘Betcha Bottom Dollar’)

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