Popular song in America, part 9: Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley started during a time of transition in American musical theater. Late in the nineteenth century, the variety show began to supplant the minstrel show as America’s chief form of entertainment. Both consisted of sequences of various acts with no plot, but in the minstrel show, the entire cast stayed on stage from beginning to end and sometimes performed as an ensemble. Variety shows had a wider range of acts, and performers took the stage only for their own.

Songs continued to follow the traditional verse/chorus form, but the change in theatrical practice eliminated four-part harmony from the chorus. The new solo choruses were either as long as the verses or longer.

The newer songs had fewer verses. Perhaps because performers encouraged the audience to sing along with the chorus, the general public thought first of the chorus when they thought about their favorite songs.

The new style coincided with the rise of ragtime and the popularity of music in triple meter (Johann Strauss, Jr.’s operettas, for example) imported from Europe. The rag songs did not quite succeed in capturing true ragtime rhythms, but the new rhythms were radically different from most earlier songs.

Knowing only the energetic rhythms and the words of the chorus, one would think that most of the songs were happy and carefree, but the verses very frequently tell a tragic story of betrayal, failure, and death.

But what truly set this period apart from earlier American songs was the dominance of publishers, especially those based in New York. Up until the 1880s, publishers based in Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, and many other cities issued at least as many important popular songs as those in New York.

Change was small and subtle at first. T. B. Harms, founded in New York in 1881, hit it big with “Wait Till the Clouds Roll By” by Charles Pratt, which in retrospect became known as the first Tin Pan Alley hit. By the end of the decade new publishers in New York (including Willis Woodward and M. Witmark) had brought out their own hits.

Charles K. Harris, offended by a low payment from Witmark, decided to publish “After the Ball” himself. His company started out in Milwaukee, but soon moved to New York. The song quickly grossed $25,000 per week and eventually sold 5 million copies. No song had sold that well before.

Older firms, such as Boston’s Oliver Ditson, published a wide variety of music (popular songs, piano pieces, choral music, piano-vocal scores of operas, instructional materials, etc.) and sold it through their store, catalogs, and newspaper advertisements. Publishers in one city not uncommonly established reciprocal arrangements with publishers in other cities. Each would sell each other’s music in their own home cities.

The New York publishers all specialized in  popular songs and marketed them directly to performers on the vaudeville/variety show circuit. Hearing songs performed by professionals made a more compelling advertisement than any catalog could.

It would be pointless to list all of the important firms that sprang up after Harris moved his firm to New York. Many of them, like his, were founded by successful song writers who wanted to be paid more than a pittance per song. By the late 1890s, most of them were clustered around 28th Street. Singers regularly visited the area, and each publisher employed song pluggers to catch their attention.

The constant sound of pianos and singers up and down the street earned it the nickname “Tin Pan Alley.” Publishers used all kinds of other inducements (drinks, cigars, fancy meals, railroad tickets, etc.) to gain the singers’ favor for their songs. They sold sheet music in unprecedented quantities. Production and sales of popular songs became centralized in New York.

City people with no knowledge of traditional American music began to determine what people everywhere else could hear or purchase, and for a couple of generations, most of the country was delighted with the product. Tin Pan Alley publishers redefined the very meaning of traditional music by creating the traditions.

The first generation of Tin Pan Alley composers included Charles K. Harris, Paul Dresser, Harry von Tilzer, and George M. Cohan. Some classically trained contemporaries likewise  produced successful songs, including Reginald De Koven, Ethelbert Nevin, Victor Herbert, and Carrie Bond-Jacobs, who established her own publishing company in Chicago after Tin Pan Alley rejected her songs as “too classical.”

Tin Pan Alley reached its artistic peak with later generations of composers, including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and many more. City people like the first generation and disproportionately Jewish, many of these composers were classically trained. As a result, they wrote much more adventuresome harmonies than any previous generation of American song writers.

Where in the first generation of Tin Pan Alley lyricists counted for almost nothing, they came into their own in the next. The snappy lyrics of such writers as Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields, and Johnny Mercer, not to mention composers like Berlin and Porter who wrote their own, contributed greatly to the overall effect of the songs. Many of their songs had only a single verse, or none at all.

The period approximately between Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat (1928) and Irving Berlin’s last musical, Mr. President, (1962) marks the golden age of American musical theater.

Certain social developments challenged New York’s centrality and expanded outlets for Tin Pan Alley song writers. New technologies, including recordings, film, radio, and television, began to challenge the primacy of music publishers.

Around 1910, popular song became closely allied with social dancing. Dance bands, both black and white, performed in ballrooms all over the country, with Tin Pan Alley songs the foundation of their repertoire.

The birth of the swing era ushered in a time where popular songs began to draw inspiration from an authentic African-American style and began to get the rhythms and inflections right.


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