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September 12, 2019

Tin Pan Alley — Part II: Musical Styles

28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was the epicenter of popular music at the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries and became famous around the world as Tin Pan Alley.  This four-part series explores: 1) Tin Pan Alley’s name and accomplishments; 2) its musical styles and composers 3) the social forces and technological developments that caused it to rise and fall; and 4) its lasting significance for our culture and business models.

Scott Joplin and George M. Cohan

Never in the history of American popular music was the output of creativity so great with so many genres concentrated in one area. In the 1880s and into the early 1900s, European operettas were very influential in American music, and Tin Pan Alley brought about the golden age of the love ballad as well as melodramatic ballads and comic novelty songs.  The cakewalk music trend followed, and between 1900 and 1910, more than eighteen hundred rags were published on Tin Pan Alley, beginning with “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin. In 1912, W.C. Handy introduced popular music to the underground sound of the Blues.  By 1917, a recording by a new musician, Louis Armstrong, took over Tin Pan Alley and the 1920s were dedicated to the playing and recording of Jazz. Theatre in the early 20th Century, which remained the entertainment of choice, fused all preceding stage shows—minstrel, vaudeville, musical comedy, revues, burlesque and variety—to create the spectacular Broadway production.  It was in Tin Pan Alley that these first show tunes and full scores were published as well.

As the first quarter of the 20th century ended, Tin Pan Alley was fading and some claimed that it ceased to exist.  Nevertheless, several historians still refer to the influence of Tin Pan Alley through the end of the Second World War.  From 1925 through 1950 Tin Pan Alley, the street and the music industry phenomenon, is credited for much of America’s musical output. By 1926, the first movie with sound came along creating a new outlet for production music. Folk and Country Music were introduced to mainstream audiences in the mid-1930s. Big bands and swing music defined the 1930s and 40s, introducing new accompanying vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. In the early 40s, publishers imported Latin American sound from Brazil, Mexico and Cuba and English lyrics were adapted to foreign themes.

George Gershwin and Irving Berlin

“Tin Pan Alley songs did not, by and large, deal directly with the troubling issues of their times; popular songs and the musical plays and films in which they appeared instead typically aimed to help people escape the pressures of daily life. Both in lyrical content and performance style, the Tin Pan Alley songs often explored the ideal of romantic love. Unlike the old European ballads – in which the action of characters was commonly narrated from a vantage point outside the singer’s own experience – the characteristic first-person lyrics of Tin Pan Alley songs (suggested in such song titles as ‘What’ll I Do?,’ ‘Why Do I Love You?,’ ‘I Get A Kick Out of You,’ and ‘Somebody Loves Me’) allowed the listener to identify his or her personal experience more directly with that of the singer. Tin Pan Alley songwriters adopted a down-to-earth manner of speech, as in songs like “Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get Those Peepers?,” that suggested that any working stiff could experience the bliss of romantic love or, through the “torch song,” suffer the heartbreak of a romance gone sour.”

The lyrics of music from this period suggest that the U.S. was a peaceful, happy and prosperous place. The many songs about the past describe warm memories of happy and innocent times in rural or small town settings. The persistent image of the “Gay Nineties” as one of the happiest and least troubled times in American history has been derived largely from these songs.  Life certainly wasn’t easier then, nor were the times free of war, natural disasters and economic hardship, but somehow the music remained an optimistic antidote to the harshness of everyday life.  Tin Pan Alley’s musical output stands in stark contrast to today’s violent, anger-filled, wrenching rhythms and lyrics that seem to exacerbate rather than soothe.

Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kerns