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Tin Pan Alley


"Tin Pan Alley was a real alley on East Fourteenth Street near Third (in New York). But it was never just a place, Tin Pan Alley has come to be known for an era of songwritting when many musical ideas mixed together to form American Popular Music. Tin Pan Alley brought together many styles, blues, jazz, musical scores and ragtime." - --Burton Lane, 1995.

A new breed of popular music publishers were established in New York in the 1890s. These publishers were, essentially, salesmen who didn’t sit in their offices waiting for performers to come to them, but went out to the entertainment palaces and badgered not only the singers but also the orchestra leaders, dances, and comedians to use their numbers. This act developed into the profession of song-plugging. They hustled themselves, as well as their hired singers and whistlers into the finest theaters and lowest dives. After a few years on creation, Tin Pan Alley published its first song in 1892, "After The Ball" by Charles Harris, selling six million copies of sheet music!

This sale of millions of copies marked a significant development in the publishing industry and in the way music was being presently to the public. Music publishers were surprised to learn that popular tunes were being sold to individuals with the hopes of playing the songs at home. Up to that point, sheet music was almost exclusively sold to professional performers. Beginning around 1910, Tin Pan Alley found a great resource in sheet music, resulting in the sales of millions of copies. Not only was the Music Chart created (A tracking system of the country’s most popular songs), but the sale of sheet music put enormous resources (cash) into Tin Pan Alley. Music publishing companies skyrocketed and, as Johnny Mercer once recalled, "those composers all whistle a happy tune on the way to the bank, because America was whistling their some tune!"

American Popular Music had arrived!

Within a year, Irving Berlin published "Alexander’s Ragtime Band," which mixed the popular beat of the day along with the legend of Ragtime. The song gave Tin Pan Alley its crowning achievement and Berlin his first million. The song also changed the way America listened to music, "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" has often been credited, in part, for the increase in the sales of radios and phonographs, both rather new to the buying public.

Soon the attention of Tin Pan Alley shifted from Ragtime to other popular topics such as dances (The Charleston, the Fox Trot) and other music forms (Blues, jazz).

Towards the end of World War I, Tin Pan Alley’s publishing companies moved closer to the Broadway and vaudeville districts. Once the American Society of Composers,Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was formed, Tin Pan Alley became a mega force in popular music, producing over 90% of the commercial songs and inspiring the sales of millions of copies of both sheet music and 78 recordings.

James P. Johnon

Within just a few short years a shift occurred in the make-up of composers and performers of American Popular Music. Inspite of the terrific interest in African American music, ASCAP’s membership remained predominantly white, there were only a half dozen African Americans in the organization by 1925. Dr. Billy Taylor once referred to this era as, "the first concert example of musical segregation in American Popular Music." As the boon of jazz and blues crept into the consciousness of America, a number of African American composers gained their long awaited recognition. Among these composers some of the best known were, Eubie Blake, W. C. Handy, Clarence Williams, James P. Johnson, Cecil Mack, Perry Bradford and Henry Creamer.

These and other African American song writers respected their musical heritage and referred to black oral traditions of themes, melodies and song structures. In doing so, their white counterparts gained their techniques and generated a mix of pop-culture and the traditions of jazz and blues. A number of white members of ASCAP emerged as the first to combined these mixes, songwriters such as George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen.

Tin Pan Alley became a melting pot for culture and musical tastes, despite racial lines, and although limitations still existed, the art of the music was still able to emerge!




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