- Historic Sites
Lullaby Of Tin Pan Alley
The ceaseless clatter of cheap pianos from a mid-Manhattan side street was once music to all America
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
In many ways the Alley was a creature of industrialization. Pianos were starting to be mass produced; there were more of them in the United States than in any other country, and nearly every household had a member or two who could play. They merely needed songs. So did the new big-city bars, beer halls, dance halls, restaurants, and vaudeville and burlesque theaters. Tin Pan Alley filled the need with its own kind of mechanization. “Nowadays,” The New York Times remarked, “the consumption of songs in America is as constant as the consumption of shoes, and the demand is similarly met by factory output.”
The new business first centered around New York City’s Union Square; it was to move to Twenty-eighth Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway around the turn of the century and, later on, north to Broadway and Forty-sixth. In charge were a handful of highly resourceful entrepreneurs, most of them Jewish, who had come from backgrounds in selling: Isadore Witmark sold water filters; Joe Stern and Ed Marks sold neckties and buttons; Leo Feist sold corsets; Max and Louis Dreyfus, who wouldn’t come into the act for a few more years, sold ribbons and picture frames. To the creation and marketing of songs they applied the same attitudes and techniques that had served them well on the road—a hard sell, a keen sense of what the public wanted, and a restless eye for the newest and best merchandise.
Like any mechanized industry, Tin Pan Alley had a marked division of labor. There was, to start, the songwriter. Charles K. Harris, a rotund Milwaukeean, is generally credited with being the first in the new mold. Sometime around 1885, on opening an office on Grand Avenue in his native city, he hung out a shingle that read, “Charles K. Harris—Banjoist and Songwriter— Songs Written to Order. ” The last phrase is the key. Harris’s heirs, the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, did not wait for a call from the muse before commencing their labors: they responded to a demand, whether to fill a slot in a vaudeville show, capitalize on a current fad, or just swell their publisher’s list.
A problem of sorts emerged when, as was often the case, the writer couldn’t write music. Harris put it admirably in his autobiography, After the Ball: “The reader will naturally wonder how it was possible for me to write music to a song when even to this day I cannot distinguish one note from another. The answer is simple. As soon as a melody occurred to me, I hummed it. Then I would procure the services of a trained musician… hum or whistle the melody to him and have him take it down on paper, with notes. He would then arrange it for the piano. This method is known as arranging.” Harris was not alone in his disability. Irving Berlin, whose remarkable career has spanned three-quarters of a century of song, still can’t read a note.
Here, then, was another job to be filled—staff arranger. Max Dreyfus, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern all toiled in this field—as did Frank Sadler and Robert Russell Bennett, full-time orchestrators who worked for Dreyfus and achieved well-deserved renown. The appealing oddity of this situation was caught by Behrman in his 1932 New Yorker profile of Dreyfus: “If you have some tune jingling in your head, you have only to go to Harms… hum it or play it with one finger to Russell Bennett and it will presently emerge fully arranged or scored suavely and colorfully for a modern orchestra. It is as if an aspiring writer who could neither read nor write were to go in to Scribner’s, whisper an idea to an editor, and get it written for him in novel form by John Galsworthy.”
Perhaps the most important cog in the machinery—and certainly the most colorful—was the plugger. Once again, Dreyfus, Gershwin, and Kern all plugged. Isaac Goldberg, in his 1930 study, Tin Pan Alley , defined the species: “He it is who, by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has, sees to it that his employer’s music shall be heard.” The plugging process was directed perhaps more at performers than at the public; if a song were placed in a musical or included in a bandleader’s or a singer’s repertoire, sales would certainly follow. Vaudevillians were particularly powerful promotional agents: at every stop in their nationwide circuit, sheet-music sales would go up on all the numbers performed, and they generally kept the same act for years.
Charles K. Harris claimed to have started the practice of song plugging when one of his tunes was being tried out in Milwaukee: “I engaged a Negro expressman known as Julius Caesar, gave him a dollar, and instructed him… to clap very loudly.” Whatever its origin, plugging soon became integral to Tin Pan Alley. In the early days even the publishers made their rounds. Ed Marks wrote that he covered sixty joints a week, and he described the fine points of some of them: the Alhambra Music Hall was expensive because you had to buy drinks for the boys in the band and there were twenty-six of them; the Haymarket was dangerous—bullets flew frequently—and you could only get in by joining a club called the Welsh Rabbits, at the cost of drinks for all. What was later to be dubbed payola was always part of the plugging game.