- 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
As the stakes got higher, plugging became more and more creative. Marks, a true innovator, sent a copy of a song he published called “The Honeymoon March” to every newly married or engaged couple listed in the papers; he also signed up the winners of dance contests for vaudeville appearances, where they hoofed to—naturally—his tunes. Then there was the “singing stooge”: this shill, planted in a theater audience, would rise as if spontaneously after the performer had completed the number in question and sing a repetition of the refrain. Al Jolson and Irving Berlin were both stooges as children —Jolson having been plucked from a Lower East Side synagogue choir.
The man who paid all the salaries was the publisher. He was responsible for the creation, transcription, orchestration, printing, promotion, and marketing of the song and, more than anyone else, he was the genius locus of Tin Pan Alley.
Theodore Dreiser, whose brother was the songwriter Paul Dresser, described the special ambience of the publisher’s offices in Harper’s Weekly in 1900: “There is an office and a receptionroom; a music-chamber, where songs are tried, and a stock room… . Rugs, divans, imitation palms make this publishing house more bower than office.
“Into these parlors then, come the mixed company of this distinctive world: authors who have or have not succeeded, variety artists who have some word from touring fellows or know the firm, masters of small bands throughout the city or the country, of which the name is legion, orchestra-leaders of Bowery theatres and up-town variety halls, and singers.”
What kind of product emerged from this process? In the early years the most noticeable quality of the mass-produced songs was a pathos that, if not cheap, was certainly inexpensive. Charles K. Harris put it well: “I find that sentiment plays a large part in our lives. The most hardened character or the most cynical individual will succumb to sentiment sometime or other.” Harris knew whereof he spoke. His tear-jerking “After the Ball,” written and published in 1892, was not only Tin Pan Alley’s first million-seller but its first five-million-seller. Significantly Harris was only able to get the song its first hearing by paying a star, J. Aldrich Libbey, five hundred dollars and a percentage of the royalties.
Payola, as it was later called, was always part of song plugging.
Harris’s phenomenal success spawned a whole new style of sentimental songs, with such self-explanatory titles as “The Picture That Is Turned to the Wall,” “The Letter That Never Came,” and “The Pardon Came Too Late.” The last two were the creations of Paul Dresser, who surpassed even Harris as an apostle of sentiment. He believed in his product, too, being known to burst into tears at the sound of a touching song, especially one of his own composition.
BY THE EARLY 1900s, though, the sentimental ballad was on its way out. The public wanted something new, and the Alley complied. Indeed, in the years between the turn of the century and the outbreak of war, its goal was novelty. Writers searched relentlessly for the angle, the pitch, that would sell: and when one of them hit on it, he was slavishly and copiously imitated. One year it was dream songs: “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland” was a hit, and so it was succeeded by “Girl of My Dreams,” “My Little Dream Girl,” “Sweetheart of My Dreams,” “Beautiful Dream,” “When I Met You Last Night in Dreamland,” “You Tell Me Your Dream and I’ll Tell You Mine,” and more. According to Ed Marks: “The jobbers became so confused that they numbered the dream songs and sold them by number instead of by title.”
The Alley was also keyed to goings-on in the world at large. No significant event, fashion, or trend escaped uncommemorated. One Irving Berlin song published by Harms (and transcribed and arranged by George Gershwin) had the double benefit of responding to a current event and being a “rag”— although, like most similarly named tunes, it wasn’t real ragtime: