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Lullaby Of Tin Pan Alley

July 2024
18min read

The ceaseless clatter of cheap pianos from a mid-Manhattan side street was once music to all America

ONE DAY IN 1922 a young would-be composer named Richard Rodgers paid a call on Max Dreyfus, head of the publishing firm of T. B. Harms and dean of Tin Pan Alley. Rodgers had been there before; three years earlier, Max’s brother Louis had shown him the door, saying, “Keep going to high school and come back some other time.” This time, however, Max himself granted him an audience. “This ascetic-looking titan of the music business sat with eyes half-closed as I played my songs,” wrote Rodgers in his autobiography. When he had gone through his repertoire, Dreyfus spoke: “There is nothing of value here. I don’t hear any music and I think you’d be making a great mistake.”

In 1925 though, when Rodgers had two successful shows on Broadway, Dreyfus summoned him back and offered him a contract as a staff writer. Rodgers was still associated with Dreyfus when the publisher died forty years later. Dreyfus was smart enough to acknowledge his mistakes.

He didn’t make many. His instinctive recognition of musical talent was unmatched in the industry. In 1904, for example, shortly after Dreyfus had taken over Harms, nineteen-year-old Jerome Kern walked into his office. “He said he wanted to imbibe the atmosphere of music,” Dreyfus recalled years later. “I decided to take him on and to start him off by giving him the toughest job I had—selling music.” For a salary of twelve dollars a week, Kern peddled song sheets up and down the Hudson Valley and plugged Harms tunes at local department stores. Dreyfus also bought a few Kern tunes for the Harms catalog, including “How Would You Like to Spoon With Me?” which was placed in the operetta The Earl and the Girl in 1905 and became a hit. According to S. N. Behrman, “This inquiry was brazenly directed to the gentlemen in the front rows by the chorus girls while they were sailing out over their heads in swings.”

In 1912 Dreyfus—along with the publisher GUS Schirmer—commissioned Rudolf Friml, then a Bohemian concert pianist and teacher who had composed no popular music, to write the score for an operetta, The Firefly , a gamble that paid off handsomely. Twenty-two-year-old Vincent Youmans had published but one tune when Dreyfus took him on as staff pianist and song plugger. When Cole Porter was struggling and unknown, Dreyfus sustained him with continual advances. E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, the lyricist for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” recalled: “Max signed me up when nobody else would. He didn’t give me much, but it was enough to keep me alive when I had nothing.”

And in the winter of 1918 George Gershwin appeared at Harms. He had already been a song plugger, rehearsal pianist, arranger, and piano-roll artist but he had published only a handful of songs. Gershwin played a couple of numbers, Dreyfus was impressed, and the upshot was described by George’s brother, Ira, in his diary; “George has been placed on the staff of T. B. Harms Co. He gets $35 a week for this connection, then $50 advance and a 3 cent royalty on each song they accept. This entails no other effort on his part than the composing, they not requiring any of his leisure for plugging nor for piano-playing. Some snap.”

As Dreyfus put it at the time, “I feel that you have some good stuff in you. It’ll come out. It may take months, it may take a year, it may take five years, but I’m convinced that the stuff is there. You have no set duties. Just stop in every morning, so to speak, and say hello.” What’s more, he accepted two Gershwin-Irving Caesar collaborations on the spot—“I Was So Young (You Were So Beautiful)” and “There’s More to the Kiss Than the X-X-X.”

For the rest of Gershwin’s life the close relationship between publisher and composer remained unbroken: Gershwin followed Dreyfus to a new firm, Chappell & Company, in the mid-thirties, and he dedicated the Second Rhapsody to him.

When Gershwin had his first interview with “Mr. Max”—as he came to call Dreyfus—the metaphysical and portable address known as Tin Pan Alley was at the absolute zenith of its influence. In 1917 more than two billion copies of sheet music—the Alley’s legal tender—were sold, and it had become common for a single title to sell five million. The war certainly had something to do with this: with theaters and cabarets closed, people had to make their own music. But the nation’s addiction to song had been growing steadily for some thirty years. For most of the nineteenth century, the American music-publishing business was an informal, hit-or-miss affair. It didn’t become a major industry until the 1880s, and Tin Pan Alley—so the story goes—was not christened until 1903 or thereabouts, when a songwriter named Monroe Rosenfeld, visiting another songwriter, Harry von Tilzer, listened to all the out-of-tune pianos clashing away nearby and came up with the supremely apt designation.

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.

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:

That Revolutionary Rag ‘Twas made across the sea By a tricky slicky Bolsheviki Run with your little money bag Or else they’ll steal it away, Wheel it away, As they go raving, Madly waving That Revolutionary Rag

It’s not a melody, It’s a crimson flag. All the royalties Across the seas Shake in their BVDs When they see That Revolutionary Rag.

There had already been a few numbers about the conflict in Europe, including Al Piantadosi’s mildly pacifistic “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” But when the United States entered the war in 1917, song writers immediately adopted an extreme patriotism. George M. Cohan’s response suggests the atmosphere of martial glee: “I read those war headlines and I got to thinking and humming to myself—and for a moment I thought I was going to dance.” That same morning he wrote “Over There.” Within a week, “Good-by Broadway, Hello France,” was on the department stores’ sheet-music counters, and it was followed in short order by “I’m Glad I Raised My Boy to Be a Soldier,” “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Slacker,” “We Don’t Want the Bacon, All We Want Is a Piece of the Rhine,” and scores of others. The war also made its way into love songs—including such hallmarks of good taste as “Your Lips Are No Man’s Land but Mine” and “If He Fights Like He Makes Love, Goodbye Germany.”

As usual Max Dreyfus rose far above the Tin Pan Alley standard. If there was a single reason for his success, besides his talent-spotting ability, it was probably the respect—almost veneration—he had for his writers. Irving Brown, who was vice-president of Chappell in the fifties, says that at the daily four o’clock meetings he had with his boss, one theme would be sounded again and again: “The writers. The writers. Always take care of your writers. Without them you’re nothing.” When Richard Rodgers was finally taken into the Harms fold, Dreyfus asked him to promise one thing: “If you ever need money, I don’t want you to go to anyone else but me. From now on, don’t ever forget that I’m your friend.” Dreyfus was as good as his word. The stock market crash hit most of his “boys” hard, and they came to him for help. All were obliged. Afterward he called Russell Bennett into his office and said: “This morning I cleaned out that desk. I’m no longer a millionaire.”

DREYFUS’S DEDICATION to his writers may have stemmed from his own frustrated ambition to be one. Born in Kuppenheim, Germany, in 1874, the son of a cattle dealer, he came to America at the age of fourteen. After peddling picture frames through the South, he decided he wanted to write songs. He did turn out one hit—“Cupid’s Garden”—an instrumental published under the pseudonym “Max Eugene” that achieved a certain success as background music in the early years of silent films. But his talents lay elsewhere. Unlike most Alley denizens, he could read music, and while Witmark’s rejected some of his tunes in 1895, they did accept him as a staff pianist and arranger. He moved on to the firm of Howley, Haviland and Dresser, where he also plugged songs and made the acquaintance of the then-unknown Theodore Dreiser, who edited the house organ, Every Month . Soon afterward Dreyfus moved to Harms, where he started as staff arranger, advanced to professional manager and 25 percent partner, and in 1904 became full owner.

The tear-jerker “After the Ball” was the Alley’s first best seller.

Dreyfus turned the floundering firm around. Where it had previously been an Alley song mill like any other, under Dreyfus it became closely associated with the stage—and thus with a higher-quality product. Victor Herbert, the king of operetta, left Witmark’s for Harms shortly after Dreyfus took over. And then there was Kern, the first of a new generation of songwriters. Eventually, according to Irving Caesar, “to get into the orbit of Harms was every composer’s dream.”

Dreyfus managed to make the Harms offices on West Forty-fifth Street the Tin Pan Alley equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table that convened one block to the south. The music historian David Ewen described the “professional parlor” that developed some years after Dreyfus’s accession this way:

“Important composers and lyricists of that day made it a habit to drop in at Harms during the noonday hours for some music, shoptalk, social palaver. George Gershwin could be found there several times a week. Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar, Joe Meyer, Buddy De Sylva, Vincent Youmans, Irving Caesar, Paul Charig—later on, Arthur Schwartz, Vernon Duke and Harold Arlen— hovered around Gershwin like satellites… . Caesar was something of the court jester, delighting the group with impromptu parodies and improvised opera arias. …”

Dreyfus held similar soirees, for a more select group, at the country homes he acquired in Bronxville and Brewster, New York. Caesar (who says, “I loved Max, and I think he sort of approved of me”) remembers going to a ball game with Dreyfus every Friday afternoon and then on to the country, where the guest list would include the most favored boys, plus such interested observers as Behrman and Oscar Levant. There was softball, bowling in a barn that had been converted into an alley, fishing in a private stream, horseback riding on a private half-mile track. At night there would be fine wine, cigars, and superb German food— Levant reported almost being thrown out of his first Bronxville dinner after he asked for ketchup. And music—with the boys trying out their latest compositions, and Dreyfus and Levant playing Brahms or Schubert four-handed on two of the four grand pianos. And jokes. During a birthday party for Victor Herbert, things got so rowdy that Tin Pan Alley’s finest composers ended up throwing raw steaks at each other.

Dreyfus, himself, however, was reticent almost to the point of inscrutability. In a business that thrived on hyperbole, he was wispily soft-spoken. Most of the time he was noncommittal about the array of songs that paraded before him. But even when he liked something, Caesar recalls, “He wasn’t the type to throw his arms around a composer and say, ‘Now you’ve done it!’ ” His health was poor, and he was a man of routine—puttering around the office in a pair of slippers and a gray alpaca office coat, and lunching every noon at the Hotel Astor on tomato juice, an egg, and crackers. Such meager fare kept Dreyfus painfully thin. Yet his slight build may actually have aided his career; John Golden, a composer for whom Dreyfus arranged songs in the nineties, said he “used to feel a little protective toward him, thinking he was too frail to make the grade,” and others were probably similarly deceived. In the 1945 film biography of George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue , the bulky, gregarious Charles Coburn played the publisher. Dreyfus’s sole comment was a triumph of understatement: “Did you ever see me wear a top hat?”

Dreyfus’s duties as publisher did not end with signing up the best songwriters. A Tin Pan Alley Maxwell Perkins, he had an uncanny ability to coax the best possible contributions out of his composers and lyricists. And he was an astute businessman; despite his generosity toward writers, he was notoriously careful with his money. He once told Rodgers that since he had no children of his own, he treated his copyrights as if they were offspring, protecting and nurturing them. And when another writer, speaking of a mutual friend whose son had died in an auto accident, said that at least Dreyfus would never suffer that particular misfortune, the publisher replied, “Yes, but I have songs that go into the public domain. ”

Though Dreyfus knew talent as nobody else did, he could not always predict which particular number would become a hit. Russell Bennett thought this was because Dreyfus never really cared for the “Tin Pan Alley stuff. Every week Max and I would go to a matinee at the Met. Max would always follow along in the score. Once we saw a grand performance of Tristan . It was so overwhelming that on the way back to Harms, even though it was about eight below zero, we both forgot to put our hats on. When we got to the office he turned to me, paused, and said, ‘Russ, and still the boys up there want me to like their stuff.’ ”

Many changes were brewing in the music world during the twenties, and few of them were to Tin Pan Alley’s benefit. Kern and his heirs had taken over and with them came a far subtler and harmonically advanced, often jazz-influenced, kind of song. The words were better too: lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Lorenz Hart replaced the sentimentality and goodhearted clunkiness of the early Alley days. The musical comedy became the primary medium for song, and writers began producing integrated scores; churning out individual numbers was no longer a challenge.

But the ultimate devastating changes were caused by the phonograph, the radio, and the talking picture. Records, which initially became popular in the mid-teens, had little economic effect at first. Both publisher and writer earned royalties from record sales, so the only real accommodation the Alley had to make was to turn out shorter songs: disks ran three minutes or less, so the typical song had only two and a half choruses. Still, far fewer people were buying sheet music; in the twenties a hit meant one hundred thousand copies sold. After all, why sit around the piano when it was possible to listen to professionals doing a much better job with the same song?

Radio, which began commercial operation in 1920, was “free” and thus created different kinds of problems. At first the stations refused to pay anything for the songs they played, claiming that all they were doing was broadcasting “ether.” The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), presciently formed in 1914 to meet just such a challenge to the economic interests of the song industry, responded with a series of lawsuits. The courts ruled in ASCAP’s favor: radio stations had (and still have) to pay for music, based on a complex monitoring of all the stations in the country. Once again, though, sheet music was definitely marginal. As Isaac Goldberg put it, “When a song is dinned into [people’s] ears around the face of the clock, they have no need of buying the printed form.” In addition, radio devoured material at a fantastic rate. Where once a song’s rise to fame was leisurely, taking months or even years, now it happened at distressing speed: the public could tire of a song within a matter of days.

The Alley had had a long relationship with the movies, beginning, in a sense, with the song slides of the nineties— transparencies illustrating a song that were projected during vaudeville performances. With the popularity of silent films came titles like “Poor Pauline” and “Oh, Oh, Those Charlie Chaplin Feet.” And there were “theme songs,” wordless melodies that accompanied pictures and were repeated so often that audiences presumably developed an addiction and bought the sheet music immediately on leaving the theater.

WHEN TALKING PICTURES appeared—tentatively in 1926 and resoundingly the next year, with The Jazz Singer —things became still more complicated. The theme song could now have words, and performances of it on the radio provided publicity for the film, so Hollywood began commissioning the songs. Naturally, the title of the film had to be included in the song title, and thus was instituted the still-thriving practice of non-sequitur theme songs. One such was “Woman Disputed, I Love You.”

But it was the Hollywood musicals that occasioned the greatest changes. With the immense popularity of The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody (1929), a slew of “all-singings, all-talkings” went into production. So Broadway musicals were transplanted to the screen, and when, inevitably, the supply ran dry, the composers themselves were brought west, among them the Gershwins, Kern, Rodgers, Berlin, and Youmans. In fact so many New Yorkers came to Hollywood that one of them, describing a studio’s songwriters’ ghetto, said, “All it needs is a bum on the bench and it’ll look like Central Park.”

The songwriters’ rush to Hollywood was Tin Pan Alley’s downfall.

The songwriters’ gold rush was the publishers’ downfall. After the initial burst of demand for Tin Pan Alley music, the movie companies eclipsed the publishers in importance and in power. Sheet-music sales fell. The studios proved their dominance in 1929 by buying virtually all the important publishing firms. The publisher was now just another hired hand.

Hollywood brought Tin Pan Alley to its knees, but radio dealt the death blow. In December 1940 ASCAP, which handled copyrights for every Alley writer, asked for a 100 percent increase—to $9 million from $4.5 million—in the annual fee paid it by the country’s radio stations. Radio refused, ASCAP retaliated with a boycott, and the stations fought back by opening up the airwaves to non-ASCAP material— songs in the public domain (“Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” was heard almost hourly) and the blues and country music that had never been heard on national radio before. A new agreement was signed within the year—significantly for only $3 million—but the damage had been done. The Hollywood-New York musical nexus was broken for the first time, and youngsters like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry began hearing the sounds they would fuse into rock ‘n’ roll.

There is no reason to expect Max Dreyfus to have been immune to history, and he wasn’t. In 1929 Warner Brothers bought Harms for an estimated $8 to $10 million. Dreyfus was a millionaire again, but as part of the package he agreed to stay out of the music business for five years. Warner’s retained him as a consultant, but as he said later: “This was all hooey. Picture people don’t take advice. They give orders.”

But Dreyfus had something up his sleeve. In 1926 his brother Louis had acquired Chappell & Company, the largest music-publishing firm in Britain, and when the five years were up, Max opened up an American office. His boys streamed back—Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, and the rest. But under the new rules of the game the publisher was no longer king. He had to have a tie-in of some kind with a record company, a star, a movie studio, or with Broadway. Dreyfus chose the last course—he had always been the most Broadway-conscious publisher on the Alley—and Chappell became inextricably bound up with the musical-comedy stage. Such writers as Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Burton Lane, Jule Styne, and Kurt Weill were added to the roster, as Chappell published and handled rights to nearly every prominent musical.

Max Dreyfus was still the dean of music publishing; the trouble was that music publishing was a less impressive thing to be dean of. But his behavior remained unchanged. He continued his meager lunches at the Astor, his weekends in the country, his careful tending of copyrights, and his devotion to his writers until he died in 1964, at the age of ninety. When his brother followed him not long afterward, the two widows sold Chappell to North American Philips for a reported price of $25 million. The man who John Golden thought was too frail to make the grade had outlived all his competitors, most of his boys, and Tin Pan Alley itself.

When Tin Pan Alley Went Bananas

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