Tin Pan Alley and Its Lasting Musical Influence:
Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, and American Popular Music
Tin Pan Alley’s influence cannot be summed up quickly or easily; this one block was the place where musical commerce combined with multicultural creative collaboration and changed the course of American music. The composer W.C. Handy – known as “The Father Of The Blues” and the first African American publisher of his own material – worked on Tin Pan Alley. Irving Berlin and George Gershwin–both sons of Russian immigrants–started on Tin Pan Alley, as well as the greats Fats Waller and Cole Porter.
Singers as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson and Fred Astaire all sang music originating from Tin Pan Alley.
Whenever you hear contemporary music, it is likely to be descended from Tin Pan Alley roots: The Beatles were influenced by Elvis Presley, who, in turn, was influenced by The Blues, the music of which was originally spread to America from Tin Pan Alley. And so on…
The buildings left on the block of 28th Street known as Tin Pan Alley are the remnants of the origin of one of America's greatest cultural legacies. They deserve to stand as a testament to future generations of what great legacies can originate from one small corner of New York.
An article published by the Songwriters Hall of Fame (http://songwritershalloffame.org) best sums up the musical lineage of Tin Pan Alley. An excerpt:
“Never in the history of American popular music were so many genres centered in one area… Between 1900 and 1910, more than 1800 “rags” had been 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, which had remained the entertainment of choice, fused all preceding stage shows--minstrel, vaudeville, musical comedy, revues, burlesque, and variety--to create the spectacular Broadway production. By 1926, the first movie with sound came creating a new outlet for production music. Folk and Country Music was 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 40's, publishers imported Latin American sound from Brazil, Mexico and Cuba and English lyrics were adapted to foreign themes…
Ragtime and Jazz
Harlem rhythm, New Orleans brass quartets and Southern orchestras had been knocking on the doors of American popular music since its creation. By the 1900s, all three sounds combined in the heart of Tin Pan Alley and mainstream America.
Between 1900 and 1910, more than 1800 “rags” had been published, beginning with “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin. Irving Berlin followed with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911. Ragtime is a strongly syncopated music in fast, even time--extremely rhythmic, and primarily centered around the piano. Ragtime led to the improvised breaks of jazz, spawned the Harlem stride piano music of the 20's and 30's and created the extended instrumentation utilized in symphonic jazz and “swing” music. It was a beat completely different than any that had existed before. It erased the 3/4 time of the Waltz and, using harmonically simple chords built on polka and march foundations, brought a new dance music with the straightforward down beats of 4/4 and 2/4 times.
Jazz—a combination of the Blues’ 12-bar progression and Rags’ emphasis on improvisation—adopted a slow, languishing rhythm that was fully recognized in popular music in 1917 with the recording of Louis Armstrong. The next decade was dedicated to the playing and recording of Jazz music. Bands and Vocalists of the 1920s--such as Paul Whiteman Band, Coon-Sanders Band, Guy Lombardo, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson and Rudy Vallee--saw the greatest outpouring of songs of any decade during Tin Pan Alley as popular music, and popular culture embraced the new sound. It allowed for emotional passages by individual soloists or large brass ensembles with strings and drums. Jazz introduced a new harmonic vocabulary using dynamic rhythms and expressive vocals reminiscent of Southern plantation blues music…
The Blues remained “underground” from popular music until 1912 when W.C. Handy published “Memphis Blues”. Handy was the first African American publisher of his own material and became known as "The Father Of The Blues." Even though popular music did not fully recognize the Blues until the middle of the 1920's, the music is considered to be the one truly American genre with the richest history from which all other types of American music sprang. It was the harmonic foundation for Jazz and later it was the emotional inspiration for rock n' roll.
Popular standards are, according to Webster, "something established as a rule or basis of comparison in measuring or judging quantity, quality, value, etc.; a usage or practice that is generally accepted or followed; criterion; a piece of music that has remained popular for many years; suitable to speech or writing that is more or less formal; not slang, dialectal, obsolete." Popular standards from Tin Pan Alley are all of those things.
A standard is a song immediately recognized. It is a song one may not know the title to, but with the first four words and two measures, immediately sings along with (for example Irving Berlin's "Cheek To Cheek" is recognizable for the phrase "Heaven...I'm in Heaven...").
The standards from Tin Pan Alley are individual, written without the context of a script or storyboard, from a single inspiration. While many standards were later included in Broadway shows or Hollywood musicals, the songs were not written for that purpose.
The words and music reflect the creative personality of the songwriters and many times, their personal recollections and emotions. Special to Tin Pan Alley because of their enduring popularity and constant rebirth, most Americans cannot remember a time when standards did not exist. Standards are timeless and embedded in the American psyche-reflecting the soundtrack of our lives.
–“Tin Pan Alley 1880-1953,” courtesy of the Songwriters Hall of Fame
The full version of the original inductee exhibit, “Tin Pan Alley: 1880-1953,” as well as a lengthy list of individual composer-inductees associated with Tin Pan Alley can be found at http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/era
Author Phillip Furia on Tin Pan Alley: An Excerpt
Philip Furia is an American author, English Literature professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington, and host of The Great American Songbook on WHQR radio. His books focus on the lyricists of the Tin Pan Alley era. His published works include:
Pound's Cantos Declassified (1984)
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists (1992)
Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist (1996)
Irving Berlin: A Life in Song (1997)
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer (2004)
America's Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley (2006), with Michael Lasser, host of Peabody Award-winning public radio program Fascinatin' Rhythm
The Songs of Hollywood, with Laurie Patterson (2010)
He has graciously provided the following excerpt from his new book manuscript.
Download the book manuscript here
Readings and Downloadable Recordings
American Masters: The Women of Tin Pan Alley, PBS
Inductee Exhibits: Tin Pan Alley, The Songwriters Hall of Fame
Broadway and Tin Pan Alley
“Way Down Upon the Hudson River: Tin Pan Alley’s New York Triumph”, Tribeca Film Institute
“America’s Music Publishing History: The Story of Tin Pan Alley,” Parlor Songs
“Vocal: Tin Pan Alley Pop Artists,” All Music
Playlist: Early Tin Pan Alley: Library of Congress
“Popular Songs, Tin Pan Alley,” National Parks Service
Tin Pan Alley: A Legacy of Music
“A Brief-ish History of Tin Pan Alley,” The Historic Districts Council
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