Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The name Tin Pan Alley likely started as a linguistic reappropriation: a disparaging term that was flipped into a positive, self-describing label. The etymology is sometimes traced to journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld. In one version of the story, Rosenfeld visited the New York office of music publisher Harry Von Tilzer in preparation for an article on the music business. He noticed that Von Tilzer had pieces of paper wound over the strings of a piano to make a tinny sound—a nostalgic trick harkening back to his playful youth. This allegedly gave Rosenfeld the idea for an article titled “Tin Pan Alley,” published in his column for the New York Herald or the New York Clipper in 1899 or 1900 (to my knowledge, the actual article has not surfaced). Von Tilzer later claimed coinage of the term. Others cite it as a derogatory description of cheap upright pianos heard on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. The cacophony of clashing tunes reportedly resembled the banging of tin pans. The term was eventually applied to the U.S. music industry of the late 1800s to the 1930s or 50s (depending on the periodization).
The name’s organic emergence predicted the treatment the music itself would later receive. Although created for financial gain and distributed through commercial means, many of the songs entered the popular vernacular. In so doing, they became subject to a folk process, wherein cultural artifacts are changed, minutely or significantly, to form new artifacts. A combination of performance restraints and cultural dissemination stripped these songs of their particularistic trappings, and left the universal core. The result can be dubbed “commercial folk music.”
A number of Tin Pan Alley tunes survive in the collective consciousness. Some, like Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” “Always,” and “White Christmas,” are so universally known as to lose association with the composer. They consolidate and articulate popular sentiments, and reaffirm and express an aesthetic mainstream. By virtue of aural reception and oral transmission, they are functionally the public property of the American people.
Among the elements contributing to this perpetual resonance was the elimination of the verse. Tin Pan Alley standards, such as those listed above, began as self-contained story songs. The generalized emotions of the chorus were framed by specific details, usually of a personal nature. “White Christmas” (1940), which Berlin wrote while sitting poolside at a Phoenix hotel, opened with the verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day/In Beverly Hills, LA/But it’s December the 24th/And I am longing to be up north.” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (1908), written by Albert Von Tilzer (Harry’s brother) and lyricist Jack Norworth, began with a baseball-obsessed woman: “Katie Casey was baseball mad/Had the fever and had it bad/Just to root for the home town crew/Ev’ry sou/Katie blew” (“sou” is a small amount of money). These verses gave narrative context to the familiar choruses we sing today.
Several factors led to the erasure of the verse. In some instances, the melody, meter, or pace of the verse clashed with feelings conveyed in the chorus (e.g., minor to major, 4/4 to 3/4, slow to brisk). These shifts, while musically intriguing, made the songs difficult for singing and dancing. There were also technological constraints. 10-inch 78-rpm records could only hold about three minutes per side, thus necessitating the trimming of “extraneous” verses in favor of catchy choruses. The radio format likewise restricted song durations to three and a half minutes in order to give time to news, announcements, and advertising. Furthermore, the rise of Broadway and film musicals, where songs punctuated larger story lines, made the contextualizing verses obsolete. For example, Berlin cut the verse from “White Christmas” for the film Holiday Inn (1942).
Concurrent with these top-down commercial considerations was the bottom-up folk process. The choruses were easier to remember and more inclusive than the set-up verses. Rather than being tied to a particular setting or idiosyncratic emotion, they could be assimilated as one’s own expression, whether patriotic, nostalgic, romantic, or something else. With this folkalization, artist- and context-specific tunes were transformed into the durable pseudo-folksongs we still sing today.
Tin Pan Alley is not a stand-alone illustration. Popular music of all kinds—industry distributed music of wide appeal—challenges conventional separations of creators/producers and consumers/audiences. Consumers become potential producers, capable of recreating the songs in their own voices and reading their own experiences into them. Subtle or drastic changes inevitably creep in, bringing a fluid orality to the ostensibly fixed media of sheet music and recorded sound.
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