“Way Down Upon the Hudson River: Tin Pan Alley's New York Triumph”
Rachel Rubin, Professor of American Studies, University of Massachusetts
Broadway in the 1920s was a showcase for the sweeping changes transforming American culture in the early 20th century, including new roles for women, the mixing of social classes in new settings like Prohibition-era speakeasies and creative innovation by African Americans in jazz clubs and music halls. Sons of immigrants from Europe – including the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen -- made up a large percentage of the new word and music smiths writing for Tin Pan Alley and Broadway’s musical revues. Their syncopated rhythms borrowed from the jazz craze and their lyrics helped create a vibrant, witty new American argot. Tin Pan Alley and Broadway contributed such classic standards as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (Berlin), “I Got Rhythm” (Gershwin and Gershwin), “Ol’Man River,” (Kern and Hammerstein), “Stormy Weather” (Arlen and Koehler), “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Razaf, Waller, Brooks), “Anything Goes” (Porter) and many more. These songs formed the musical backdrop of an era. The production of these songs also became big business.
The first major book written about Tin Pan Alley was published in 1930 by Harvard professor Isaac Goldberg, and it was subtitled “A Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket.” Goldberg’s humorous use of the word “racket” captured something about the origins of the name ‘Tin Pan Alley’ given to the music composed by poorly-paid songwriters banging away in cubicles in downtown New York City on cheap pianos. The word also expressed Goldberg’s view that the burgeoning music industry of his time was a slightly shady one. Our contemporary understanding of this music, on the other hand, is shaped by decades of nostalgic packaging that enshrines these popular songs as “standards,” comprising the “great American songbook.”
In its own time, “Tin Pan Alley” was an insurgent popular music that was a challenge made by immigrants and their working-class children to the dominance of the politemiddle-class “parlor” music of the time. It also borrowed a great deal from the popular music being created contemporaneously by African American musicians. “Tin Pan Alley” referred to an actual location where popular music publishers had their offices in New York City—first Union Square, then West 28th Street, and then further uptown. But “Tin Pan Alley” also meant a style of music that tended initially toward ethnic novelty songs and later, in the “classic” period (from the mid-1920s on), toward 32-bar love songs that relied heavily on internal rhymes and punning in the use of language. Such songs fed, and became the basis for, the burgeoning musical revues on Broadway.
Tin Pan Alley music was urban music, and its initial popularity relied on sounds and themes that were perceived by white audiences as connected to African American life in the United States. Even so, opportunities for actual African Americans to get a hearing on Tin Pan Alley were quite rare. The heyday of Tin Pan Alley coincided with what African American historian Rayford Logan has termed the “nadir” of race relations in the United States. While some commentators find evidence for intercultural sympathy in the sprightly rhythms, blue notes, and vernacular lyrics of Tin Pan Alley songs, it is also important to remember that the music flourished in a context of institutional racism.
The rise of Tin Pan Alley—as music and institution—depended on the mass immigration of East European Jews to New York beginning in the early 1880s, and the historical shift of America's black population from South to North. Around the time of World War I, African Americans began leaving the South in droves; ultimately more people of African descent moved in the first few decades of the 20th century than at any time since the Middle Passage. What we now call Tin Pan Alley depended on a meeting of Jews and African Americans in the modern American city, where the two cultures interacted informally in neighborhoods, music halls and businesses.
The key Jewish figures of Tin Pan Alley—Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, and Harold Arlen, to name a few—were consummate modern New Yorkers. Their careers were intimately wound up with their relationships to actual African Americans and with the sights and sounds of blackness. This was nothing new: Blackface minstrelsy had been the dominant form of American popular entertainment for much of the 19th century, and these Jewish artists were, on some level, the heirs of this tradition. It is no surprise that both Berlin and Gershwin had early hits with songs that made reference to the work of Stephen Foster—the most important songwriter for the minstrel stage in the 19th century.
The popularity of the music of Tin Pan Alley depended on networks of production and distribution that radiated out from the music publishing houses to the Broadway stage, and to increasingly national circulation. Until the end of the 19th century, American popular music was presented in a series of overlapping regional scenes, with only occasional songs or musical forms becoming nationwide successes. The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 changed this. As historian Susan Curtis explains, this event provided the opportunity for ragtime to move from an almost exclusively African American and mid-western phenomenon to a national trend. There was no ragtime played at the World's Fair, but numerous ragtime pioneers, including Scott Joplin, played around town and their music was carried from Chicago to the rest of the country.
The first generation of Tin Pan Alley composers was obsessed with ragtime and its musical and commercial possibilities. They were also interested in repackaging the instrumental ragtime compositions that Scott Joplin and his colleagues had developed as the foundation for their own novelty songs. The decade of Tin Pan Alley's rise, the 1910s, might be usefully marked off by the debut of Irving Berlin's “Alexander Ragtime Band” in 1911 on one end, and George and Ira Gershwin's “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)” in 1918. Both songs rely on audiences hearing the music as sounding recognizably “black,” while the lyrics tell tales of national triumphalism: the music of Alexander's band is so natural, after all, that it will make you want to go to war!
By the 1920s, the notion that Tin Pan Alley was a particular Jewish success story was so entrenched that when Cole Porter, an Episcopalian from Indiana, was asked how he would go about writing successful “American” music, he noted—with no seeming irony—that he would pen “good Jewish music.” This triumph of Jewish immigrants’ music-making paralleled a time of great nativism and prejudice in American political life, a development that culminated in the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1924.
In the early part of the century, Broadway’s popular ‘revues’ were loosely cobbled-together amalgams of music, dance and vaudeville that relied on a constant stream of songs by Tin Pan Alley writers. But in the 1920s, Broadways shows became organized for the first time around fully-developed through-narratives, with 1927's Showboat marking the first musical with a beginning-to-end plot.
Although some Tin Pan Alley songwriters successfully became Broadway show writers—Showboat was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II—the business began to change. It became increasingly difficult for songwriters to pitch and place single songs in the more tightly organized new shows. At the same time, sound technology hit the movies, with the transformative success in 1927 of The Jazz Singer, the first full length motion picture with synchronized dialogue. Suddenly, the movies could not only talk, they could sing. The real action for songwriters began shifting to Hollywood, where vertically integrated shops hired songwriters to move West and work for the film studios. The same songwriters continued to dominate Broadway (and Hollywood), but they no longer needed to be situated on West 28th street.
Immigration. With few exceptions (Cole Porter notably), the composers of Tin Pan Alley were immigrants or the children of immigrants, many of them Eastern European Jews. These first- and second-generation Americans were part of a great wave of migration from Eastern and Southern Europe that began around 1880 and stretched through the first years of the 1920s. These immigrants were fleeing various forms of persecution in Europe (religious, economic, cultural) and aiming towards the new possibilities of polyglot New York, Chicago, and smaller U.S. cities.
Development of a culture industry. Major technological, economic and social developments created an expanding industry of popular culture in the early 20th century that allowed Tin Pan Alley composers to operate on a truly national level.
Canon formation. What is a “standard” or a “classic”? From the 1910s through the 1930s the music of Tin Pan Alley was considered as ephemeral and linked to dance and show music. Aside from George Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and his 1935 “folk opera” Porgy and Bess, for the most part Tin Pan Alley composers worked in a strictly commercial culture based on Broadway shows. Change came in the late 1930s and 1940s as African American jazz performers began to treat certain Tin Pan Alley songs as important texts to innovate upon. This contributed to a growing idea that these songs comprised an American “canon,” a homegrown American popular art form that would outlive its original context.
Defining “American art.” Around the turn of the 20th century a wide range of high-art composers turned their attention to constructing an authentic “American” music. In some ways, however, it was the commercial, multiracial and multiethnic art of Tin Pan Alley, along with the early jazz of New Orleans, Chicago, and New York, that came to define “American” on the musical front. The art of Tin Pan Alley was essentially black and Jewish —the urban product of the meeting of a major new immigrant group and America’s most crucial musical contributors, newly becoming a Northern people.
1. What do you think it means for a song to be labeled a ‘standard’? How about a ‘classic’? Why do you think Tin Pan Alley songs have been called ‘standards’ of American song? What songs does the music scene call ‘standards’ today? ‘Classics’?
2. A speaker in the film states that “musical comedy is about the pace of change.” What political and social changes characterized America in the so-called Jazz Age? How did these changes impact and influence Tin Pan Alley and Broadway at this time?
3. What did a typical Broadway musical ‘revue’ in the 1920s consist of? How were they similar to, and different from, a musical you might see on Broadway today?
4. What seemed to be most important to audiences at that time?What was the importance of the 1921 musical revue, Shuffle Along? What does it say to you about America in the 1920s that a black musical show could succeed on Broadway at the same time as minstrelsy remained popular among white audiences?
5. How did the newly emerging music of jazz impact Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway musicals in the 20s?
6. The film quotes George Gershwin as saying, “I’d like to write of the melting pot, of New York City itself. This would allow for many kinds of music – black and white, Eastern and Western – and would call for a style that should achieve, out of this diversity, an artistic unity.” What put Gershwin in the position to have this view and perspective? Why did Gershwin see his music as a melding of black and white, East and West, together?
7. How did the experiences of Jewish immigrants in New York City affect the kinds of songs that were written in Tin Pan Alley in the 20s? Why do you think these songs became popular far beyond New York?
8. “Turkey”, “hit,” “fan,” and “The Big Apple” are all slang expressions that originated in the 1920s. Where did they come from? How were they disseminated so that they became popular across the country? What characterized the lyrics of the popular songs of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley at this time? Why?
9. What two major events at the end of the 1920s changed the face of Broadway? Why? What was their long-term impact?
George Gershwin Remembered
DVD, 88 minutes, 1987, part of American Masters
Irving Berlin: An American Song
DVD, 60 minutes, 2005, part of Biography series
A & E
Yours for a Song: The Women of Tin Pan Alley
DVD, 55 minutes, 1999, for WNET-TV
The Great American Songbook
DVD, 174 minutes, 2003
Andrew J. Kuehn, host Michael Feinstein
You’re the Top: The Cole Porter Story
DVD, 56 minutes, 1990, part of American Masters
Give My Regards to Broadway (1893-1927)
DVD, 60 minutes, 2010, Episode One of Broadway: The American Musical
I Got Plenty O’Nuttin’ (1930-1942)
DVD, 60 minutes, 2010, Episode Three of Broadway: The American Musical
Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ (1943-1960)
DVD, 60 minutes, 2010, Episode Four of Broadway: The American Musical
Tradition (1957- 1979)
DVD, 60 minutes, 2010, Episode Five of Broadway: The American Musical
Putting It Together (1980- 2004)
DVD, 60 minutes, 2010, Episode Six of Broadway: The American Musical
The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950, Allen Forte
Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, Charles Hamm
A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song, Jeffrey Melnick
Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical, Andrea Most
Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film, Arthur Russell
Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf, Barry Singer
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950, Alec Wilder
They’re Playing Our Song: Conversations with America’s Classic Songwriters, Max Wilk
Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, Stacy Wolf
Musicals featured in Broadway: The American Musical, Episode 2: Syncopated City
A Connecticut Yankee by composer Richard Rodgers. Year Premiered: 1927
George White Scandals (Broadway revue) by producer & director George White. Years ran on Broadway: 1919 – 1939
Good News with music by Ray Henderson. Year premiered on Broadway: 1927
Lady, Be Good! with music by George Gershwin and Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Year Premiered on Broadway: 1924
Runnin’ Wild by composer James P. Johnson. Year premiered on Broadway: 1923
Sally produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Year Premiered on Broadway: 1920
Shuffle Along with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Year premiered on Broadway: 1921
The Garrick Gaieties with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Year premiered on Broadway: 1925
Tip-Toes with music by George Gershwin and Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Year premiered on Broadway: 1925
Broadway, The American Musical Documentary companion website, pbs.org/wnet/broadway/resources.html
Library of Congress: American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920, memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html
Online version of Playbill, a comprehensive theater magazine, playbill.com
Internet Broadway Database, ibdb.com
The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, rnh.com/
George and Ira Gershwin: The Official Web Site, Gershwin.com
Cole Wide Web: The Cole Porter Resource Site, coleporter.org