Manhattan serenade

England had its music-filled Denmark Street, just off Charing Cross Road in London’s Soho district. Across the pond, we had a little stretch of West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, usually referred to as Tin Pan Alley. This slice of New York City was the heart of the music-publishing business in the early 20th century, and the birthplace of the popular standards known collectively as the Great American Songbook. Most of the selections I play for senior citizens come from this repertoire.

Why the nickname “Tin Pan Alley”? The details vary, but the basic story remains the same: The music publishers concentrated in this block hired “pluggers” to promote their latest offerings. The pluggers played and sang the songs in small rooms equipped with cheap upright pianos. Entertainers looking for new material moved from room to room, sampling the music, hoping to find their next hit. Around 1900, Monroe Rosenfeld was visiting various music-publishing offices to prepare a story for The New York Herald when he heard hundreds of pianos being played simultaneously—a different song in each case. The sound reminded him of clanging tin pans. In the series of articles he later wrote, Rosenfeld dubbed the area “Tin Pan Alley.”

George Gershwin labeled it “Racket Row.” He started his career as a song plugger—the youngest on Tin Pan Alley—after quitting high school at age 14 to work for Remick music publisher. He demonstrated the company’s new songs for potential customers, and gradually added his own early compositions to the mix. Jerome Kern followed a similar path.

Pluggers also took to the streets, hawking their wares wherever people gathered: restaurants, stores, saloons, street corners. Before succeeding as a composer (partnered with lyricist Dorothy Fields), Jimmy McHugh worked as a plugger for Irving Berlin, bicycling around town with a keyboard on his handlebars. Competition to sell songs was fierce, and bribing a vaudevillian to use a song in an act was common. (Al Jolson once received a race horse for his cooperation.) A song picked up by a performer meant increased sales of sheet music for use at home around the family piano.

Imagine the cacophony created by all those piano-pounding Tin Pan Alley song pluggers vying for attention. Cole Porter invented a phrase when he wrote the lyrics for “It’s De-Lovely” (from the musical Anything Goes) that might be the perfect description of the sound: The “Tin Pantithesis of Melody.”

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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7 Responses to Manhattan serenade

  1. Sandy Shores says:

    This was very interesting and enlightening, Paulette. Thank you for this information!

  2. Jessa says:

    By the way, I often read your blog in these emails, rather than your blog. If you want to increase traffic, you might only want to send a preview and then they have to click “read more” to get the end of it on your actual blog.

    Sent from my iPhone, please excuse any typos (boo autocorrect!)


  3. Judie says:

    Very interesting, Paulette! Love to hear about the history of music.

  4. Evie Kimball says:

    Another great blog, Paulette. You are giving us all a great education. Hope the cold weather isn’t keeping you from your volunteer piano playing as I’m sure it would be missed!

  5. A couple of sharp-eyed readers of this post wondered what kind of early 20th century keyboard song plugger Jimmy McHugh could have possibly fit on his bicycle handlebars. Good question. My source, America’s Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser (2006), offers no further information. So I did a little more research. I’d say it’s likely that McHugh used a traveling clavichord, a lightweight instrument consisting of a 3- or 4-octave keyboard, a soundboard to the right of the keyboard, and strings running right to left from the soundboard to the space behind the keyboard. The whole thing was packed in a case that measured as small as about 3 ft wide x 1 ft deep.

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