Tin Pan Alley

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edited from Tin Pan Alley’s Contribution to Folk Music by Norman Cohen
(Western Folklore, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1970), pp. 9-20):
Prior to 1880 music publishers were scattered throughout the country. In the years that followed, however, Union Square in New York gained ascendancy as the locus of song publishers. The magnet which drew them there was the presence of a major entertainment center boasting music halls, theaters, dance halls, and burlesque houses.

During this decade several publishers discovered that songs could be marketed like any other commodity. This meant manufacturing them to meet prevailing taste and “plugging” them, that is, prevailing on the singers to feature them in their public performances. In the next decade theatrical activity moved further uptown and the music publishers followed it, making Twenty-eighth Street the center of the music-publishing world for a quarter-century or so. This was the street that was dubbed “Tin Pan Alley” by journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld about 1903.

Why did these songs of Tin Pan Alley make such a dent in the repertoire of the American south? Perhaps the urbanization and industrialization of rural America left many persons with a sense of longing for a lost way of life so that the sentimental ballads of mother and home found a receptive audience in the hills after they had been driven out of the towns.

However, another factor less often considered is the predominant style of TPA songs of the 1880s and 1890s. The language used was simple and effective poetry, never rising to levels of great artistry but never sinking to the convoluted awkwardness of the broadside hacks of a century earlier.

On the other hand, American popular songs of the pre-Civil War period were, as indicated earlier, often flowery and stilted, and marked the unsuccessful attempts of their creators at romantic poetry. There were numerous sentimental songs of mother and home in the 1850s and 1860s, but they tended to be more descriptive and lyrical than the narrative ballads of the later years. These antebellum songs were, in effect, not memorable, and for this reason the songs of the last decades of the century achieved a place in oral tradition that their predecessors could not attain.

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