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The Tin Pan Alley Songs

Tin Pan Alley songs composed in the early 20th century can be divided into several categories: Ballads, Novelties, Rags and Blues, and the Production Numbers.7 Of the four categories, Ballads, Novelties, and Rags and Blues proved to be effective means in expressing opinions about the war.8

With its slow nostalgic narrative and rustic quality, the ballad’s lyrics centered on life at home. References to cabins, family, and geographic features of the U.S. such as the rolling plains of the Midwest and the bucolic nature of the Southern states were the main themes.9 Perhaps ballads like “My Old Kentucky Home” and “On the Banks of the Wabash” were included in the Army Song Book to emphasize the contrast between the peaceful and natural features of the Midwest to the torn, bomb-riddled plains of the Western Front. Intending to feature America’s geographic qualities, ballads were often chosen as the genre for state songs such as “My Old New Hampshire Home” and “The Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee.” While these songs were published before the outbreak of World War I, they showed that people already had an interest in defining their identity as Americans in reference to their states. It is also interesting to consider how these pastoral songs were sold in bustling Tin Pan Alley. Urbanization and industrialization persuaded many people to migrate to bigger cities for jobs and opportunities. However, listening to sentimental ballads about family and home allowed both song writers and customers originally from rural areas to reminisce a lost way of life they once enjoyed.10

Mulberry Street NYC c1900 LOC 3g04637u editMulberry Street, NYC circa 1900

Screen Shot 2019 01 20 at 3.06.56 AMNYC in 1918Novelty songs were composed to sell and grab attention through humor, awkwardness, and uniqueness. These were the songs that directly linked Tin Pan Alley to public opinion about World War I. Isaac Goldberg summarizes it well:

The significance of the song-type to the Alley lies in its commercial productiveness. These word-and-tune boys course with the hares and run with the hounds. Is war declared? Then overnight, as Rosenfeld did for Metz, they can transform “When the Roses Are in Bloom” into a martial call. For a pacifist sentiment they pen “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” and when popular opinion is shunned in the opposite direction they blast an “Over There.” Tin Pan Alley is in the thickest of the fray, to the last drop of printer’s ink. It has the soul -and the callousness - of a professional propagandist.11

Novelty songs functioned as humoristic devices that could be applied to a current event. The song “K-K-K-Katy” is an example of a novelty song composed during the war.Screen Shot 2019 01 20 at 2.50.41 AM Dubbed the “The Sensational New Stammering Song Success Sung by the Soldiers and Sailors,” the song  describes a brave but awkward young soldier named Jimmy who is lovesick over his beautiful Katy. While brave and bold, Jimmy stutters and has a hard time saying goodbye to Katy. However, in reality, young soldiers saying goodbye to loved ones was no easy task and not funny at all. Knowing the dangers in war and ultimately considering loss, the last thing families wanted to hear was a song about a sad farewell. With the novelty song genre, Tin Pan Alley was able to target a broad audience to support the war effort, bring humor to something about separation and loss, and instill American patriotic ideals in the customers. The Tin Pan Alley song-writer knew what kind of music would sell and what would have the most impact on the public.

Ragtime and Blues were the forerunners of jazz and instrumental to the development of American society. While both genres originated in African-American communities, some white Americans adopted the “animal dances” performed by blacks and brought it to the public dance halls of the cities as early as 1897.12 It is important to note that sometime before America entered World War I in 1917, dancing was already a very popular form of entertainment to the middle-class Americans in the city. They often opted to leave the hearth of the home and enjoy the excitement of the city dance hall.13 During its migration to the city, ragtime evolved from the folk ragtime heard in the Southern plantations to the danceable version “refined” by white Americans to accommodate the dance craze. The difference was mostly evident in the tempo of playing ragtime as seen in Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and Irving Berlin’s Alexanders Ragtime Band 1“Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a left-hand pattern emphasizing strong beats 1 and 3 and a syncopated melody in the right hand, the genuine ragtime was supposed to be played with a slow walking feel that allowed the listener to hear the syncopated melody and anticipate the strong beats and conflicting rhythms between the melody and bass lines.14 However, city dancers found this cumbersome and decided to speed up the tempo to make it more danceable.15 Tin Pan Alley eventually adopted this fast and flashy version of ragtime. Not only did this fast version made it more danceable, but it also reflected the mechanical output of Tin Pan Alley whose only goal was to market sheet music as much as possible. The complexity of syncopation and awkward rhythmic conflict were the least of the publishers’ goal. They wanted to keep music simple to maximize customers. Besides, complex music was hard to sell.

Similar to ballads, blues featured melancholic lyrics. While ragtime caught the attention of white Americans fairly quickly, blues took some time to be accepted into the social circles. It became popularized after the war. Perhaps the lyrics were partly responsible for its delayed appreciation among audiences. Early blues from the Deep South often had a loose narrative that describe the singer’s “personal woes in a world of harsh reality: a lost love, the cruelty of police officers, oppression at the hands of white folk, [and] hard times.”16 The negative outlook towards white Americans would have been harder to accept in white-dominated Tin Pan Alley. However, by 1912, some music publishers were willing to feature music with blues elements such as “Baby Seals’ Blues,” “Dallas Blues,” “The Memphis Blues,” and the “St. Louis Blues.” Just as ragtime evolved during its migration to the city, so too did blues. W.C. Handy, a formally trained musician, helped popularize the blues byScreen Shot 2019 01 20 at 3.21.23 AMW.C. Handy, "Father of the Blues" transcribing and orchestrating it for bands and singers. While he gave himself the name “Father of the Blues,” Handy and his compositions were no more than a fusion with ragtime. Handy also tried incorporating Cuban habanera rhythms.17 The recently concluded Spanish-American war may also played a role in influencing the blues with Spanish musical elements. Transcribing the blues on paper leaves little or no room for improvisation. Its characteristics, borrowed directly from African-American traditions of spirituals, work songs, shouts, and chants, became codified as music consisting of 12-bars with specific chord progressions, call-and-response, and the use of the blues scale. VeryWC Handy DC1W.C. Handy's WWI draft cardsWC Handy DC2 popular among African-American soldiers in World War I, the blues was often sung in the trenches.18

Keeping true to his commitment of selling as much sheet music as possible by catering his products to customers’ feelings, the publisher always had to be ready for any change in public opinion. Isaac Goldberg describes the competitiveness of the Alley and how publishers marketed their music.

The publisher always keeps a number of each type on hand in his safe. He must not be caught napping. He must be ready, at the slightest shift in popular taste, to flood the market with a song of the new model. A sudden hit from another publisher’s office means orders to the staff writers to follow it up and, if possible, to better it. As in the garment industry, so in the music business, styles are imitated over-night. Day after next may be too late.19

Social and racial differences during World War I also played a role in the development of Tin Pan Alley and its patriotic songs. Many of the Alley composers were Jewish immigrants who recently migrated from Eastern and Central Europe. They were not easily accepted into the American fabric consisting of native-born white Americans. The immigrants spoke different languages and with them, they brought peculiar customs. In the context of the early 20th century Christian America, Judaism was not favorably viewed. They were easily looked down as second-class citizens and they found it difficult to enter academic professions such as law or medicine.20 Thus, they saw opportunities to succeed in the entertainment business. Composers with Jewish heritage such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin would eventually be household names in America.21 Just like African-Americans, immigrants viewed their unfortunate circumstance positively and found the war as an opportunity for them to show how good Americans they were by writing popular patriotic songs.22

GG image draft cardsGeorge Gershwin and his WWI draft cards

IB imageIrving Berlin in his WWI uniform and his draft cards 

Irving Berlin’s success in songwriting during World War I is a good example of an immigrant working in Tin Pan Alley in the early 20th century. Perhaps no other composerScreen Shot 2019 01 20 at 3.42.02 AM had an uncanny understanding of the feelings of ordinary people other than Berlin. Drafted into the military in 1917, he was called to use his talent to motivate troops. In response, he wrote a musical called Yip Yip Yaphank in 1918 that included the humorous number “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” a song which may have summed up the sentiments of any American doughboy. Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America” as the musical’s finale but later decided that it was too serious for the show. Years later, Berlin said, “To me, ‘God Bless America’ was not just a song but an expression of my feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.”2






7Goldberg and Jablonski, p. 212
8Production Numbers were composed for the public Broadway stage and not for private homes. Thus, the goal of the production number was to gather applause from a broad audience, not the individual persuasion that was intended by war-themed sheet music.
9Goldberg and Jablonski, p. 213; Lornell, p. 99
10Cohen, p. 17
11Goldberg and Jablonski, p. 216
12Shepherd, pp, 38, 42
13Dancing was very important to white Americans that between 1911 and 1915 restaurants installed dance floors and featured dance bands to attract customers. Shepherd, p. 45; Popularized by the Irene and Vernon Castle dance team in 1914, dances like the Foxtrot, Cakewalk, and Bunny Hug were adopted by white Americans and “refined” in order to distance themselves to the “animal dances” performed by black Americans.
14Shepherd, p. 32
15This change may have occurred sometime in the early 1900s. Scott Joplin wrote in the first publication of his “Leola” in 1905, “Notice! Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ‘ragtime’ fast.” King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his era, p. 276; Shepherd argues that ragtime tempo was accelerated so that it would be easy enough to be played by amateur white pianists. However, it can also be argued that African-Americans, who started ragtime, also did not have formal piano training. Thus, arguing for a faster or slower ragtime interpretation on the premise of skill and dexterity seems weak. Perhaps the faster tempo reflected the outlook or mechanical identity that Tin Pan Alley and its amateur white pianists sought rather than their ability to play piano. Shepherd, p. 29
16Ewen, pp. 142-143
17Morales, p. 277; Garofalo, p. 27
18John J. Niles transcribed African-American soldiers’ songs and compiled them in his book Singing Soldiers.
19Goldberg and Jablonski, p. 216
20Shepherd, p. 48
21Howard Reich, “We’re Playing Their Songs. How the Jews of Tin Pan Alley Defined An Art Form.” From the Chicago Tribune.
22Kanter; Gottlieb
23Galewitz, Herb. Music: A Book of Quotations, Courier Dover Publ. (2001) p. 4; Berlin described how he wrote “God Bless America” in a letter of July 19, 1954, to Abel Green, editor of Variety: "I wrote 'God Bless America' at Camp Upton in 1918 to be the finale of Yip, Yip, Yaphank. As you may remember, the show opened on August 19th at the Old Century Theater. The finale - the boys were alerted in the scene before that they were going overseas, and in overseas outfits, including helmets, they marched through the Theater, went out to the street and backstage where they boarded a transport, and as the lights lowered, the transport, on wheel, slowly moved off stage. It was a very touching and emotional scene.