[JPL] Tin Pan Alley, Not So Pretty

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Fri Oct 17 12:07:38 EDT 2008


OCTOBER 17, 2008, 9:20 AM
Tin Pan Alley, Not So Pretty

With its graffiti-covered storefronts, crumbling cornices and vendor-clogged
sidewalks, the block of 28th Street between Avenue of the Americas and
Broadway does not necessarily look like a place that would produce some of
the catchiest melodies and most poetic lyrics of the last 120 years.

That was decades ago, in the first years of the 20th century, when the strip
was part of the two-block stretch of music publishing companies known as Tin
Pan Alley. The interesting thing is, in spite of the pretty music the
district produced, it wasn¹t a pretty place then, either.

Five buildings on the street, Nos. 47, 49, 51, 53 and 55 West 28th Street,
are up for sale, it was reported last week, presumably to someone who would
tear them down and build something taller. The news has drawn the ire of the
buildings¹ tenants, and of preservationists who hope to secure city landmark
status for the buildings, preventing such a demolition.

The block¹s history is the subject of the Dispatches feature in this week¹s
City section. Whatever else can be said about the Tin Pan Alley of the
buildings¹ heyday, it is remarkable that so much pleasant music could be
written in such a harsh environment.

The way things worked then, said David Freeland, a music writer who devotes
a section to Tin Pan Alley in a coming book, is that the companies, where
songs were written, would compete to lure performers in to hear them played
by house musicians called pluggers. The music companies had a symbiotic
relationship with nearby theaters, along Broadway and Sixth Avenue, where
the songs were performed, said Mr. Freeland, whose book, due out next year,
is called ³Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan¹s
Lost Places of Leisure.² At the time, he said, the theaters¹ musicians
needed material, and the song companies needed customers, so they grew

Similarly, he said, Harry Von Tilzer, a songwriter whose company was based
at 42 West 28th Street, would occasionally try out new songs in the brothels
that also populated the area.

It was a competitive time, Mr. Freeland said, adding: ³That¹s New York
history, too. It was a place where people really struggled to make it, to
make this place their own, to carve out an identity for themselves that was
not really within the prevailing standards of respectability.²

Considering all that, ³I always feel that Tin Pan Alley was so brilliant
because in turning out this product that was suitable for men, women and
children of all kinds, it obscured the actual origins of the songs,² he
said. ³Part of the reason Tin Pan Alley survived so well is that it actually
hid its own origins within a family-friendly veneer.²

It is one way in which the music industry then resembled the music industry
today. Indeed, Mr. Freeland said, the very idea of commodifying music, of
categorizing it, marketing it and selling it, can in many ways ‹ for good
and ill ‹ be traced back to West 28th Street.

Among the good things that emerged from the district ‹ besides songs like
³In the Good Old Summertime,² ³Give My Regards to Broadway² and ³Let Me Call
You Sweetheart² ‹ were the careers of writers like Irving Berlin, Scott
Joplin and George Gershwin, who worked as a teenage song plugger in a
company at 45 West 28th Street.

Then, even after the publishing business began to move north, away from 28th
Street, following theaters that had moved to the Times Square area, the name
Tin Pan Alley survived, standing for an era and a style of music. Jonathan
Schwartz, the radio host (who is the son of the songwriter Arthur Schwartz),
told me this week that there are good reasons why so many of the songs of
these later years are still beloved.

³It¹s the great passion of the music, the great beauty of the melodies,² he
said. And the lyrics, he added, quoting a passage from Oscar Hammerstein and
Jerome Kern¹s 1939 song ³All the Things You Are²:

You are the promised kiss of springtime

That makes the lonely winter seem long.

You are the breathless hush of evening

That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.

You are the angel glow that lights a star,

The dearest things I know are what you are.

Some day my happy arms will hold you,

And some day I¹ll know that moment divine,

When all the things you are, are mine!²

Song lyrics like these, today, are hard to find. Mr. Schwartz said many
great songs have been written over the years since then, of course, but
these kinds of pure rhymes are rarer.

³ ŒHome¹ and Œalone¹ do not rhyme,² he said. ³ ŒHome¹ and Œalone¹ ‹ that¹s
what we¹ve come up with now.²

But that, in part, is why songs from the later songwriters of the Tin Pan
Alley era, people like Cole Porter, Jimmy Van Heusen, Richard Rogers,
Dorothy Fields and Harold Arlen, are now considered beloved standards, Mr.
Schwartz said.

³As we listen to Mozart and Beethoven and Bach and Haydn today,² he said,
³so will the future world find great meaning and help ‹ emotional help, as
life is difficult ‹ in the songs that I¹m speaking of.²

The sharp elbows of 28th Street may have become gentler as the songwriters
and the business moved away from 28th Street, by the way. When they had all
grown old, Mr. Schwartz said, Van Heusen, Arlen and Berlin used to stay in
touch with regular long-distance telephone conversations.

³There was a great comradeship amongst the hierarchy,² he said. ³They so
much respected each other. I think the competition of the street was more
with people who were writing less-than-top-rate songs.²

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