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Tin Pan Alley

Q From Will Stevens: Can you give me any ideas about the origin of Tin Pan Alley? I’ve read that there’s one in London. Is that the original?

A Definitely not. Tin Pan Alley is American. In an article in The World in 1903 it was said specifically to be the area of Twenty-eighth Street in New York between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and to be the home of most of the notable US music publishers.

Later, Tin Pan Alley became a figurative term for the whole US music publishing business. Much more recently it was borrowed for Denmark Street in London, which similarly housed many of the UK’s major music publishers, but that area was usually referred to as London’s Tin Pan Alley, as a nod to the original. This was after the Second World War, I believe — the earliest instance that I can find is dated 1950.

How the original Tin Pan Alley got its name is an interesting story. The evidence — mainly discovered by US researchers Barry Popik and Fred Shapiro — suggests that three strands of colloquial usage contributed to its formation.

The fundamental one, of course, is employing a tin pan as a raucous and discordant noisemaker. As every household had at least one tin pan and a wooden spoon or such with which to bang it, the material with which to contribute to a cacophonous communal row was always at hand. It might have been a demonstration marking a marriage, the one known at various times and in different places as a shiveree, charivari, skimmington or tin-kettling. (The Cambridge City Tribune of Indiana recorded on 30 April 1874: “Johnny O’Brien, the cow doctor, is married again. The boys gave him a touch of tin pan music.”).

Building on that was the use of tin pan to describe a piano of indifferent quality, especially one played by an amateur (as in the Muskogee Phoenix of Oklahoma, dated 8 May 1890: “You have often compared my playing to the sounds of beating on an old tin pan.”). An early example is this deeply sarcastic description of a touring musical troupe:

The party consists of the following “star” performers: a yearling calf, a whining pup, an old violin, a creaking well chain, an ancient accordeon, a squealing pig, a tin-pan piano and an old maid’s voice.

Janesville Daily Gazette (Wisconsin), 6 Jul. 1860.

That would seem enough to determine the origin of the music term, as the newspaper report which gives us its first recorded use asserted:

It gets its name from the tin-panny sounds of pianos that are banged and rattled there by night and day as new songs and old are played over and over into the ears of singing comedians, comic-opera prima donnas and single soubrettes and “sister teams” from vaudeville. Now, “Tin Pan Alley” is considered a term of reproach by the Tin Pan Alleyites. They prefer to designate it as “Melody Lane.” But that is a poetic fancy that those who go down that way to hear the “new, big, screaming hits” do not indulge in.

The World (New York), 3 May 1903. Incidentally, tin-panny was widely used for the tinkling piano, I guess in ironic contradistinction to timpani.

But there’s another contributing element. Several newspaper reports record tin-pan alley in American cities for what seems to have been an area with a poor reputation, presumably one with noisy and illicit goings-on:

WATCH REPORT. — Night clear and cold. A slight row occurred in “tin pan alley,” and a colored ball in “Petersburg” was broken up, but no arrests were made at either.

Alexandria Gazette (Virginia), 17 Mar. 1869.

There was a rumpus among a number of women in Tin Pan alley on Wednesday and the result was that Mrs. Eleanor Church and Mrs. Mamie Arthur were before the city court this morning charged with a breach of the peace on each other. Tin Pan alley branches off from Wallace Street and is, so a witness told Judge Pickett this morning, the worst place in town.

New Haven Evening Register, 8 Aug. 1890.

A close relative was tin can alley, used of a poor and shabby area, one full of rubbish such as old tin cans, but extended to refer to a disreputable one:

Lida Harris, colored, made a pretense of being a working woman, but the police told of street walking and the fact that she was taken from “Tin-Can Alley” counted against her and she was fined $10 and costs or ten days in jail.

Burlington Hawk-Eye (Iowa), 1 Jun. 1898.

Chris Smith, who writes for Blues & Rhythm magazine in the UK, added to the story by pointing out that the unsavoury reputation of places so named survives in Tin Pan Alley Blues, written by Bob Geddins around 1953. Its opening verse is:

They tell me Tin Pan Alley, roughest place in town,
Start cutting and shooting, soon as the sun goes down;
Hey, tell me, what kind of place can that alley be?
Every woman I get, the alley takes her away from me.

Perhaps it’s going too far to describe the New York centre of the song-writing industry as a place of ill repute — raffish is as far as we may in fairness go — but this association of the term may well have contributed to the sarcastic undertones of Tin Pan Alley when it first appeared.

Page created 21 Apr. 2012

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Last modified: 21 April 2012.