Chester Design Associates, Chicago
In the era preceding the radio’s centrality in every household’s living room, home entertainment consisted of a piano and voices, and the music industry revolved around the sale of sheet music. Music publishers had set up shop on an undistinguished street in Manhattan’s Flatiron district—Twenty-eighth Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue—that came to be known as Tin Pan Alley.
Tin Pan Alley had produced such durable hits as “In the Good Old Summertime” (1902), “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (1908), and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (1910). Then came “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” by Irving Berlin in 1911. Technically a march, not a rag, incorporating elements as unusual as a bugle call and a quotation from Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks At Home” (‘Swanee River,’ 1851), Berlin’s vivacious hybrid sold a million copies and made ragtime the rage. “Alexander” also launched a craze for social dancing, since you could dance more easily to ragtime than to the vaudeville ditties or sentimental ballads it displaced. Thus began the American songbook. Kern and Gershwin added to it before the decade ended. Then came the 1920s and an astonishing proliferation of brilliant songs.
Panel photo captions:
Cover art for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, with permission of The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, on behalf of the Estate of Irving Berlin and the Trustees of the God Bless America Fund. After Berlin’s song became a monumental hit in 1911, Tin Pan Alley would never be the same.
Jack Buchanan, Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, and Oscar Levant singing That’s Entertainment, Courtesy of MGM/Photofest ©MGM. “That’s Entertainment” is a grand show-business anthem that doubles as the title of a popular anthology of MGM musicals. Displaying lyricist Howard Dietz’s virtuosic skill and literary intelligence, the song consists primarily of couplets balanced between sentiment and satire. Here’s how Dietz irreverently paraphrases the story of Oedipus Rex: “A gent kills his father / and causes a lot of bother.”
Tin Pan Alley Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images. West Twenty-eighth Street in Manhattan—home to American music publishing when the twentieth century began—was where you went if you wanted to become a songwriter.
The songwriters didn’t set out to create a new art form in the thirty-two-bar song. But that is what they accomplished. The basic structure consists of a verse, or lead-in, followed by two eight-measure statements of the melodic theme; a bridge (or “release”) of the same length; and then eight final bars returning to the refrain and sometimes varying it. The form is nothing if not elastic. In “That Old Black Magic,” for example, Harold Arlen introduces leaps and drops that extend the melody to seventy-two bars.
During their effervescent heyday—a roughly fifty-five-year period between 1911 and 1965—popular songs fed a nexus of other arts and pastimes. The Broadway musical and its Hollywood counterpart in their prime; the jazz of Swing Street in midtown Manhattan and the Cotton Club in Harlem; the Big Bands of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller; vocalists on the order of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald: all depended on the songwriters for their material.
So, too, did the night clubs of a vanished era—the Copacabana, the Stork Club, and El Morocco in New York, and later the neon casinos of Las Vegas. The American songbook was the stuff of real or make-believe ballrooms, where people went (or imagined going) to dance the Lindy or the fox-trot at a time when ballroom dancing was all but universal, the very language of courtship.
Panel photo captions:
Sheet music for “That Old Black Magic,” with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Courtesy of Hal Leonard Corporation and the Library of Congress. With Mercer, one of the most prolific and best loved of lyricists, Arlen teamed up to create such jazz standards as “That Old Black Magic,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and that saloon singer’s standby, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).”
Benny Goodman and his band, Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Nicknamed the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman— a clarinetist nimble enough to play a Mozart concerto or a Balanchine ballet–led his big band in such hits as “Stomping at the Savoy,” “Don’t Be That Way,” and “Goody Goody.” When Benny hired the black jazz pianist Teddy Wilson to join his trio in 1935, it was a momentous event in the history of integration.
Poster for the Cotton Club in Harlem, Courtesy of Photofest. Not only Cab Calloway but also Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong performed at the Cotton Club, which was as hot and risqué a night club as New York had to offer when Prohibition was still the law of the land. In 1931 Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, the house musicians here, crafted songs that fuse ardor and resignation into a sublime ambivalence: “I don’t want you, / But I’d hate to lose you.”
Berlin, Irving, 1888-1989, Kern, Jerome, 1885-1945, Gershwin, George, 1898-1937, Dietz, Howard, 1896-1983, Arlen, Harold, 1905-1986, Goodman, Benny, 1909-1986, Mercer, Johnny, 1909-1976, Koehler, Ted, 1894-1973