Tin Pan Alley was the name given around the turn of the 20th century to a row of buildings on West 28th Street in Manhattan that housed the nation’s music publishers. Eager composers, dubbed “song pluggers,” would show up to peddle their wares, slamming their hands upon upright pianos from whose supposedly tinny sound the nickname supposedly derived. Before the gramophone and before the radio — and for a long time after — music was sold by the sheet and not by the recording. You learned of a song’s existence only when someone in your home or in your town or in the local saloon got the sheet music and played it on the piano.
This is where this country’s greatest contribution (in my opinion) to world culture originated — the half century of ditties, almost all three to five minutes in length, that constitute what has come to be known as “the American Songbook.” It was on Tin Pan Alley that a song plugger born Israel Baline, resident in the United States for only 18 of his 23 years at that point, toodled around on the piano in publisher Ted Snyder’s office in the year 1911 and came up with a jaunty and propulsive tune that revolutionized popular music single-handedly.
It was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The song plugger’s Americanized name was “Irving Berlin.” The sheet music ended up selling 3 million copies by the end of 1912. Structurally and musically, it defined the contours of the American popular song, with verse and refrain building up to a memorable “hook” that drags you through the rest of the song and, if really powerful, stays in your head for the rest of your life.
Everything flowed into the American song through Berlin, creating a great melting pot of melody. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” had echoes not only of ragtime itself but of New Orleans jazz, as filtered through the genius of this Jewish immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. The American Songbook that Berlin invented would borrow snatches of Hebrew cantorial chanting, Italian opera, Irish folk tunes, hillbilly guitar, whatever was pleasing to the ear, with the incessant rhythmic qualities that made a hook a hook. Added to those ineffable sounds were the words — either sentimentally direct or suffused with a cleverness that sought to duplicate the wit of the lyrics of W. S. Gilbert. Berlin, who was in every respect a genius, wrote both.
He made Tin Pan Alley. He was one of the originators of the Broadway musical. He wrote the songs that sent Fred Astaire into the pantheon with Ginger Rogers. Berlin’s first song was published in 1907. Fifty-nine years later, at the age of 78, he wrote a new number for a revival of his greatest Broadway hit, Annie Get Your Gun. It was called “An Old-Fashioned Wedding,” and it would prove to be his swan song. It’s a classic. As his fellow composer Jerome Kern once said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.” Oh, and along the way, he wrote “God Bless America.” It’s far from his best song, but Israel Baline knew exactly what this country had given him, and Irving Berlin returned the favor.