IASPM session 2 – Re(listening) Popular Music History: Tin Pan Story, Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario, Canada)

TIn Pan Alley

Tin Pan Story, Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario, Canada)


Between 1910 and 1919, a spate of stories set in Tin Pan Alley (the New York sheet-music publishing district) appeared in mass-circulation magazines, newspapers, and cinemas. These contributed to the growing popular knowledge about how popular music was manufactured and promoted; thus they can offer us useful views of the workings of the early music industry, from a perspective that differs somewhat from non-fictional accounts of this period. My paper will explore what these stories tell us in particular about the evaluation of popular music and its frequently fraudulent industrial practices. These largely “romantic” narratives are driven by a conception of Tin Pan Alley as a place where authentic love and authentic musical creation/production can become, against the odds, intertwined and interdependent. Here also we glimpse the rising prominence of “backstage” or insider accounts of cultural industries in the 1910s, prior to Hollywood’s mass of self-revelations and self-mystifications of the 1920s. Together, these insights can contribute to a broader historicisation of contemporary notions of authenticity in general, and of their mainstream, mediated roots in particular. This paper represents the next phase of my current work on a genealogy of “mainstream” authenticity, first presented at my Liverpool 2009 plenary, “Tin Pan Allegory”.

Keir began by reminding us that at the turn of the 20thC, TPA was in fact a derogatory term – he reflects that these literally ‘garbage’ terms (also ‘ragtime’) were used to describe music that was thought of as trash. He also provided a geographical context, pointing out that Tin Pan Alley was a number of different streets in NYC, originating in lower Manhattan, then moving up to Chelsea and midtown, then finally settling around Times Square.

He then provided examples of (excoriating) critiques (c.1912) from contemporaneous writers, being dismissive of the trash/garbage music that TPA generates, and bemoaning the lack of emotional authenticity in the lyrics. A fictional story by ‘Helen Van Campen’ from the Saturday Evening Post (March 1912) called ‘Romance in Ragtime’ tells the tale of ‘Benny’, a songwriter, and ‘Dolly’, a singer. Keir’s analysis of the story (there’s actually a series) used to show us the way TPA – and songwriters’ motives – were viewed in the early 20thC. The (male) songwriting character is shown in the story to have inauthentic/dishonest romantic intentions, in keeping with his (lowly) status as a songwriter. Keir points out the that the “artifice of the song’s plot” recalls the artifice of both the songwriter’s craft and the artificiality of the music industry mechanism that supports him (Dolly lives happily ever after thanks to the compositional efforts of another songwriter).

The moral of the series is that authentic love must be earned, and cannot be manufactured. But Dolly has used inauthentic ‘song plugging’ techniques to achieve her industry success. Authenticity is the solution to a romantic and a business problem. Or at least, as he says, that’s his Tin Pan Allegation.

With apologies to Keir, my laptop battery is running low so I have to stop here. For those who want to follow his fascinating analytical work on the origins of Tin Pan Alley and the early history of songwriting, it is likely to be published in the proceedings of IASPM 2013.

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