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Tin Pan Alley

Related: 1880s (start) - parlour music - sheet music - popular music

Tar-ra-ra-boom-der-ay (1891) - Henry J. Sayers
image sourced here.


Tin Pan Alley was the name given to the collection of New York City centered music publishers and songwriters who dominated the popular music of the United States of America in the late 19th century and the early 20th century.

The start of Tin Pan Alley is usually dated to about 1885, when a number of music publishers set up shop in the same district of Manhattan. The end of Tin Pan Alley is less clear cut; some date it to the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s when the phonograph and radio finally supplanted sheet music as the driving force of American popular music, while others consider Tin Pan Alley to have continued on into the 1950s when earlier styles of American popular music were upstaged by the rise of rock & roll.

Tin Pan Alley was originally a specific place, West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

The name "Tin Pan Alley" was originally derogatory, referring to the sounds of many pianos all playing different tunes at the same time in this small urban area, producing a cacophony comparable to banging on tin pans. With time this nickname was popularly embraced. It came to refer to the USA music industry in general. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tin_Pan_Alley [Oct 2004]

Tar-ra-ra-boom-der-ay (1891) - Henry J. Sayers

Though a pure American song, written by Sayers in Missouri, the song was actually introduced in London by Lottie Collins. Collins performed the song at Koster's and Bial's theaters in New York in 1892 and launched the song's US success. Over the years, the easily sung and remembered tune has been claimed by many other composers and lyricists who have added their own version of the words. Almost all versions after the first, include extra verses and a "Gentleman's" version that sets the main character as a man rather than a woman as originally written. Recorded often, with one recording by the U.S. Marine Corps band, the song has also been featured in two movies, 1943's Happy Go Lucky and 1947's Mother Wore tights.

The song has also often been used for many other settings; as a drinking song, a fraternity song and for many other "made up" occasions. As a result, I think most people only are familiar with the chorus and fewer still have ever heard or seen the original lyrics. A bit ribald yet full of humor and good natured fun, this is the kind of song that will probably go on for another 110 years and beyond. There has been some debate even as to Sayers originality with the refrain. Music scholars have found the tune in an old German songbook. At one point, lawsuits were filed against various users of the song and Judge Robert Patterson declared the refrain to be in public domain. In spite of that, a number of people who laid claim to the song often extorted money from performers of the song. Cited as a "freak song" by Sigmund Spaeth¹, it has nonetheless proven to be inextinguishable.

Little is know about Henry J. Sayers beyond his publication of this song. He was a press agent handling the publicity for a number of performing companies in 1891 when the song was published. Yet another story related to the song says that Sayers heard the song performed by "Mamma Lou" in St. Louis and that she actually wrote it. Sayers supposedly copied it and had it published therefore earning himself the title of composer. --http://parlorsongs.com/issues/2002-1/thismonth/featurea.asp [Apr 2005]

The phenomenon of "hit" songs did not really come into the American consciousness until the 1890's. Of course, the oft mentioned After The Ball, established a benchmark that all songs that followed were measured against. Before the 90's, the American music publishing industry was scattered and ill defined. Hit songs were disconnected and generally regional, save for a few from early American popular song composers such as Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work. It was with the establishment of a central publishing industry, Tin Pan Alley, and the growth of communication media and later the phonograph and radio that fostered the idea of nation wide and even world wide hit songs.

This first feature on the subject of hits explores the years from 1890 to 1910 and some of the enduring hits that came from those years. be sure to see our February, 2002 feature for a review of the decade when hit songs exploded onto the scene, 1911 - 1920. Also, be sure to see our "In Search Of" series for articles about the concept of hit songs and what makes a song successful. --http://parlorsongs.com/issues/2002-1/thismonth/featurea.asp [Apr 2005]

poster for Lottie "Tar-ra-ra-boom-der-ay" Collins show
image sourced here.

Lottie Collins began her career in 1877 in a skipping rope dance act with her sisters. While in America in 1891 she heard what was to become her trademark song, ‘Tar-ra-ra-boom-der-ay!’. She sang it at the Tivoli in London and it became a major hit. Lottie would pause after the demure first verse and then whirl into an uninhibited version of the skirt dance. Her legs flashing in high-kicking Can-Can style steps would reveal her stockings held up by sparkling suspenders. This sent the audience wild and left Lottie exhausted.

The sensational, uninhibited nature of the dance and the expanse of exposed leg drew complaints from the Puritan league, but music hall audiences loved her and she became a symbol of the ‘Naughty Nineties’. One hundred years later her garters were sold by auction at Sotheby’s. Although she performed other songs and sketches, Lottie was forever associated with her one song. The exhausting nature of the dance may have contributed to her early death in 1910 at the age of only 44. Her daughter José became a star of musical comedy. --http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk/guided_tours/music_hall_tour/music_hall_stars/collins.php [Apr 2005]

see also: music hall - Tin Pan Alley - popular music - radio - phonograph - 1890s - sheet music

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