That piano sounds like a tin pan.
Matter of fact this whole street sounds like a tin pan alley.1
Monroe Rosenfeld was tired. The noise of untuned secondhand pianos bleeding through thin cubicle walls; the dozens of screeching vaudevillians sight-reading, shouting, singing; and the thumping rhythm of tap-dancers reached critical mass for the songwriter and sometime journalist. Turning to his friend Harry von Tilzer, Rosenfeld uttered the words that would go on to mark and define popular song for decades. At least that’s one version of the story. The mythical origins of the name and development of Tin Pan Alley have produced a number of similar tales, always full of noise, of labor, and of industry; stories and sounds always resonating among the bricks, brownstones, and concrete of West 28th Street in Midtown Manhattan.
Though Tin Pan Alley has come to denote more than a physical location, it is forever linked to 28th Street through this sensorially evocative origin myth. The sonic particulars of its description evoke the abuse of pianos, the directionality of tinny bright banging projected across an architecturally defined space, bouncing from brick exterior to hard street through open window and back again, in concert with a thousand other similar trajectories. While recent scholarship has uncovered the ways in [End Page 197] which the term served as a critique of commercial music en masse, the legend of a noisy 28th Street persists in our understanding of the music industry and style of song it produced.2 But how did Tin Pan Alley come to land on 28th Street, and why has it seemed to stay there? Taking a closer look at the geography and cacophony at the center of the Tin Pan Alley story provides clues to the movement and function of song and industry at the turn of the twentieth century.
This article revisits the sonic story of a geographical Tin Pan Alley, looking at the conditions that led critics and biographers to drop discursive anchor on 28th Street over one hundred years ago. Beginning with a historical overview of development of Lower and Midtown Manhattan, the creation and movement of social, cultural, and commercial spaces establishes a framework from which we can see and hear 28th Street at the turn of the twentieth century. Understanding the significance of entertainment spaces and their shifting locations in Midtown foreshadows an alternative, noisy, and mobile understanding of life in New York around 1906. The current narratives of the origin and location of Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street are then placed within the geographical frame of Midtown, highlighting the ways in which the Tin Pan Alley story found its place on 28th Street and seemingly got stuck there. Conversing with Keir Keightley’s work on the etymology of Tin Pan Alley, I argue that the label and story of Tin Pan Alley on 28th Street served to present a new, fully formed, and efficient music industry that reflected contemporary modernist and capitalist discourses of a newly modern urban America. The popular song industry’s intrepid claims of place and space, when combined with the critique of cultural products embedded in its label, created an anchored Tin Pan Alley that persists into current narratives of popular commercial song at the turn of the twentieth century.
Beyond the Tin Pan Alley label and legacy, archival materials and contemporary accounts of and by songwriters and publishers offer a contemporary and topographical counternarrative that pushes beyond the traditional definition and boundaries of the alley. Mapping this counternarrative knocks the historical and dialectical Tin Pan Alley over; what we ultimately see and hear clangs beyond a tinny, noisy 28th Street. By closely reading and revisiting the places of popular song in 1906—more than a decade after 28th Street emerged in the Tin Pan Alley story and just two years after the establishment of Times Square—commercial popular song mostly shifted and circulated along Broadway, the north–south avenue facilitating fluid and collaborative creative activity and performance in Midtown Manhattan. This counternarrative uproots song from its discursively limited geographical anchors on 28th Street and frees it to be heard in new ways. Ultimately, an alternative view...