- The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song by Ben Yagoda
“It’s not uncommon to hear statements to the effect that the American Songbook constitutes a towering achievement in the history of this country, equal or greater than any of our other cultural or artistic endeavors,” observes Ben Yagoda in the opening of The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song (p. 10). Acknowledging that others have already made the arguments for this supposition, Yagoda lays out a different goal with his latest book: to explain how the second quarter of the twentieth century produced an unusual wealth of popular music, commonly known as standards or the Great American Songbook. He looks at the factors that led to its emergence, decline, and ultimate resurrection. Although he has a particular focus on the songwriters, he also examines the business, cultural, and technological aspects that affect this body of work and its reception. He carves out a well-rounded understanding of the topic.
Yagoda is careful to define his terms. He gives numerous examples of how the phrase “Great American Songbook” has been used by others, starting with Carmen McRae’s 1972 album title (p. 2). He identifies the most prominent and the lesser-known songwriters, both composers and lyricists, remarking that many of the first wave were born within a seventeen-year span and were typically middle-class Jewish New Yorkers, and “a striking number attended Columbia University” (p. 14). He addresses the geographic sources of Tin Pan Alley, Broad way, and Hollywood both literally and metaphorically, and he describes their milieu in great detail.
The narrative starts in 1885 when music publishing became a profitable industry. As middle-class families gathered in the parlor, the simplicity of the songs of that era was a marketing virtue, the repertoire accessible to the amateur pianist, the lyrics easy to memorize. Sheet music sales reached their peak at more than two billion copies in 1917; the biggest titles commonly sold five million copies. Yagoda names the entrepreneurs who entered the field at the turn of the century, who frequently had experience in sales rather than music and who were drawn by the low barriers to entry. The new job title of song plugger sprang from the publishers’ marketing methods, and hack writers latched onto lyrical trends.
The move to recordings by professional musicians and to radio airplay enabled a shift to music with more musical and lyrical sophistication, and friendly rivalry among the coterie of composers and lyricists pushed them towards greater artistic achievement. Publisher Max Dreyfus of T. B. Harms was a benefactor to up-and-coming songwriters, granting early opportunities to those who would become the biggest names. Changes in copyright laws made songwriting a viable career for the most talented, and soon Broadway and Hollywood competed with Tin Pan Alley for the best work and workers. With the sister strains of jazz, sweet and hot, “big bands became the country’s principal popular music delivery system,” propelling music sales for jukeboxes and individuals (p. 69). Radio broadcasts broadened the bands’ exposure. The big bands interpreted the works of songwriters or played them straight. Duke Elling ton as composer and bandleader added to the repertoire.
Economics eventually favored vocalists over bands—Frank Sinatra being the prime beneficiary. But changing tastes also played [End Page 513] a role in the bands’ decline. The national mood was sentimental and somber during World War II. At the same time, movie tastes changed, with studios cutting back on musicals that had been a springboard for new popular tunes. On Broadway, a new breed of musicals featured more developed plots and characters, resulting in songs that were specific to their stage situations and that had little relevance outside the shows.
The swing movement wound down in the postwar period, and in the aftermath, “jazz was being surgically removed from...