It’s probably safe to say that anyone reading this post has been exposed, in one way or another, to “pop (-ular) culture”, but it’s equally likely each reader’s understanding and definition of “pop culture” will vary depending, mostly, on his or her age and, to a lesser extent, on factors such as national and even regional origins. This week’s exploration of American phrases and idioms takes us back more than 100 years, to the beginning of America’s music publishing industry.
Before iPods and on-demand music downloads…
before CDs…before Walkman….
before cassette tapes, 8-track tapes, and reel-to-reel tapes…
before vinyl (of the 33-, 45-, and 78-rpm and LP varieties)…
before radio (and long before TV/American Bandstand/MTV, etc.)…
there was Tin Pan Alley…
Benefiting from a fortuitous combination of peace, relative prosperity, and affordability immediately after the American Civil War, piano sales increased to more than 25,000 per year. Hundreds of thousands of young people studied piano, and music became an increasingly important part of home and social entertainment. Not surprisingly, demand for new and entertaining sheet music increased accordingly.
Beginning in about 1885, the American (sheet) music publishing industry centralized itself in a one-block area of Manhattan, most likely because New York City was, at the time, also becoming a center for music and performing arts (think minstrel shows, vaudeville, and Broadway). Music publishers, composers, musicians, and performers congregated in the 3- and 4-story buildings in the area, each one of them contributing in their own way to a discordant cacophony of sounds from both musical and human instruments. The term “tin pan alley” is attributed to a newspaper reporter who, after walking through the district, remarked that the competing sounds from the open windows and doors of the area sounded like a bunch of clanging tin pans. In the same way that Capitol Hill and Hollywood refer respectively to the U.S. Legislature and the motion picture industry, the term “Tin Pan Alley” eventually became a generic term for the entire U.S. music publishing business.
The idea of a tin pan as a source of discordant sound is, of course, much older than its application to the music publishing industry. Tin pans and other noisemakers have been used in shiverees to (loudly) celebrate a couple’s marriage, and every parent can remember the racket created when their toddler child took to banging together a couple of metal pie plates or pot lids. The term tin-panny has been used to describe a poor quality piano, made even more aggravating when such an instrument was played by an amateur musician. Finally, in the same era as it was used to refer to the music publishing industry, tin pan alley was also sometimes associated with a shabby, rundown, or trouble-ridden section of a town or city.
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Posted for Jenny Matlock’s Alphabe-Thursday study of the letter “T.” For Round 5 of this long-running meme, I am focusing on colloquialisms and idioms—words and phrases that are unique to a region or have meanings that aren’t necessarily discernible from the combined meanings of the individual words. I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s exploration as much as I have.
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Sources for this post include:
The Parlor Songs Academy ~ The Story of Tin Pan Alley
Songwriters Hall of Fame ~ Tin Pan Alley: 1880-1953
The Word Detective ~ Tin Pan Alley
Wikipedia ~ Tin Pan Alley
World Wide Words ~ Tin Pan Alley