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All's Pretty Quiet Along Famous Tin Pan Alley


In the United States, musical scores, like lyrics and the words in books and manuscripts, can be copyrighted. The holder of the copyright can charge money to anyone who wants to use the material, say in a musical play or in digital downloads from the Internet.

But this was not always the case. Many great musicians died penniless because others stole their songs and produced them. So in the 1880s, a group of songwriters and music publishers got together. Not only did they convince the government to strengthen copyright laws to include their kind of work, but they also opened little offices where aspiring singers, songwriters and producers could write and audition new tunes.

Many of these offices were clustered in one block in New York City, on West 28th Street in Manhattan, just off Broadway.

This came to be known as Tin Pan Alley. It's said that the name traces to the constant clatter of drums and upright pianos. Annoyed neighbors said it sounded like the banging of pots and pans. Many of America's greatest composers, including George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin, were making that clatter.

As sheet music, lavish radio shows and vaudeville musical stage productions faded from prominence during the Great Depression of the 1930s, many songwriters moved to Hollywood, which was producing spectacular film musicals.

Along Tin Pan Alley today, you'll find mostly cheap souvenir and jewelry shops and a single commemorative plaque in the street. The owner of the block has put all the buildings up for sale. If they're sold, modern office buildings will likely rise in their place.

Those who live and work there are pressing the city and state of New York to declare the block an historic landmark, so the buildings can be saved.

But even if they succeed, it's not going to bring the music back to Tin Pan Alley.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.


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