Tinpan Alley


Now, the VOA Special English Program Words and Their Stories. Today, we tell about the expression, tinpan alley.

For many years, the expression 'tinpan alley' represented American popular music and writers and publishers of songs who made it great. It was first used in the late 1800s on busy, crowded 28th street in New York City.

At that time, offices of music publishers lined both sides of the street. Music from pianos inside the offices filled the air. The music was played by piano demonstrators called song pluggers. They played and sang the songs for orchestra leaders, singers and stars of musical plays, anyone who could use songs in public performances.

One day, a reporter from a New York newspaper visited the office of music publisher Hurry Woncuser. The reporter, Monroe Rosenfeld, was planning a series of stories about American popular music. During the visit, he heard someone playing Mr. Woncuser's piano. The piano was old, and made songs like clanging metal. To Mr. Rosenfeld the piano sounded like tinpans clashing together. "Tinpan music. " he commented, "why? " He said at last, "The whole street is a tinpan alley. " Mr. Rosenfeld used this expression when he wrote his stories about the music publishing business. And from that time on, 28th street in New York City was known as tinpan alley.

Tinpan alley is linked to an exciting period of American popular music that lasted from about 1880 to 1930. In earlier years, American publishing companies mainly dealt with serious music. But toward the end of the century, some young men decided to change this. So they went to New York City, where they could find performers to sing and sell their songs.

On tinpan alley, American popular music developed. From publishing companies on this street came love songs, sad songs, and silly songs, songs that were Ragtime, Jazz and Blues. From tinpan alley, came such great composers as George Gershwin , Irving Berlin , Jerome Kern , Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.

It was there the composers learned their trade. They learned what the public wanted and what would make a song sell. The end of tinpan alley as the center of American music business came around 1930 after records, radio, and talking movies were created. Yet the name, tinpan alley still is linked to the creators of popular music who got their start on the street of songs.

This VOA Special English program Words and Their Stories was written by Susan Kelen. I am Warren Scheer.