Tin Pan Alley and the Invasion of Ragtime Music

Carrie Jacobs-Bond, Famous Woman Composer 1920

Carrie Jacobs-Bond 1920

At the turn of the century (1900), the popular music in America was filled with lovely tunes.  Some of them came from the pen of a woman whose life was filled with hardship and tragedy, Carrie Jacobs-Bond.  In all, she wrote around 175 pieces of popular music (some called parlor songs) from the 1890’s to the 1940’s.  

Two of her parlor songs are of great interest to us, because of their lasting value and their unmistakable imprint on film scores.  “I Love You Truly” was published in 1901; however, for the generations that came during or after WWII, the song was best known as the “wedding song,” for George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) and his wife, Mary (played by Donna Reed), sung in the rain in two-part harmony by their friends: the policeman (Ward Bond) and the cab driver (Frank Faylen).  We can still enjoy this memorable scene in the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).  Notwithstanding the fact that Dimitri Tiomkin wrote a good score for the movie, it is this song that is memorable.


The second song was published in 1910, and eight million copies of the sheet music were sold within one year; a total of twenty-five million copies were sold during Carrie’s lifetime.  It was titled “A Perfect Day,” but was widely known as “The End of a Perfect Day.”  It has a critical role in the movie, Remember the Night (1940), as a hardened criminal, Lee Leander (played by Barbara Stanwyck), is forced to spend Christmas with her prosecutor, an assistant District Attorney named John Sargent (played by Fred MacMurray).  While the criminal court in New York City is in recess, she is released into Sargent’s custody; and he is on his way back to visit his Mother (played by Beulah Bondi) in Indiana.  

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Remember the Night trailer

Remember the Night

To Lee, the trip becomes a life’s journey; it is a period of reflection and revelation to her.  More to the point, Lee is amazed at and by the power of love in a small Indiana town.  

On the night of her arrival, after supper, the family moves to the parlor/living room, where Lee volunteers to play a piece on the piano that she knows.  It is “A Perfect Day.”  Willie, the handyman, played by Sterling Holloway, is smitten by the beautiful Lee and sings it to her in a pure tenor voice.  The singing is both simple and moving at the same time.  The rest of the family joins in; the lyrics were born out of sorrow but promise hope.  

The acting is superb overall, but we ought to take special note of Holloway.  He played comedic, bumbling, movie roles that fit his odd looks and high pitched voice; however, he was an accomplished Broadway actor and singer who introduced the Rodgers and Hart song “Manhattan” in The Garrick Gaieties (1925.17), produced by the Theatre Guild.

You can hear Holloway sing “A Perfect Day” in this embedded clip of his life from YouTube (first 1:44 of the clip); and by clicking on this link, you can see the scene from the movie.  If you like the scene from the movie, it will be best to see the entire movie so that you can judge for yourselves just how important the song is to the theme of the movie.

There were other successful popular songs, such as Harry Von Tilzer’s “A Bird in a Gilded Cage,” (1900), “I Want a Girl” (1911) and Albert Von Tilzer’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Time” (1920).  However, the days of non-syncopated music were numbered.

Upon first hearing ragtime piano music, the composers and publishers in New York City were jolted awake by its infectious sound.  Victor Herbert incorporated ragtime into the middle movement of his serious composition, PanAmericana, written for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901.  

Tin Pan Alley composers started to write music that they entitled “rags:”  

Joe E. Howard wrote “Hello, My Baby” in 1899;

Bob Cole wrote “Under the Bamboo Tree” in 1902;

Hughie Cannon wrote “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” in 1902;

Harry von Tilzer, Tin Pan Alley Composer

Harry von Tilzer

Harry von Tilzer wrote “Goodbye, Eliza Jane” in 1903 and “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” in 1905;

Irving Berlin wrote “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune” in 1909; “Stop That Rag” in 1910; “Ragtime Violin,” “Everybody’s Doing It” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911; “Ragtime Mocking Bird,” “Ragtime Soldier Man,” “Ragtime Sextet,” “Ragtime Jockey Man,” “That Mysterious Rag,” “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’ “ in 1912; and “Play a Simple Melody” in 1914;  

Lewis F. Muir wrote “When Ragtime Rosie Ragged the Rosary” in 1911 and “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” in 1913;

Theodore F. Morse wrote “Another Rag” and “When Uncle Joe Plays a Rag on his Old Banjo” in 1912;

Chris Smith, Ragtime Composer

Chris Smith

Chris Smith wrote the immortal “Ballin’ the Jack” in 1913;

Shelton Brooks wrote “Darktown Strutters Ball” in 1917

Because vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley are regarded as historic relics, it sometimes good to see and hear the vibrant song and dance routines that once entertained our country.  Let’s take a look at some of these routines recorded on film, as they are the only remnants of a lost era in American music.

The first example comes from a movie musical starring Bing Crosby and Mary Martin (Birth of the Blues in 1941).  The song is “Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines Nellie,” and this version is of importance to us because of the syncopated tempo and the lovely harmony between the two singers.  It is such a good arrangement that it is worth buying the movie just to have a pristine copy of the song.  

Because our first example is a 1941 arrangement, we thought it might be a good idea to look around for an example of the old vaudeville song and dance routines.  In the movie For Me and My Gal (1942), the studio tried to recreate the songs that were performed during the vaudeville era.  Various songs by various composers were chosen; all were performed beautifully by the cast.  We’ve chosen the rag, “Ballin’ the Jack” (1913) to fit into our narrative; but all of the songs are worth your time and attention, and the entire movie is on iTunes or in stores.  Take note of the dance routine, as well as the song itself, as performed by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

In 1948, Berlin commissioned a movie of his songs, called Easter Parade.  One of the highlighted songs is “When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’ ”  written in 1912.  With Berlin overseeing the production, it is likely that the style and tempo of the song and dance were faithfully recreated for the movie.  We have a second glimpse of Garland, this time paired with Fred Astaire.  The Berlin tunes are great; and, if you can watch the entire movie, it is a chance to see two of the best singers and dancers ever to work on any stage.

The song can also be heard on the Library of Congress National Jukebox, where the white singing team of Collins and Harlan perform in what they think is black dialect.  The recording is interesting for historical purposes, but it does not do justice to the song.  However, you can see for yourself by logging onto loc.gov/jukebox/recordings or google loc.gov/jukebox.

In another movie, Babes on Broadway (1941), Garland, Mickey Rooney and friends don blackface to perform Muir’s “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (1913).  While the practice of blackface for today’s audiences may be objectionable, for the student of history it is necessary that we understand the concept of minstrel shows and how they were performed. All performers used cork to blacken their faces, including African-American actors like Bert Williams.  As Rhiannon Giddens explains on PBS (Carolina Chocolate Drops), often the cork would lighten the skin color of the black performer.

We cannot show you that clip because the copyright owners had the youtube account shut down. While they have the legal right to do so, it is self-destructive. If you cannot see the clip, there will be no reason to buy the DVD. Luckily, we have two other versions of the song for you to listen to. One is a quintet (Heidelberg Quintet) from 1911.

The second version is from a 1962 TV show; Eddie Peabody and two other banjo players strum through the song on the Lawrence Welk Show.

If you listen to Muir’s lyrics, you will hear a reference to “Jelly Roll Blues.” The song, as written by Jelly Roll Morton in 1910, was called “Original Jelly Roll Blues” and was published in 1915.  So, the reference in 1917 in “Darktown Strutters Ball” is an indication of how popular “Jelly Roll Blues” had become.  Listen to the 1926 recording of “Original Jelly Roll Blues” by Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers.

Next we present a 1950 recording of “Play a Simple Melody” by Bing and Gary Crosby.  The song is from Berlin’s first revue (1914.31), Watch Your Step; and the song is important to us because it was a very successful use of two melodies (called a dual melody), where one melody plays in counterpoint to the other.  One melody is a regular song; the other is syncopated.  The two melodies are sung separately and then sung together, with independent lyrics and melody.

For those of you who have heard and like string bands (such as those showcased in the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia every New Year’s Day), we found an all-instrumental version of “Play a Simple Melody” on the website of the Quaker City String Band, found at quakercitystringband.com.  (By the way, the Mummers Parade is the oldest folk festival in the United States and, in our opinion, should be preserved as a rare art form.)

Jerome Kern wrote “Ragtime Restaurant” (1912.41) for the show The Red Petticoat.  The song was restored by John McGlinn and then recorded by EMI/Angel in 1993 (CDC 7 54883; London Sinfonietta, with Hugh Panaro and Rebecca Luker and London Sinfonietta Chorus).


George Gershwin wrote “Swanee” in 1919 for Al Jolson so that he could interpolate the song into a revue already running on Broadway, called Sinbad (1918.05).  The song is best presented in the movie Rhapsody in Blue (1945), sung by Jolson in blackface.  Listen to the driving rhythm in the verse (“I’ve been away from you a long time”).

While not literally ragtime music, this music is syncopated and lends itself to jazz tap dancing.  Here is a rendition of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s famous “stair dance” that he developed and performed for many years as part of his solo vaudeville act.  Robinson sings his version of “Old Kentucky Home” and integrates bits of other songs. It was added to the movie, The Little Colonel (1935) as a way to get the little girl (Shirley Temple) to go upstairs and to bed.