Eastern Michigan showcases a performance of the "Jews on Tin Pan Alley"

Take a stroll down this historic place during an evening of song and celebration

by Pamela Young, Published November 05, 2013

YPSILANTI – What do George and Ira Gershwin, Sammy Cahn and Neil Diamond have in common? They have all worked as musicians or lyricists in New York’s famous Tin Pan Alley, where Jewish-Americans made musical history.

Take a stroll through this historic district as Eastern Michigan University presents a performance, “Jews on Tin Pan Alley” Monday, Nov. 11 with author and historian Ken Kanter. The event begins with a strolling reception at 6 p.m. followed by Kanter’s performance at 7 p.m. at the Eastern Michigan University Student Center Ballroom, 900 Oakwood St. in Ypsilanti. Tickets are $18.

Kanter will explore Jewish contributions to this uniquely American sound through songs and anecdotes. He is a popular lecturer and author whose work focuses on the Jewish contributions to American popular music from the 1840s to the 1940s. 

Popular music flourished in lower Manhattan, from about the late 1880s to the 1930s, where predominately Jewish-American “song pluggers,” or pianists and singers, earned a living demonstrating songs to promote sales of sheet music.  The noisy area, nicknamed Tin Pan Alley, referred to the tinny sounds produced by cheap pianos, all playing different tunes and resembling the banging of tin pans in an alleyway.

The start of the popular music renaissance began around 1885 when a number of music publishers set up shop on Manhattan’s West 28th St. between Fifth and Sixth Ave. Initially, melodramatic ballads and comic novelty songs were performed, but then a new style emerged - ragtime. The goal was to produce songs that amateur singers or small town bands could perform from printed music.

Now, 128 years later, the nickname refers to New York City music publishers and songwriters.

Jewish-Americans who reshaped American music include such composers and lyricists as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harry Warren, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, Mitchell Parish and Sammy Cahn, all born to poor Eastern European immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side.

Many of the well-known songs include:

  •  “The Band Played On” (Charles Ward & John Palmer, 1895)
  •  “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” (Joe Hayden & Theodore Mertz, 1896)
  •  “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?” (Huey Cannon, 1902)
  •  “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (Albert Von Tilzer, 1908)
  •  “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin, 1918, revised 1938)
  •  “Swanee” (George Gershwin, 1919)
  •  “Happy Days Are Here Again” (Jack Yellen & Milton Ager, 1930) and
  •  “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (Jay Gorney & E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, 1930)

Kanter has lectured on such topics as “From the Silver Screen to the Great White Way,” “The Bible on Broadway,” “Is It True What They Sing About Dixie?” and “We Jews on Broadway.”

His first book, The Jews on Tin Pan Alley, showcasing Jewish contributions to popular music, was published in 1982. He also contributed to the 1992 book, Jewish-American History and Culture, and the Encyclopedia of Jewish-American Popular Culture, published in 2008

Kanter is currently associate dean and director of the rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Kanter received a master’s degree from Hebrew Union College in 1978 and a bachelor’s degree in Jewish and American history from Harvard University in 1974. An ordained rabbi, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2005.

For reservations, visit http://bit.ly/TinPanAlley or call Natalie LaDow at 734-481-2320.

The event is sponsored by Eastern Michigan University’s Jewish Studies program and The Jewish Community Impact Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor

Pamela Young

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