Swinging Tin Pan Alley
Ta: Joanna Rockwell
To participate in discussion, read the following, including the instructions in the “DISCUSSION ASSIGNMENT” below— and then click on “Post New Entry” above (login to see the button) to submit your post.
The songs found in the playlists “Kansas City and New York Swing” and “Swinging the Tin-Pan Alley” are characteristic of a great synthesis in music history: new heights in the modern theatrical culture of American songwriting, influenced by Tin-Pan Alley, and the highly evolved state of swing in the (post-depression) 1940s and later.
In the 30s, Tin-Pan Alley songwriters like Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen, and other composers like Duke Ellington, sought to provide a way to resonate with their listeners’ increasingly modern lives, and sometimes to provide a means of escape. Lawrence Levine’s “American Culture in the Great Depression” (1985) describes a nation affected by anxiety, impatience for social change, and strange elements of passivity and complacency.
But from Stowe’s (1998) chapter “Tempo of the Time,” we begin to see that in the middle of 1930s, musical culture began to reflect a sea-change. The creative seriousness of Chick Webb, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and others transformed the pop-culture success story of early jazz into something widely recognized as America’s classical music.
Once the 1930s was nearing a close, American culture found itself emerging confidently on a global stage, but many of the same anxieties persisted, as working-class and especially black working-class Americans were far from escaping the Depression, and World War II became a reality that struck American communities personally and directly. As always, audiences yearned for songs that could give them a sense of identity or place in the world, and sometimes sought means of distraction from the troubles or complexities of everyday life. Musicians of the swing era accommodated their audiences in both ways, sometimes through a distant world of glamour and leisure, familiar to the Tin-Pan-Alley aesthetic, but other times through a more immediate or powerful engagement with “universal” human emotions about love and Romantic intrigue.
DISCUSSION (Due October 29 — or submit by October 25 at noon to get TA guidance toward an essay): Choose one recording from the “Swinging Tin-Pan Alley” playlist and analyze what you hear in detail. Treat two elements of the song separately.
(1) Arrangement: What is the form of the song, and how would you describe the difference between one part of the form and another? Does the arrangement of the song, in both its melody and accompaniment, help to articulate the song’s basic composition? How do the layers of instruments contribute your sense of the song as a dynamic, changing expression?
(2) Interpretation: How do the elements discussed in (1) above contribute to your sense of the song’s overall meaning? Do changes in instrumentation support, or detract, from the melody and lyrics? How?
Overall, your thoughts should address how what the different instruments play provoke different feelings in the music. Try to pick out a few instruments you hear (for now, don’t worry to much if you name them incorrectly) and share what feelings they contribute to the song.
Your thoughts, in about 150-250 words, should be posted to this webpage, by clicking on the “create new post” button on the upper left corner. (You’ll have to login to see it.)
ESSAY (Due October 29 — if you choose to write an essay in this unit): For your assignment, select two of the following songs: [from the “Swinging Tin Pan Alley” playlist —] “It’s All Right With Me,” “I got rhythm,” or “Stormy Weather” performed by Lena Horne ; [from the “Kansas City and New York Swing” playlist — ]
“I Ain’t Got Nothing but the Blues” performed by Ella Fitzgerald, “Do Nothing till You Hear From Me,” or “Solitude” performed with the Duke Ellington orchestra.
Consider your own visceral responses to the role of arrangement, rhythm, and form in these two recordings. How does the arrangement in each recording affect your experience as a listener? You should think about aspects of the music such as tempo, lyrics, and how listeners might be affected differently by the roles of different instruments, in different parts of the form. What do the instruments seem to be saying? Do the lyrics correspond to the feeling of the melody and instrumentation? Or do the lyrics seem to contrast the orchestration? Try to be as specific as possible about how the instrumentation changes throughout the song. Feel free to uncover other versions of the same song, using web resources, in order to get a sense of how this arrangement differs from the core identity of the song.
Your essay, in the form of a post to the Swinging Tin Pan Alley Essays page, is due on October 29 at noon. It should be about 600-800 words long. Double-check your facts, and proof your work to make sure your peers will understand your argument and your ideas. Please write clearly and concisely — big ideas count more than big words.
When you are done, please take time read your peers’ posts and essays, compare and contrast your thoughts, and continue discussion.
Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Cheek to Cheek,” begins with a piano which is soon accompanied with a light drum percussion as Louis Armstrong begins to sing. This track has a very uprising and upbeat sound and meaning to the words. Armstrong and Fitzgerald are in “heaven” which is the immediate hint that it is a happy song that coinsides and complements the happy tune and instrumental sounds. When listening to this recording, it appears to me it consists of AABBCA. I found it somewhat difficult to determine this configuration but by listening to the instruments I found that I was able to hear differences that I was not as easily able to hear through the singing of Armstrong and Fitzgerald. The piano begins with a simple sequence which is A and as Armstrong continues the piano no longer follows the same tune (B) and again changes (C) but then comes back around to A. The piano, drums, and trumpet all play an uprising tune which accompanies the singing very well.