Give My Regards to Broadway: Tin Pan Alley in Georgetown's Special Collections

Leon Robbin Gallery



The phrase “Great American Songbook” has been coined to describe the profusion of classic songs written in the fleeting decades of the 1920s-1950s and drawn from the musical repertoire of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. The most often associated composers and lyricists--Berlin, Hammerstein and Kern, Cole Porter, Gershwin and Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein--created songs of an unprecedented breadth and depth of subject matter, ranging from love to loss and even social commentary. This repertoire also displays a remarkable unity of musical structure (thirty-two bar form) and a largely codified body of stylistic features. Given that much of this repertoire was created for the stage and/or screen, the lyrics often make reference to dramatic themes and explore elements of the characters themselves. Among the music holdings in Georgetown’s Special Collections Research Center are several collections featuring the music of this era. With the exception of one item from the Georgetown University Archives--an example of Georgetown-themed sheet music influenced by the Tin Pan Alley style--all the items on display come from the papers of composer Arthur Johnston (1898-1954), who collaborated or corresponded with many of the leading composers, lyricists and performers of the day. The Johnston papers were acquired on the Leon Robbin Endowment Fund, created through the generosity of the late Leon Robbin (L’22). 

"I'll Show You Off"

"I'll Show You Off"

Words by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Paul Abraham
London: Chappell & Co., 1933

Still riding the success of Show Boat (1927), Hammerstein wrote the lyrics for this song for his adaptation into English of Ball im Savoy, a popular operetta first performed in Germany. Hammerstein got his start writing lyrics in the vein of Tin Pan Alley for song interpolations: three or four songs per show rather than the complete book. Show Boat did not spring fully formed from Hammerstein's forehead: even the twentieth century's greatest lyricists had to practice and perfect their craft.

The Cohan Revue 1916, front cover

My Musical Comedy Maiden sheet music

"My Musical Comedy Maiden"

Words and Music by George M. Cohan
From The Cohan Revue 1916
New York: Irving Berlin, 1916

George M. Cohan was the most successful singer, songwriter, and performer and producer on Broadway. A revue featured a loosely related collection of songs performed by proto-Vaudeville singers; and at the time, the term signified an adult-themed show. Note that this sheet music was published by Irving Berlin, Inc.

"Nymph Errant"

"Nymph Errant"

Words and Music by Cole Porter
London: Chappell & Co., 1933

Porter was one of the few composers and lyricists active on Broadway. This piece is quintessential Porter: lyrical sophistication, syncopation in the music and allusive composition, in this case reminiscent of Latin dance genres. Note the solfège notation above the melody line, intended to facilitate performance.

"Was I?"

"Was I?"

Words and Music by "Chick" Endor and Charlie Farrell
From the Ziegfeld Follies 1931
New York: Miller Music, 1931

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. had established his reputation as a producer and impresario as early as the Chicago World's Fair (the Columbian Exposition of 1893). Sex was always a part of the Ziegfeld Follies, with its chorus lines and their suggestive attire. This cover image of a "glorified American girl" by Alberto Vargas and the song's refrain "Was I drunk, was he handsome and did my ma ‘gimme' hell?" might come as a surprise to those who assume earlier times were necessarily more prudish.

Caricature of Arthur Johnston

Caricature of Arthur Johnston

Bill Peed
ca. 1946

Arthur Johnston (1898-1954) wrote the music for such standards as "My Old Flame," "Cocktails for Two," and "Pennies from Heaven." This caricature by storyboard artist Bill Peed (later Peet) testifies to the role Johnston's scores played in the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. Many if not all of the signatures belong to figures associated with Disney, suggesting that the drawing may date from the time of Johnston's composition of the music for the title song to the 1946 film Song of the South.

Photograph of Irving Berlin

Photograph of Irving Berlin

Vandamm, New  York, n.d.

This undated photograph is inscribed by Irving Berlin to Arthur Johnston. Johnston's first big break, before going on to become a successful composer in his own right, was working as an assistant to Berlin, after a few years of such entry-level music jobs as playing the piano in movie theaters.

The Blue and Gray, front cover

The Blue and Gray, sheet music

"The Blue and Gray"

Lyrics by Leo. P. Burke ‘20
Music by Joseph Thomas Murphy, S.J.
Washington: J. T. Murphy, 1918

This Georgetown-themed sheet music was composed in the style of contemporary Tin Pan Alley by a member of the University's Jesuit Community. Fr. Murphy served as University Director of Music in the 1918-19 school year, and seems also to have acted as publisher of the song. Published during the first World War, this piece features a patriotic call to arms.

Georgetown University Archives