Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Sunday, August 23, 2020

About song pluggers and pirates - the heart and soul of Yiddish penny songs

Here are some passages pertinent to Yiddish Penny Songs found in a book called Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay: The Dodgy Business of Popular Music by Simon Napier-Bell. Before I read this, I thought the business of swiping songs and printing cheap copies in the basement and then flogging them on the street was unique to Jewish peddlers on the Lower East Side, but in fact they were just copying what was happening in the American music business. This is worth reading if the history interests you:
By the beginning of the 18902, the old generation of New York publishers ... had completely faded away, outclassed by the energy and innovation of these newcomers (Marks, Stern, Feist, Harris, Witmark, Shapiro, Bernstein, Von Tilzer) nearly all of them Jewish immigrants, or children of immigrants.

They all understood that the essential link between a newly written song and the sale of its sheet music was the plugger. "He it is," wrote music sociologist Isaac Goldberg, "who by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, meyhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has, sees to it that his employer's music shall be heard."

Leo Feist hired pluggers to sing in public places - on the platform of a train station, in Times Square, a saloon bar, a theatre balcony, a pool hall - anywhere a crowd gathered.

Edward B. Marks told people the best songs came from the gutter. "There was no surer way of starting a song off to popularity than to get it sung as loudly as possible in the city's lowest dives." He went out himself each night, buying drinks for the performers and distributing chorus-sheets to the customers...

Other pluggers would go to the music counters of department stores with hundreds of copies of the song printed on the cheapest paper, then stand and sing it while selling them for ten cents each. Every department store had a grand piano allotted by the hour to publishers for their pluggers to play and sing new songs.

At Witmark & Son, the preferred method of plugging was 'booming.' It meant buying a dozen or so tickets for a vaudeville show and placing pluggers in the audience. When the performer sang, they joined in, and applauded wildly afterwards. Sometimes a singer would pretend to forget the words and a boomer would stand up in his seat and prompt him by singing along.

At Shapiro Bernstein, Louis Bernstein took his plugging crew to the bicycle races at Madison Square Garden and the audience got it full in the face ... "We'd have a pianist and snger with a large horn. We'd sing a song to them thirty or forty times a night - it was forced down their throat. They'd cheer, and they'd yell, and they'd boo, but we kept pounding away at them. When the people walked out of there they'd be singing the song. They couldn't help it."

... When songs became popular, the masses bought them to sing round the piano at home for their Saturday night entertainment. In turn of the century New York nearly every home had a piano, rich and poor. ... When Harry Ruby was a child he lived with his family on the lower East Side. ... 'All the families around us were poor. But they had pianos... you could buy one for a hundred dollars and pay it off on time payments. They'd hoist it up to the apartment on a rope.'

Because the music publishers depended on sheet music sales, it was important that evven the most amateurish pianist could play their songs easily. ... Songs were made simple, chords uncomplicated, rhythms obvious. Melodies had a range of no more than one octave, often less...

The familiarity became addictive. The listener waited with pleasure for the places in the song where he knew the changes would come, and with equal pleasure for the return to the original tune. ... There was no point writing something cunningly clever if it couldn't easily be played and sung round the family piano.

And about thievery of music:

In 1905 a bankrupt fishmonger almost killed off the British music industry. Music publishers called him 'The Pirate King' because all over London he sold cheaply made copies of sheet music on the street ... they sold for pennies, less than a tenth of the normal price...

Popular songs only required two or three pages of paper and they could be photographed or litho'ed in any old shed or barn which happened to be handy. They could then be retailed to an army of street hawkers for distribution...

Composer Sir Edward Elgar joined the publishers in petitioning parliament for a bill with real teet -- the Copyright Act of 1906. Afterwards, hawkers selling pirated music found themselves going off to jail for twelve months and the illicit trade stopped dead.


For sheet music and/or performances contact me: jane@mappamundi.com

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