Liner Notes for Troublesome Moon (and Other Forgotten Tin Pan Alley Gems)


Play me that naughty melody. It’s appealing to me, has me up in a tree. Gee,

When I’m awake or sleeping that melody comes creeping

Into my room, and says “I’m here, Baby dear, baby dear, look who’s here.”

I only heard it once or twice. Gee it’s naughty but nice, and it seems to entice me.

It always makes me act so funny, sticks like a friend who has no money,

Wonderful strain, that naughty melody.

--lyrics by Sam M. Lewis


This is cocktail party music. Stand around the piano and sing music. Sunday morning pancake music. Maybe even roll up the carpet and dance music.

These are forgotten songs from Tin Pan Alley, played as solo piano pieces.

In the early twentieth century, New York City composers toiled at upright pianos in the music publishing district around 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, crafting songs for the masses to play and sing. The street and its style were nicknamed “Tin Pan Alley” because the jangling pianos from all the open windows filled the street below with a sound like banging on tin pans. This music was popular while jazz was emerging from ragtime, and you can hear references to (or pilferings from) both ragtime and jazz in accompaniment patterns, syncopation and occasionally lyrics. But the music of Tin Pan Alley tended to be less complex, ambitious and varied than ragtime and jazz. Aiming primarily to please, it was designed to be catchy on the first hearing. Browsing customers previewed sheet music by having a song-plugger play the tunes on a piano. Famous composers such as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin got their start plugging songs in Tin Pan Alley. That was an important job, since if a song made a good impression, a traveling star or vaudeville show could make that song a hit, and a hit meant sheet music sales.

Once a song was a hit, it was played not by pop stars on the radio as is common today, but on the piano at home. The sheet music lived on the piano, and was played and sung by amateur musicians – family members and friends. The music people listened to in their homes was live, and these songs often filled the house as solo piano pieces, while the pianists of the family learned them. But they faded away, replaced by the next season’s hits and then by the twentieth-century phenomenon of recordings, which changed music from a thing people mostly did to a thing people mostly heard.

A couple of years ago, I was struck by a scene in Downton Abbey, the BBC series set during the First World War. A footman played an upright piano in the downstairs hallway near the kitchen while the other servants danced. "That music is absolutely charming," I thought. "I wish I had a recording of it that I could play at parties."

So I decided to make one.

Just as technology continues to transform the process by which we make and listen to music, technology also made it possible for me to discover these forgotten sheet music treasures. I spent months exploring the digital archive of the performing arts encyclopedia of the Library of Congress. It’s an invaluable resource, with thousands of scores available for download. The online collection of Historical American Sheet Music 1850-1922 is the source for all the scores for this recording.

I decided to leave out the composers and songs I knew and recognized, and instead focused on discovering new composers and songs, which I found I loved:

Maurice Abrahams, who wrote for Broadway shows and Vaudeville reviews, born in Russia and married to vaudevillienne Maude Baker;

Jimmy Blyler, who wrote for the lavish Ziegfield Follies revue;

Edward Clark, born in Russia and a prolific Vaudeville comedian, actor, author, and songwriter; Albert Piantadosi, a charter member of ASCAP (which secures royalties for composers) and its director for the last decades of his life;

Emily Smith, whose mother and sisters also worked in music (an impressive fact when you remember that women did not yet have the right to vote);

George Meyer, who wrote “Me and My Gal” and had his own publishing company on 45th Street;

Albert von Tilzer, who wrote “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” and opened his own publishing house, and was brother to the better-known Harry von Tilzer (another successful composer and publisher);

and others whose histories are lost.

I hope this music can find new life in this recording. And if you play the piano, and some of these pieces make you think, “Hey, I’d like to play that,” I hope you’ll go to the digital archive, print them out, and play them.

–Jocelyn Swigger