Why Tin Pan Alley Is for the Birds

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Why Tin Pan Alley Is for the Birds

An historical essay.
Somebody in South Africa holding a Paradise Flycatcher in their hand

Over at h2g2 HQ, the international Core Team have discovered something: we don't agree on what bird names represent. The European blackbird is kind of a dull colour, not glossy like our North American versions. That's because they're a different species. And that Robin Redbreast? To us, he's a large, orange-fronted thrush! It happens.

The reason for that is simple: our pioneer ancestors were mostly not ornithologists. Four hundred years ago, they landed on these heavily forested shores with the shirts on their backs, and not much else. Cataloguing wildlife wasn't their thing. They tended to call the plants and animals by familiar names based on what they looked like. If it was black, it was a blackbird. If it was blue, it was a bluebird. Unless it was a noisy blue jay… The big, friendly thrush turned into a robin. He probably didn't care. I've never heard one complain, as long as you turn up the garden now and again so that he can find tasty worms.

With the plants, this was a more serious matter. Poisoning has resulted from mistaking, say, a very nasty flower for the harmless chamomile. My great-grandfather died of 'chamomile tea poisoning', and I knew a lady who lost all her hair in the 1930s from the same 'medicinal' plant. The moral of this story is: make friends with botanists.

All over North America, our European ancestors slapped inappropriate names on animals. For example, they called a skunk a polecat. There was one Jesuit who ran into a skunk back in the day. He called it worse than that, like 'Lucifer's cat', etc. If they were completely stumped, they asked a Native American what it was called, and used that.

Back to the birds. This explains why when a European reads, 'Who killed Cock Robin? I said the sparrow,' you're picturing one kind of robin, and when we read it across the water, we're picturing a much larger bird, and wondering why the little sparrow was mad at it. Our songs and poems can be mutually confusing. However, it should be noted that when we read Poe's 'The Raven', we're both thinking about the same thing1.

Tin Pan Alley

In the late 19th Century, the US got a lot of new immigrants from all over, especially eastern and southern Europe. Many, many of these people crowded into cities like New York. There, the musically gifted among them joined their fellow New Yorkers in creating a pop music industry. Located on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, the place had so many pianos banging at once that it sounded like all the tin pans in the city were being misapplied for orchestral purposes, hence the name. And these people ruined the public's understanding of birds, though their intentions were good.

What I'm saying is: these were city people. And more than half of them were immigrants. They knew what a pigeon was. They might have remembered a bird or two from their shtetl childhoods. But they didn't know from 'boids', and it shows in the music. I have proof.

Bird Songs

  • 'Pack up all my cares and woe, here I go, singing low, Bye-Bye Blackbird.' Why the bad press? There's nothing ill-omened about a blackbird. And if it's European, it ain't even black.
  • 'When the red, red robin comes bob-bob-bobbin' along, along, there'll be no more sobbin' when he starts throbbin' his old sweet song…' Okay, American robins bob their heads a lot, and they bop along. And they do have a call that goes 'cheer up', just like the song says. But when they sound like this, you'd probably need a rap musician to do it justice.
  • 'When whippoorwills call, and evening is nigh, I hurry to My Blue Heaven…' We'll give them this one. Whippoorwills are nightjars. But that guy is hurrying home about dark-thirty, if you ask me. Bet he stopped at the pub for a drink.
  • 'Told the little whippoorwill, told the pretty daffodil, told the preacher on the hill, the wedding's on Sunday…' If you told the whippoorwill, the daffodil was still asleep. Dunno where the preacher was if you didn't run into him in the pub. Whippoorwills get rhymed with daffodils all the time, but they have different circadian rhythms.
  • 'Cuckoo, cuckoo, I hear you calling…' Sometimes the songwriters just forgot what continent they were on, or didn't care. The European cuckoo goes 'cuckoo, cuckoo'. The American cuckoo goes 'Coodle', or whatever this is. They signal thunderstorms. You can't yodel as well to them, though.

    True story: I was once in a wood outside Bonn, having a picnic with my friends. A cuckoo called three times. Having never heard one in the wild before, I looked at my watch and said, 'He's slow.' Seven pairs of eyes studied me in sheer perplexity, then seven Germans burst out laughing.

Special Bird Treat: An Art Deco Bird Song!

Back in the day, two cheerful piano-pounding idiots wrote this ornithological masterpiece. Feel free to sing along.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

01.06.20 Front Page

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1Though only one of us is trying to make a pun about a writing desk, Bluebottle.

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