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Egbert Van Alstyne,
Tin Pan Alley Pioneer.

 

As a part of our continuing series of Tin Pan Alley pioneer biographies, this month (October, 2004) we present a look at the life and music of Egbert Van Alstyne. Van Alstyne was a prolific composer of hit songs. During his peak of creativity, from about 1900 to 1930, Van Alstyne produced at least 400 and by some estimates, over 700 published songs, many of which reached hit proportions. His clear and harmonic composition style resulted in songs that were eminently singable and memorable as well as downright fun to listen to. He wrote in many genres including ragtime, ballads and novelty songs and became one of America's foremost songwriters. It is not our purpose to provide a definitive biography nor a complete catalog of his music in this article. Rather, we present a general look at his life and provide several illustrative songs from his output to provide the reader with a feel for his style.

 

Egbert's life begins with some controversy in that there are conflicting reports as to not only his birth date but birth place. The ASCAP biography as well as most published biographies place his birth in Chicago, Illinois in 1882. However, one researcher, Tracy Doyle has discovered birth records from Marengo, Illinois (Henry County) showing his birth date is actually 1878. That year by the way, was the same birth year of another famous composer Albert Gumm (or Gummblinsky) who became famous as Albert Von Tilzer. Doyle has a well researched biography of Van Alstyne that also provides her
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personal insights at her Rag Time website.

 

Located some 60 miles east of Chicago, Marengo, Illinois was founded only a few years before Van Alstyne's birth. The first building in Marengo was a general store, erected in 1848. Young Egbert showed musical prowess from the start. Called a "musical prodigy" by Ewen in his book Popular American Composers, he played the organ in the Methodist Church in Marengo when only seven years old. According to Doyle, "He took his first piano lessons from Carolyn Coon, the classically-trained daughter-in-law of Marengo's founding father, Amos B. Coon." Little seems to be said about his earliest years but we do know that he was awarded a music scholarship at the prestigious Chicago Musical College, now a part of Roosevelt University. It was in Chicago that he also completed his academic education at public schools and then later attended college at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

 

Prior to 1900, Van Alstyne, like many early musicians, left home and toured for a while as a vaudeville pianist and director with several different stage shows. In 1900, he met lyricist Harry Williams on the vaudeville circuit and the two hit it off so well they headed to New York along with his bride of one year, Lucille (a name that would appear in several of his later songs). For two years, Van Alstyne worked as a song plugger and staff pianist for the Shapiro & Remick Company, later to become the Jerome H. Remick Co, one of Tin Pan Alley's powerhouse publishers. Van Alstyne's bond with Remick and Williams would remain for the rest of his career much to the delight and success of all concerned. Though Van Alstyne (and Williams) had penned a number of songs prior to 1903, none, if any could be considered hits. Van Alstyne did publish three or four ragtime works prior to 1900 including Hu-la Hula Cakewalk, in 1899 and Rivals Two-Step in 1897 and a few other pieces that included Mayflower Waltzes and Bolo Bolo, a march published in 1900.

 

It was in 1903 however that the team of Van Alstyne and Williams hit pay dirt, in a very big way when Remick published what would become a colossal hit song, Navajo. (Cover art by Starmer) Written for the musical Nancy Brown performed the same year, it was popularized by the star of that show, Marie Cahill who is pictured on the cover. Cahill was born in 1870 and was a very popular singer and comedienne. Said to have a "ready Irish wit" (Kinkle, V. 2, p. 662) she starred in a number of Broadway musicals. Her career started at the tender age of 16 and extended to her final performance at age 60 in the 1930 production, The New Yorkers. Though she starred in several shows prior to 1900, her widespread fame did not come till she popularized some songs from a 1902 show, Sally In Our Alley (song, Under the Bamboo Tree) and the 1903, The Wild Rose ( song, Nancy Brown). The popularity of the song Nancy Brown then spawned the musical of the same name where Navajo appeared. The song has that "Indian" stereotypical sound often used during those times which we saw in our essay on Native American music, bears no resemblance to true American Indian music. It is a pleasant tune and lyrically, it is more a coon song than anything else. It uses stereotypes to depict both the Navajo maiden and an African American. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi and see the Lyrics .

 

In 1904, the pair published two more songs, neither of which were very big hits, Back, Back to Baltimore and Seminole, another try at an "Indian" song, both were good sellers but did not reach the level of success of Navajo. They did later score two big hits on Indian themes with Cheyenne in 1906 and San Antonio (Scorch format) in 1907. Before those though, in 1905 , they scored another big hit with In The Shade of The Old Apple Tree. That song sold over 700, 000 copies, a record sales level at that time.

 

. In 1907, the team of Van Alstyne and Williams published several solid hits including The Tale The Church Bell Tolled (Scorch format) and I'm Afraid to Come Home in the Dark (Scorch format). In an attempt perhaps to replicate "Apple Tree's" success, they published a wonderful ballad 'Neath The Old Cherry Tree, Sweet Marie . The cover is unsigned and is adorned with an inset photo of Harry A. Ellis a period performer of some note at the time but seemingly forgotten in the archives of today. The songs is a sweet ballad based on a story that has probably been told thousands of times before in song; a reunion of lovers at a place of significance to their early love. In this case it is the shade of yet another tree.

 

Musically, the song represents most of Van Alstyne's earlier ballads; melodic and simple. By simple, I do not mean unmusical by any means. Van Alstyne seemed to be a wizard at early minimalism. He was able to construct very lovely harmonies and melodies with a minimum of fuss and ornament. Though some of his later songs did use more complex elements, most were as this one. I believe this simplicity and even economy of construction made his songs more approachable to the masses. The simplicity allowed a wider range of home pianists to play his songs as compared to some composers of the period, such as Victor Herbert, who reveled in complexity to the point of playability only by the most accomplished of players. Smart marketing by Van Alstyne! Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi and see the Lyrics .

 

In 1909, Van Alstyne and Williams decided to take a shot at writing Broadway Musicals and the attendant music for the show. As was the case for most Broadway shows of the period, the shows are largely forgotten but a few of the songs survived, some to this day while the rest were also forgotten along the way. Prior to 1909, Van Alstyne had contributed songs to a number of productions beginning with Dat Friend of Mine featured in the production of The Dairymaids in 1907. In 1908 he contributed songs to The Hoyden, The Big Stick and Nearly A Hero. Van Alstyne and William's first full show was A Broken Idol. The show opened on August 19, 1909 at the Herald Square Theater (demolished 1914). Van Alstyne and Williams recruited producer F. C. Whitney, director Gus Sohlke and writer Hal Stephens to put it all together. Despite the credits of the Producer and Director, with a cast of relative unknowns, the show closed after only 40 performances. Among the songs written for the show, few have survived. The one memorable hit to come out of it was Love Makes The World Go 'Round.

 

In spite of the relative failure of their show, Van Alstyne & Williams did manage to produce other songs, among them a pleasant 1909 song titled Sunbeam.. The song is quite upbeat and has an interesting introduction. The lyrics set the venue as Venice but the music certainly does not evoke a Venetian feel. In fact, in listening to this song, I immediately thought of Percy Wenrich's Silver Bell (midi) which has a similar meter and melody in it's verse phrases.

 

I'm certainly not accusing Wenrich of plagiarism although that was a major problem in the music industry at that time. Composers freely "borrowed" ideas from each other, especially if the idea hit pay dirt. In may cases it was just the flow and attractiveness of the musical idea that caused them to "borrow" but it was definitely done, and done often. At least in this case, we can be assured that Van Alstyne came up with the melody first. (Silver Bell was published a year later, in 1910). Despite the fact that the music just does not fit the geographic setting, the song is fast paced and exciting. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi there are no Lyrics for this work.

 

In 1910, Van Alstyne & Williams tried another stage show simply titled Girlies. This show opened at the New Amsterdam (built 1903) and was twice as successful as A Broken Idol, running for 88 performances. It is interesting to note that contrary to what the title implies, the cast only lists one woman, Doris Mitchell, and seventeen men. Nary a song from this show seems to have been much of a hit and all are virtually forgotten today except for those found in musty attics.

 

The period from 1910 to 1915 may be Van Alstyne's most prolific period with a number of songs published, many of which were hits. In most cases, his most popular melodies were the ballads. In 1911, he and Williams published When I Was Twenty-one and You Were Sweet Sixteen. The song is a good humored one about a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, again a common theme. In many respects, this song is also prescient of yet another Wenrich work, Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet (I'm beginning to wonder if Wenrich was an understudy of Van Alstyne!). Musically, the song is uplifting and gay (in the original context) with a great melody and the usual simple yet beautiful harmony of Van Alstyne. Both the story told by the lyrics as well as the spirit of the music are very similar to "Bonnet." Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.

 

 

As 1912 dawned, Van Alstyne began working with other lyricists and produced several very solid hits but the major one for that year was That Old Girl Of Mine with lyrics by Earle C. Jones. The song begins with a nice dotted rhythm in the verse. In this song he uses a reference to his wife Lucille in the first verse with the line "When hearts were true and love was new, To you my Lou and I."

 

The chorus has a wonderful old "gay nineties sound through the use of octaves in the accompaniment. The melody is certainly another that is very memorable. Again we see Van Alstyne's simple style that makes the music so playable and singable. The lady on the cover of this issue is Emma O'Neil another of the long lost performers from that period. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.

 

 

In spite of working with others Van Alstyne continued his collaboration with Williams for a few more years though less and less as the years went by. In 1914 Williams formed his own publishing company and then began writing scores for silent films that same year so they had drifted apart and by 1922, Williams was dead. Among their 1912 works was this terrific novelty song; That Slippery Slide Trombone (cover by Starmer) Here we see a little less simplicity emerging and a great deal more humor. The sense of humor of most composers can be well judged by their works and though most pictures that survive of Van Alstyne reflect a rather serious if not dour appearance, through several of his songs we can see that he had a wonderful sense of humor. His 1907 I'm Afraid To Come Home In The Dark (see above link) shows a tremendous ability to reflect a humorous feel to his music with a set of funny lyrics. This song is also humorous and just good clean fun. Van Alstyne added a nifty slide in the vocal part as a part of the chorus. I've tried to replicate it (on the piano!) so listen for it as the chorus is played. If you use the Scorch plug-in to view the song, you'll see the slide notated. This work also has a reference to his wife in the verse line "And Lu-cy would shout as she hus-tled a-bout." Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.

 

 

Another wonderful novelty song from 1912 is You Wouldn't Know The Old Place Now (cover by Starmer). This song has high humor and tells an interesting, if perhaps cheeky story of a bachelor who marries but maintains a photo of an old girl friend in his flat. Of course most anyone can guess what might happen but the overall theme is the comparison of the man's home before and after marriage and how it has turned from a party hall to a "field of battle." The introduction uses triplets and a rather humorous little passage that makes it clear we are about to enjoy something special. Both the verse and the chorus are full of good melody and the accompaniment is a bit more complex than some of Van Alstyne's other works we've looked at so far.

 

Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch plug-in) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.

 

 

After 1912. Van Alstyne began working with the great Gus Kahn and this new partnership would bring Van Alstyne's music to even greater heights. Certainly Williams is one of the greatest lyricists from the era but Kahn edged him out in terms of more lasting hits that have stayed with us. In 1913 Van Alstyne and Kahn had their first big hit together with the publication of Sunshine and Roses. Among the works that the new team produced was this 1914 hit; Wrap Me In A Bundle (And Take Me Home With You. (Cover by Valentine). This song too has a streak of good humor in it and would certainly qualify more as a novelty song than ballad although it has elements and sentiments of both styles. The song begins with a stately quote from the Wedding March and then moves into a flowing and ballad like verse that then smmothly transitions into a lovely chorus melody. Unlike many songs that have choruses that are often very different in style than the verse, the flow from verse to chorus in this song is almost seamless. Again, Van Alstyne's style has become a little more complex and contemporary with the mainstream music we are seeing in this period. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.

 

 

In 1915 Van Alstyne and Kahn combined forces to create one of America's greatest lasting hits, the tender and reminiscent ballad, Memories (Scorch format) and their collaboration continued from this point well to the end of Van Alstyne's active composing career. In 1916 they wrote a wonderful ballad of lost love titled Just A Word of Sympathy published with a beautiful artistic cover by Starmer. Musically, Van Alstyne has given us a denser harmonic tapestry and has included some ornamentation such as left hand grace notes in the bass line and some dense arpeggiated chords. All in all, this song may be the most complex one we've looked at this far. Combined with Kahn's wonderfully wistful and heartfelt lyrics, I think this song is absolutely my favorite of the songs we've featured. It has old style charm and more contemporary elements that bring to mind the real emotion that the song demands. What great stuff! Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.

 

Also in 1916, Van Alstyne and Kahn wrote one of the greatest songs of all time Pretty Baby, the story behind that song has some interesting theories of intrigue so we'll get to that in a moment. In 1917, Van Alstyne wrote another great upbeat song, Sailin' Away On The Henry Clay which was introduced in the musical Good Night Paul by Elizabeth Murray. Then he and Kahn along with Raymond Egan published a great war songs for one of America's greatest performers, Al Jolson. So Long Mother expressed the sentiments of many a young man of the day and who better to belt this one out than Jolson. This work was one of Jolson's greatest hits and seems to fit his style like a glove. Interestingly, though the sheet music shows Jolson as the performer, I'm unable to find this song listed in any of the compilations I have in our library and cannot find when and where it might have been first performed by Jolson. Furthermore, a survey of the net and Jolson related sites finds no mention of this song. A shame for it is indeed one of the best of the many War songs we've heard. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.

 

 

Now to back up a moment to the 1916 blockbuster, Pretty Baby, (cover by Starmer) You may note that the song shows for the first (and only) time among the Van Alstyne songs I've seen, a CO-composer with Van Alstyne. For many years, most accounts list this song as by Van Alstyne in collaboration with Tony Jackson. Recent research, including an article published in the July 1997 issue of Rag Times ( A bimonthly newsletter published by The Maple Leaf Club 15522 Ricky Ct. Grass Valley, CA 95949, $17 per year) indicates that the song started life as something entirely different, a piano rag. It is recounted that Kahn and Van Alstyne heard Jackson performing the song ( without lyrics) at a club in Chicago. Both were impressed with the tune and approached Jackson to sell it to them and he did for $250. There are more details and sources that discuss this issue and for a very good overview of this saga, visit Tracy Doyle's biography of Van Alstyne and scroll down to the last of the page; The Last Word On Pretty Baby. Click the cover image or here to hear and see the Scorch version of the song (printable using the Scorch player) or listen to the midi or view the Lyrics for this work.

 


After 1917, Van Alstyne's output gradually declined and he had few big hits but enjoyed a solid reputation and continued to compose well into the thirties. His best known songs from this period are Your Eyes Have Told Me So (1919), Drifting and Dreaming (1925) and Old Pal, (midi) also in 1925. Van Alstyne lived out his last years in Chicago where his mother was a successful radio personality (in her eighties) starring as "Aunt Em." Van Alstyne died in Chicago on July 9, 1951. He was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970.

 

For biographical information about some of the collaborators and lyricists who assisted Egbert Van Alstyne with the songs we've featured this month, see our composers biographies page.

 

Want to see and hear more Van Alstyne songs? Explore our site's resources. Over the years we've published several of van Alstyne's songs. Here is a list of songs in addition to the songs featured in this article that have been published on our site and the monthly issue of ParlorSongs where they can be seen and heard.

 
Title & Collaborator
Date
ParlorSongs Issue
Golden Arrow, Harry Williams 1909 April, 00 Essay
I'm Afraid To Come Home In The Dark, Williams 1907 May '02
Memories, Gus Kahn 1915 Feb., '02
San Antonio, Williams 1907 Nov., '03
Santa Fe, Williams 1910 April, '00
Shy-Try, Williams 1906 March, '98
Sing Me "Oh Solo Mio", Kahn 1924 Jan., '98
Sunshine and Roses, Kahn 1913 Aug., 01
The Tale The Church Bell Tolled, Williams 1919 June, '04

 

This article published October, 2004 and is Copyright © 2004 by Richard A. Reublin and The Parlor Songs Academy. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author.


That completes this month's feature and addition to our biography series. We hope you've enjoyed this article and the music and will come back to explore more of our features and articles. See our resources page for a complete bibliography of all other resources used to research this and other articles in our series.

 

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