History, Music

Traveling with the Irish Down Tin Pan Alley

Limerick-born Mick Moloney, traditional Irish musician and NYU Professor of Music, admits to having once had a particular snobbishness toward the kind of Irish-American songs Bing Crosby used to sing. You know them: Songs that flaunted titles like “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?”

Speaking to a small but captivated audience at Villanova University last Tuesday evening, Moloney gave a lecture titled “If It Wasn’t For the Irish and The Jews.” It’s a moniker shared with both the 1912 song penned by the illustrious Tin Pan Alley song-writing duo of William Jerome and Jean Schwartz, as well as Moloney’s latest CD release. A CD that is the result of manifold years of research, and one that has culminated in an unabashedly uplifting celebration of just those kinds of Irish-American songs that Bing Crosby used to sing (go on…I dare ya…just try and not sing along to “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?”)

“I came to the United States in 1971, lured over to play at The Philadelphia Folk Festival, and then to study with Kenny Goldstein in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Folklore & Folklife,” Moloney said. “I did a lot of touring…and it was during a 1995 tour in the Midwest, the heartland of America, that it flashed in me exactly where these songs came from.”

The tour coincided with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Irish Famine, and it was this observance, coupled with talking to second and third generation immigrants, that sparked Moloney’s epiphany.

“The immigrants that came to start a new life in America, they came from drama. They weren’t going to talk about the real Ireland, the place they were escaping. They wanted to present images of wholeness and happiness, a place of beauty and innocence where everything was good and wholesome.”

At the same time, the music business was changing. “Stephen Foster, the great grandson of Irish immigrants from County Derry, changed the music industry forever. His song, ‘The Old Folks at Home’ sold 100,000 copies when it was published in 1851. No song had ever sold more than 5,000 copies before that.“

“But by the 1880’s and 90’s…the music business shifted from an Irish to a Jewish enterprise…[and] despite the now overwhelming predominance of Jewish entrepreneurs and performers, Tin Pan Alley continued to issue streams of songs with Irish and Irish-American themes.”

Intrigued by this early twentieth century collaboration between Jewish and Irish American songwriters, Moloney began his concentrated digging into the bygone days of America’s booming songwriting business during the years between 1880 and 1920.
Some of the most curious examples of the blurring of the Irish-Jewish cross-cultural lines show up in the surprising number of songwriters and musicians who changed their names to sound either more Jewish or more Irish, accordingly, in order to further their careers (or so they believed).

“There was the wonderful Nora Bayes, one of the most glamorous figures, she was kind of like the Madonna of her day. She started to sing and be associated with Irish songs, like ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?’ and ‘When John McCormack Sings a Song.’ She became the darling of Irish America. Turns out that Nora Bayes wasn’t Nora Bayes at all. She was Theodora Goldberg, and she had kept her Jewish identity completely hidden her whole life because she figured, inaccurately in the 1890s, that the business was going to stay Irish as it had always been in the 19th century. And this kind of ambiguity, people hedging their bets, started. And there was an awful lot of it. I’m amazed at how much of it there was.”

Among the other for-instances: William Jerome, co-composer of “If It Wasn’t For the Irish and the Jews” was in truth the son of County Mayo famine immigrant Patrick Flannery. He changed his name when he saw the dominant figures in the business shifting from Irish to Jewish.

And there was also David Braham, who collaborated on songs like “Maggie Murphy’s Home,” with son-in-law Ned Harrigan. David’s last name was originally “Abraham.”

Moloney is nowhere near finished with this topic, “I’ve kind of figured out halfway into how the business switched from Irish to Jewish, but I haven’t figured out the why of it. Why did this happen? Why was this such a comprehensive wipeout, and the Irish turned their attention to politics and business?”

In the meantime, there is music to be savored. Moloney will officially launch “If It Wasn’t For the Irish and the Jews: A Tribute to the Irish and Jewish Influences on Vaudeville and Early Tin Pan Alley” on Saturday, October 24t at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre in New York City. He will be joined by a cast of musicians that include The Green Fields of America, Susan McKeown, Billy McComisky and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.

Oh, and one little Irish Philly sidenote: Musician and publican Gerry Timlin, co-owner of The Shanachie Irish Pub in Ambler, has a harmony vocals credit on the CD!

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