Ragtime Songs and Publishers

Songs, Music, Sheet Music the History of

Tin Pan Alley and Its Publishing Houses

We present a study on the Tin Pan Alley publishing house:

M. Witmark & Sons.



We are going to use this space during the next few weeks to present the Tin Pan Alley publishing houses of the early XXth century, along with some examples of their production, today a fast growing collectibles market.

Be sure to bookmark this page and return in about 10 days to read about one of the other Tin Pan Alley publishers.

Today we are presenting the publishing house of Marcus Witmark & Sons.

This enterprise was established in 1886 and was bought out eventually by Warner and the Hollywood interests in 1929.

The Witmark "Sons" were Isidore (1869-1941), Julius (1870-1929) and Jay (1877-1950)- the Whiz Kids of Tin Pan Alley! They were respectively 17, 16 and 14 when they started their publishing business.

The boys were songwriters and carried out a small but successful home business as music printers until their own pieces, especially one by Isidore, started to become what one could call "popular". In fact, the meager royalties given to Isidore by Willis Woodward for his first songs, "A Mother Is A Mother After All", and "A Sister’s Lullaby" caused them to form their own music publishing company. As they were minors at the time, their father Marcus formed the company in his own name but evidently had little real intervention in it.


They were the first to publish "professional copies" and to provide them gratuitously to performers, as well as free orchestration.


They pushed their own songs from the balconies at the theatres. Julius had learned about song plugging when he worked for Woodward, who paid him for singing "Always Take Mother’s Advice". This practice consisted of singing the song they were paid to "plug" from the balconies of the vaudeville shows or to "help" a performer who seemed to conveniently "forget" the lyrics.

Julius was a natural singer and very good at plugging while Isidore was the main composer in the little group. So it was that their new venture maintained itself and then took off when they composed and published "Grover Cleveland’s Wedding March", a song they based on a rumor that the President was going to marry, rumor that luckily turned out to be true. Indeed, they combined talent with business acumen, touching what was popular strains in the public ear, often combining the lyrics and current events.

They used songwriters and arrangers as demonstrators of their music; these professionals played their songs in different locales to familiarize the public with the air. They also handled show scores, in particular those of Victor Herbert ("Babes in Toyland"), George M. Cohan, Chauncey Olcott... as well as what was popularly called "coon" songs such as Ben Harney’s "Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose".

Babes Toyland.

They were among the first to publish American versions of British songs after the International Copyright Law of 1891 came into effect. Their London branch was soon established, handled by Charles Warren and Sol Bloom of their Chicago branch, after they went through a disastrous law suit in the Mid-West.

This brings up the question of the trade associations and their influence in the field of music. The all-powerful Board of Music Trade had been founded in 1855 with its main goal to fix a uniform price for popular sheet music. The members of this Board dominated the music publishing business for the next 50 years. All postulants were to possess a stock of over one thousand engraved plates, to say nothing of agreeing to the principle of price fixing - a "cuartel" in a sense.

Music teachers vehemently opposed this monopolistic association, as they had been the main furnishers of sheet music and music books for their students. They enjoyed an unwritten contract with the publishing houses of a 50% discount on the music they sold. As the upright piano democratized the popular music field progressively after the Civil War, the printed sheet music soon had to follow. At first, the Board of Music Trade sought to cut out these intermediaries, such as the music teachers and the small retailers. Yet, as the piano appeared in more and more drawing rooms, the most popular songs of the last half of the 19th century were not listed in the trade catalogs of the Board members, despite an effort in 1869 to enforce listing all their repertory. The members themselves refrained from listing their best pieces...

In 1876, the Music Teachers National Association was formed. They lobbied, among others, for reciprocal international copyright laws in view of protecting US composers in Europe. But it was not until after 1880 that legislation to put some order into this growing market became a pressing affair. A manufacturing proviso in certain proposed legislation forced the British government to object formally to the proposed law which would require all music sold in the United States to be printed from American-made type as well as engraving plates from material made in the U.S., on U.S. paper AND by American NATIONALS.

However, the American music publishers looked forward to this bill which left them all publication of European music as well as the fact that prices of foreign music would be thus equal to those of copyrighted U.S. works.

Novello, Ewer & Co. of London asked for advice and on March 3rd, 1891, the Congressional Record stated that music had been deliberately excluded from the new law together with plays, photos and other fine art. This compromise was the result of pressure from Labor and in particular, from the Music Teachers’ National Association. Novello tested the new law immediately by depositing for copyright a work composed in England, printed entirely on British paper and with British type. It was accepted by the Librarian of Congress - but ONLY extended to the MUSIC itself. Words and lyrics were obmitted.

The Witmarks eventually opened a branch in London and established reciprocal working arrangements with members of the British Music Publishers Association, now enjoying U.S. copyright, and signed contracts with Charles Sheard and Reynolds & Co.

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But American music publishing really came of age on June 11, 1895 when the new Music Publishers Association of the United States came into being with seventeen members, the Witmarks were among the ten Charter members who had never been members of the Board of Music Trade.

This brings us back to the story of Marcus Witmark & Sons and their Tin Pan Alley business.

Their acceptance of new styles and of Vaudeville spectaculars, such as those produced at Weber & Fields Music Hall, was part of their huge success, as well as the fact they published Ragtime and Cakewalk early on.. In 1898, they published the score of "The Fortune Teller", first of a series of Victor Herbert’s songs. Herbert wrote over 35 shows in 30 years, "Prince Ananias", "The Goldbug" (1896). He remained under contract with the Witmarks until after World War I. During this period, almost all of his lyric works were published in piano-vocal score by Witmarks while his concert and grand opera material was handled by G. Schirmer.

1898, The Fortune Teller ("Gypsy Love Song")
1903, Babes in Toyland, "Toyland", "I Can’t Do That Sum".
1905, Mlle. Modeste "Kiss Me Again", "The Mascot of the Troop", "I Want What I Want When I Want It"
1906, The Red Mill has six hits "Everyday Is Ladies’ Day with Me", "Good-a-bye, John", "In Old New York", "Isle of Our Dreams", "Moonbeams", "Because You’re You".
1910, Naughty Marietta, "I’m Falling in Love With Someone" "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life".

Bright Eyes

Most of the scores of the Broadway shows were published by the Witmarks. Perhaps this was due in part to their flare for plugging and pushing. Among these, Florenz Zeigfeld, Jr. was a major participant. In 1899, he had one of the backdrops painted as a facsimile of Witmark’s sheet music copy of "I Wants Dem Presents Back".

Dem Presents Back

Each note was a cutout and as Anna Held sang the words, the head of a young Black boy popped out. Success was immediate.

But the competition for this quasi-monopoly was fierce and their hold was finally broken by Shapiro & Bernstein who hired well-known singers to push their copies. This soon resulted in publishing contracts for them.

A major factor in the success of the Witmarks was due to the popularity of the so-called "coon" songs. This evolved most probably from the Ethiopian material, by the latter part of the 19th century mainly staged musicals showing idolized "life on the plantation". Much of the success of this genre is to be attributed to Bert Cobb (1869-1936) and Edgar Keller (1867-1932) who designed the covers.

The Witmarks lost no time in recruiting Cobb and Keller.

Indeed, the fad for "Coon songs" soon dominated the new Tin Pan Alley. The first one was probably, "All Coons Look Alike to Me", published by M. Witmark, Ernest Hogan, a popular Black entertainer, wrote the lyrics and sang it while Isidore Witmark wrote the melody. Some sources indicate that the first appearance of the term "coon" was in 1834, when George Washington Dixon sang "Old Zip Coon".

They turn the corner in 1895 with the success of Charles Graham’s tear-jerker, "The Picture That Is Turned To The Wall". This first big hit cost them $15; although it was written in 1891 and included in Andrew Mack’s "The City Directory" review at the extremely popular Bijou Theatre.

Then, Ben Harney's "Mister Johnson, Let Me Loose" appears in 1896.

When the Witmarks published two of Harney's songs and had them plugged by May Irwin, the floodgates were opened to the new craze. In the following years, some 600 ragtime songs were published. The contribution of Ragtime to Tin Pan Alley was fundamental to the success of the young publishing houses, even though it was one of the older houses, S. Brainard's Sons, that printed the first true ragtime instrumental piece, "The Mississippi Rag", written by a Chicago white bandleader, William H. Krell. It was not until later in the year that Tom Turpin's "Harlem Rag" was published.

Turpin's Harlem Rag is one of the songs on our new cd audio -"A Ragtime Feast"

Among the songwriters that they published was George M. Cohan (Over There). Cohan was an all-around American entertainer: song and dance man, songwriter - both lyrics and music, actor, playwright, producer. He wrote 22 musicals and 13 plays. His first published piece was done by the Witmark brothers, with lyrics by Walter Ford, "Why Did Nellie Leave Home?" (1894). This was followed by another equally unsuccessful piece, "Hot Tamale Alley" (1896) and his first big hit did not come until 1898 with "I Guess I’ll Have To Telegraph My Baby" in 1898.

They also absorbed many smaller enterprises, among them, Gus Edwards’, founded in 1905. Edwards was a successful child singer with Vaudeville acts ("Little Lost Child"); partnered with other songwriters such as Will D. Cobb and Vincent Bryan, he wrote several tunes, among the "hits" was "In My Merry Oldsmobile", although this is more a commercial tune for publicity. And in 1909, he collaborated with Edward Madden to write "By The Light of the Silvery Moon".

Their firm by the end of the century included a Professional Department and a successful mail order service, Black & White Series, as well as a monthly newsletter, The Witmark Monthly. They also had a flourishing rental business of sheet music copy for performances which they started shortly after the copyright acts were approved in 1897. They even tried their hand at producing their own musical comedy, "the Isle of Champagne, written by Charles Byrne and William W. Furst, in 1892.

The firm is bought out by Warner Bros. in 1929 when Julius died.

Be sure to check back in about 2 weeks for the story of another Tin Pan Alley publishing house.

If you are interested in a more interactive experience in reading, check out our CD-ROM entitled "Tin Pans, Rags & Grease Paint". It contains a database of over 10,000 pieces of sheet music, many of which are identified by publisher.