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July/August Teachers Guide
Kids' Corner
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Composer of the Month

George Gershwin


Funny Terms and Titles of the Time
When Gershwin started work as a musician in the early 20th century, there were some unusual names for things in the musical world. For example, George's first job was to be a song plugger, which meant he had to promote or "plug" songs. Back then, music was not played over the radio or on the internet, so musicians had to play the music in person to get people interested in buying it. Sometimes song pluggers would perform the music on pianos in store fronts so that people could hear it and decide if they liked it. Gershwin was a very good song plugger.

The place where George worked as a song plugger also had a funny name. It was a place known as Tin Pan Alley. This was a section of New York City where all of the music publishers had their business. There are different stories for why this area was called Tin Pan Alley, but most people agree it was because all of the music being played in these buildings at the same time probably sounded like a bunch of tin pans banging or clattering. Also, the upright pianos used to played this music made a tinny sound, especially when many of these pianos were all being played at the same time. The name tin pan alley has been used to refer to parts of other cities where music publishers are located. For example, the city of London, England also has an area known as Tin Pan Alley.

Songs also often had funny names back then. When George started composing his own music, he had to create some silly and strange titles. We already noted the unusual title of the first song that George published. Early in his career, Gershwin also wrote songs with titles like "When Verdi Plays the Hurdy-Gurdy" and "You're a Dog-Gone Dangerous Girl." Giving funny titles to his songs probably was a way for Gershwin to get people interested in buying his music.


Gershwin as a Piano Performer
Almost everyone who knew George Gershwin remarked on how much he loved to perform on the piano. In his days working as a song plugger, Gershwin learned how to add flourishes to the music and improvise while playing. Gershwin was known to jump behind the piano and start playing whenever he could. Often he would play piano at parties, and it was at a party that singer Al Jolson first heard Gershwin play the song "Swanee," which Jolson would record and make famous. One of Gershwin's friends once said that Gershwin always played the piano with genuine delight. This friend of Gershwin's also said: "George at the piano was George happy."


We can still hear how Gershwin played through piano rolls he recorded:

Rhapsody in Blue


Rhapsody in Blue with an orchestra



Gershwin Plays Gershwin - The Piano Rolls - Swanee



American Music

Marching Music -- John Philip Sousa, "Stars and Stripes Forever," performed by the United States Marine Band:


Ragtime -- a performance of "The Entertainer," composed by Scott Joplin:




Blues/Jazz -- Oscar Peterson performing "C Jam Blues":



Rock and Roll -- Bill Haley & the Comets, "Rock Around the Clock": 



Country Music -- Dixie Chicks, "Wide Open Spaces":





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