A precocious and gifted child, little Egbert VanAlstyne played the organ in church at the age of seven and soon was granted a scholarship to the Chicago Musical College, a prestigious academy specializing in the traditions of European Classical music. Yet fate and social environment determined that VanAlstyne would become a composer of popular songs, feeding hits to the sheet music industry and providing vaudeville entertainers with topical ditties. In 1900, he capitalized upon a burgeoning trend and came up with something he called "Ragtime Chimes," featuring a "ringing" effect which was later to be widely imitated. In 1903 he published "Navajo," a novelty tune with lyrics by Harry H. Williams. Continuing to manifest the early Tin Pan Alley predilection for ethnic humor, in 1904 this partnership brought out another number parodying Native American culture entitled "Seminole" and "Back, Back, Back to Baltimore, which was described as a "coon song." The tune that put them on the map for all intents and purposes was "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree." Published in 1905, this song sold sheet music by the millions. Unable to resist resorting once again to the "exotic" theme of "Indian" life, VanAlstyne and Williams brought out "Cheyenne" in 1906, along with "Won't You Come Over to My House?" In 1907. they published the humorous "I'm Afraid to Come Home in the Dark" and yet another "Indian" routine which they called "San Antonio." VanAlstyne wrote "Rebecca" in 1908, along with "It Looks Like a Big Night Tonight" and something with the seemingly paranoiac title "I Used to Be Afraid to Go Home in the Dark, Now I'm Afraid to Go at All." Ever ready to compose syncopated material, he rolled out the "Honey Rag" in 1909. His big success of 1910 was "What's the Matter with Father?" while "Good Night Ladies" was published in 1911, along with "Oh, That Navajo Rag." 1912 was the year of "Jamaica Jinger (A Hot Rag)," and "That Old Girl Of Mine." These titles aptly demonstrate the two simultaneous paths trodden by most Tin Pan Alley songwriters: Hot and Not. "That Devil Rag," published in 1913, was certainly an example of Hot. "Memories," a smooth hit with society dance bands in 1915, was most definitely Not. Possibly the most interesting and relevant connection between VanAlstyne and the world of jazz was his involvement with Tony Jackson of New Orleans in composing the famous melody "Pretty Baby," published in 1916 with lyrics by Gus Kahn. What was VanAlstyne's exact contribution to the composition of this song? In the competitive, opportunistic world of music publishing, composer credits often indicate little or no actual participation in the creation of the song in question. Did he simply put in a word for Jackson, an Afro-American artist confronted with the racist policies of the entertainment industry, or did the two men actually collaborate in the creation of this unforgettable air? Who can say? Even if Jelly Roll Morton were alive today, his verdict would doubtless only fuel the debate and exacerbate the mystery. VanAlstyne's remaining years only yielded a couple of minor hits: "Your Eyes Have Told Me So" came out in 1919, and "Beautiful Love" appeared in 1931. Twenty years later, Egbert VanAlstyne passed away in his home town of Chicago, IL at the age of 69.
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