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Popular Music In America

A Perspective From 1910, Part 1

In our search for the origins of popular music in America, a perspective from the early years of it's development is germaine to our understanding the origins and development of our music. Though music history as researched and seen from the perspective of today by musicologists and music historians is important and adds significantly to our knowledge, the views of those who lived in those times is important to provide an historical perspective. In our research and acquisition of materials, we obtained a copy of a 1910 Encyclopeda of American Music that is full of fascinating articles, biographies and viewpoints about American music and one article in particular seems of interest and import.

In our continuing desire to preserve the music of our past, we feel preservation of important collateral material is also important. Therefore, in conjunction with our two part issue on Enduring Hit Songs, we offer you this special "In Search Of" article from 1908. Within this article are contained mention of several of the composers featured in this issue as well as many of the Parlor Songs issues we have published over the years. We have added the illustrations and musical links, the text is given to you as written. We hope you find it interesting and enjoyable. It is very interesting to note that much of what this author has said, 92 years ago, is as true today as it was then with regard to what makes a song popular. Though this is a very long article, I felt that editing it would only detract from its value as an historical document and deprive those of you who are interested in its entire text. Still, owing to its length, we will present it in two installments.
The second installment was published February, 2002.


 

POPULAR MUSIC


In early times among the nations of Europe the folk-songs and dance tunes were the music of the people. These old melodies, handed down from generation to generation, still form the nucleus of the popular music of the various European countries. To them have been added from time to time songs written in a simple style and dance music, marches, and airs from the operas. Here in America, where, on account of our youth as a nation we can have no true folk-songs, we must of necessity begin to build on a different foundation.
In a broad sense, popular music may be defined, as its name implies, as that of the populace--that is, of people who have made no special study of the art of music. It must be of a kind that can be easily learned and readily recalled. This music need not be trifling or trivial, but it must be simple. If it be a song the words must contain some sentiment common in appeal to all, sentiment touching the home, love, joy or sorrow; or the theme may be some subject which at the time is agitating the public mind. The melody must be singable and the rhythm infectious. If the composition be purely instrumental, such as a march or waltz, the same musical characteristics must be in evidence.
In order to attain popularity this music need not be trashy, but may be and in fact often is of true musical worth. Witness for instance the Largo of Handel, Rubinstein's Melody in F, the Toreador's Song from Carmen or the Soldiers' Chorus from Faust, all of which belong to art music but which nevertheless are distinctly and undeniably popular. Popular music becomes such because it requires for its enjoyment neither special musical training nor serious mental effort on the part of the listener. The difference between popular and so-called classical music really rests with the hearer rather than with the music itself. For, speaking in general, classical music calls for those very elements of musical culture and mental effort for its appreciation which popular music does not require.
After a hard day in shop or factory, after strenuous hours in the commercial world or at the desk, physical and mental relaxation are absolutely necessary to the enjoyment of any entertainment, not excepting music--even by one who thoroughly appreciates the art. No pleasure, either of a physical or mental nature, can be enjoyed where weary body and mind have to make effort for the occasion. Therefore the music of the people must be such that the hearer catches it almost unconsciously.
In treating of the subject of popular music the words as well as the music of the songs necessarily must be discussed, for very often it is the words rather than the music which win success for a popular song. Either the subject must make its appeal, or the words must have a jingle which carries them along. It is very doubtful whether the melody of "Home, Sweet Home" would have obtained such lasting popularity were it not for the words. On the other hand the tune of "Dixie" simply goes of itself, irrespective of the words used.


The earliest type of purely American popular song was called into existence by political excitement. In every particular the Liberty Song was our first possession of this kind, although adapted to a foreign air. This song found its origin in the refusal of the Massachusetts Legislature to rescind the "Circular Letter" of Feb. 11, 1768, relating to the imposition of duties and taxes upon the American colonies. A short time after this incident, John Dickinson of Delaware forwarded to James Otis of Massachusetts, with permission to publish it, a song appealing to Americans to unite for liberty. The words were first published in the Boston Gazette of July 18, 1768, and in September of the same year it appeared in printed form on a single sheet, along with its musical setting. This song was sung with enthusiasm throughout the colonies and retained its popularity for many years. The text of the poem runs:

Come join hand in hand, brave Americans all, And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty's call; No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim, Or stain with dishonor America's name.
In freedom we're born, and in freedom we'll live; Our purses are ready, Steady, Friends, steady,
Not as slaves but as freemen our money we'll give.

All ages shall speak with amaze and applause,
Of the courage we'll show in support of our laws; To die we can bear, but to serve we disdain,
For shame is to freemen more dreadful than pain.
In freedom we're born, etc.

The tune to which it was adapted was composed for, David Garrick's celebrated Hearts of Oak,by Dr. Boyce of England, and was first sung at Drury Lane Theatre, London, at Christmastide, 1759. It is a spirited air, and as the colonists were familiar with it, the song, consisting of nine stanzas, became exceedingly popular. It was America's first popular song in the fullest sense of that which constitutes such music, that which "arrests people's attention, and when heard again, compels recognition."
It is but natural that tea, the subject of much animated political discussion at this time, should form the subject matter of many similar songs. One of them, written between the battles of Lexington and Concord and that of Bunker Hill, was sung to the tune of Derry Down and became a great favorite at all political gatherings as well as on the street, ultimately finding its way into camp with the Revolutionary army:


What a court hath Old England of folly and sin,
Spite of Chatham, and Camden, Barre, Burke, Wilkes and Glynne. Not content with the game act, they tax fish and sea, And Americans drench with hot water and tea,
Derry down, down, hey derry down.

Then freedom's the word, both at home and abroad, And for every scabbard that hides a good swordl Our forefathers gave us this freedom in hand,
And we'll die in defense of the rights of our land.
Derry down, down, hey derry down.

Another song on the same subject was sung to a sacred air. The verses first appeared in print, July 22, 1774, afterwards being published in single sheet form or broadside. It is attributed to Meshech Weare, who became president of the State of New Hampshire, in 1776.

Rouse every generous thoughtful mind,
The rising danger flee,
If you would lasting freedom find,
Now then abandon teal

Since we so great a plenty have
Of all that's for our health;
Shall we that blasted herb receive
Impoverishing our wealth?

Adieu! away, oh tea! begone!
Salute our taste no morel
Though thou are coveted by some
Who're destined to be poor

The first popular sentimental song printed in America appeared in the Philadelphia Ledger in 1775, and was known as the Banks of the Dee. It is a tender little love song, adapted to the old Irish air of Langolee and tells of a young Scotchman who left his native land for the purpose of joining the British forces in America, having bade his fiancee adieu on the banks of the Dee. The song-writer, John Tait, pictures the girl's sadness and despair, as well as her admiration for her brave lover.
But now he's gone from me, and left me thus mourning,
To quell the proud rebels, for valiant is he.
But ah! there's no hope for his speedy returning,
To wander again on the banks of the Dee.
He's gone, hapless youth, o'er the rude, roaring billows,
The kindest, the sweetest of all his brave fellows;
And left me to stray 'mongst these once loved willows,
The loneliest lass on the banks of the Dee.

Its great popularity rested, perhaps, in the fact that it resolved itself into a direct appeal to many a colonial maiden's heart, for lovers marched to the field in the Revolutionary forces and bravely and valiantly performed their part, while the girls they loved, like the Scottish maiden, remained at home to wait, and, perchance, to weep.


With few exceptions, the popular music of the colonial and Revolutionary period, whether vocal or instrumental, was adapted from other countries, chiefly from Great Britain. It has been customary to date the evolution of America's popular music from the period of the Civil War and the decades that followed, but song-music by this time already had become familiar to the people by way of the minstrels, while banjo, flute, violin, melodion and piano had come into common use in the home.
Few popular songs survive, however, beyond the particular period for which they are written. Many of them are as evanescent as thistle-down, wafted hither and yon by a gentle zephyr of sentiment, and then banished by the stronger under-current of popular opinion. As a rule, songs involving home sentiments, domestic affections, emotions that play on the heartstrings of the people, these are they which neither time nor constant repetition consign quickly to oblivion. In periods of great political disturbance this feeling resolves itself into a fervor of patriotism, and the war song is the result. This is the music of the people, for it becomes the popular music of the period and invariably is in the form of song. Then follows an aftermath, in which longings and yearnings for the home life are more deeply expressed, when the word "mother" becomes the dominant note, and her joy or her sorrow, her sense of loss or bereavement, forms the chord around which the song is built.


And yet certain of these songs of sentiment outlive those of more artistic composition simply because they touch the hearts of the people. Each and every word is understood because it has been written for them, and the music usually is simple enough to be readily grasped. America has produced much music of this kind, songs that will never die because they essentially vibrate in the home-life of the nation. Such a song is Home, Sweet Home, which for three-quarters of a century has held its popularity and promises to continue to do so indefinitely. From minstrel performance to opera this charming song has held its own on the stage; from street singer to prima donna the public has received it with applause; from farmhouse to palace it has ingratiated its universal sentiment until it belongs to the whole world. Yet it is a rather ironical fact that the writer of the words, ali his life was a wanderer, and died in a foreign land. A few miles from Tunis, in Northern Africa, is a monument bearing the following inscription:


"In memory of Honorable John Howard Payne, twice Consul of the United States of America for the city and kingdom of Tunis, this stone is here placed by a grateful country. He died at the American Consulate in this city, after a tedious illness, April 1, 1852. He was born at the city of Boston, state of Massachusetts. His fame as a Poet and Dramatist is well known wherever the English language
is understood through his celebrated ballad of 'Home, Sweet Home,' and his popular tragedy of 'Brutus' and other similar productions."

Around the tomb are engraved the following lines:

Sure, when thy gentle spirit fled
To realms beyond the azure dome,
With arms outstretched, God's angel said;
Welcome to Heaven's Home, Sweet Home


Here the remains of the poet rested until, in 1883, W. W. Corcoran, who cherished some remembrances of Payne as a youth, transferred them to Washington, where the Corcoran Art Gallery received the casket until its reinterment in Oak Hill Cemetery. The President of the United States with his Cabinet and a military escort, together with many sympathizers in the movement, formed a distinguished cortege to the cemetery, and Payne, in body and in spirit, was no longer "an exile from home."
Payne was not a Bostonian, however. He was born in New York, the greater part of his childhood being spent in East Hampton, where his father was principal of the Clinton Academy. After spending some years in business and at college, Payne eventually turned to the stage. His career was full of ups and downs until finally he landed in the debtors' prison in London. While in confinement he made an adaptation of a French play which he sent to the management of Drury Lane Theatre, London. It was accepted and staged within a fortnight, and the remuneration for his work freed its adapter of debt.


Drury Lane's rival, Covent Garden Theatre, now sent him to Paris to look out for successful plays and to make adaptations of the same. One of these plays, from which Payne used little other than the plot, was advertised at Covent Garden as an "opera." It was for this "opera" of Clari that Payne wrote the now world-famous song, Home, Sweet Home. The heroine, Clari, elopes with a nobleman, but is brought to see the error of her ways by hearing a band of strolling players sing the verses which Payne had introduced. The words were adapted to a tune by Henry Rowley Bishop, which he had designated Sicilian Air, and which had been familiar in London to words by Thomas Haynes Bayly, beginning "To the home of my childhood in sorrow I came." This was essentially a home song, yet when Payne's verses were set to the same tune London soon forgot that it ever had sung this air to anything but Home, Sweet Home!


Another song that became exceedingly popular, and after having been almost forgotten received a revived popularity through its introduction into the plot of a popular novel, is Ben Bolt. The author of the words was Thomas Dunn English, a physician of New Jersey who also was a writer of distinction. The words of Ben Boltfirst appeared in the New York Mirror of Sept. 2, 1843. They received several musical settings, but the air by which they gained popularity was adapted to them by an actor named Nelson Kneass.


While Kneass was playing in Pittsburg, the manager of a theatre was preparing to stage a new play and was anxious to have an original song introduced in it. A friend gave Kneass the words of Ben Bolt; a German air was adapted to them, and being sung in the play, the song won an immediate favor which it held for many a day.
The name of George F. Root for many years was prominent in the field of popular song. Mr. Root was born in Sheffield, Massachusetts, on Aug. 13, 1820. While a child he was extremely fond of music and attempted to play every musical instrument that came within his reach. He went to Boston while still young and began the study of music in real earnest. Instruction was received in singing, piano and organ, with a flute as a recreation. After some years spent in study, Mr. Root became organist and choirmaster and for five years was one of Lowell Mason's assistants in teaching music in the Boston public schools. In 1844 a position was offered him in New York, and here for many years he lived and worked. It was while in New York that he first gainedfame as a writer of popular music. Hazel Dell was his first successful popular song. Others were Rosalie, the Prairie Flower and The Vacant Chair.
George F. Root was one of the first musicians in America to realize the opening in the field of popular music. In writing for the people he would invariably consider the difficulty of the intervals and the intricacy of the accompaniments. That is why there is always found such simplicity in all his harmonies. He was a born composer in this field and he reaped a well deserved success. The degree of Doctor of Music was conferred upon him by Chicago University. He died in 1895.


Among the many names associated with popular song in America that of Stephen C. Foster stands pre-eminent. Stephen Foster was born at Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1826. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Allegheny, where Stephen attended school and continued his studies until, at the age of thirteen, he was sent to Athens Academy at Towanda, Pennsylvania. After a year spent at Towanda he returned to his home in Allegheny, later attending Jefferson College at Canonsburg. As a boy he had shown remarkable precocity in music and at seventeen he was the leader of a small club which met at his home for the purpose of learning to sing in parts. When the club had exhausted the repertory of such songs as were in favor at the time, Stephen Foster resolved to try the writing of songs himself. Louisiana Belle was the result of his first effort, and in a week Old Uncle Ned followed. The style and text of these songs evidently was patterned after those used in the minstrel shows which were so popular at the time.


Mr. Foster's brother Dunning was then in business in Cincinnati, and thither Stephen now went to act as bookkeeper for him. It was while interested in mercantile pursuits that his leisure moments developed Oh, Susanna. Little dreaming that his compositions were worth anything from a financial point of view, he made a present of Uncle Ned and Oh, Susanna to W. C. Peters, who was then in the music publishing business in Cincinnati. The publisher made ten thousand dollars out of these two songs, each of which gained world-wide popularity.

When in his twenty-second year Stephen Foster concluded that he was not adapted to a commercial life, and he now turned to music in earnest. He seemed unable to abandon altogether the negro dialect in the words of his songs, but they are characterized by a certain refinement itl marked contrast to the grotesque'and clownish effects produced by previous writers in the same field, and there is an expression of tender sentiment pervading each song. Foster laid bare the heart-life of the negro, and ridicule found no place in his song-texts. When his Nelly Was a Lady was published and grew into popularity Foster received commissions for future songs. This song has a certain rhythmic charm; the tune is easily learned, and the note of pathos incorporated in the chorus, "Toll de bell for lubbly Nell" lays hold of the feelings.


Down on de Mississippi floating, ·
Long time I trabble on de way,
All night de cottonwood a toting,
Sing for my true lub all de day.
Nelly was a lady,
Last night she died,
Toll de bell for lubbly Nell,
My dark Virginny bride.

Other songs beside those designated as plantation melodies, but all
more or less impregnated with sentiment, now came rapidly from his pen
and obtained a wide popularity not only in America but in Europe as well.
Such songs as Old Folks at Home, Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming,
Gentle Annie, Hard Times Come Again No More, Massa's in the
Cold, Cold Ground
, My Old Kentucky Home, Nelly Bly, Old Dog Tray
and Old Black Joe, have become familiar to many nationalities.


When Christy, the famous minstrel, with his company was making a decided hit in New York City, he wrote to Stephen Foster asking for a song, with permission to sing it before publication, desiring also to have at least one edition with his own name appended thereto as author and composer, agreeing to pay five hundred dollars for the privilege. This accounts for Christy's name, instead of Foster's, appearing on the title-page of the first edition of Old Folks at Home, as well as for the mistaken idea that Christy, and not Foster, was the author and composer. This is essentially a home song, a song in which the yearnings for associations of home and kindred are strongly defined. In spite of the fact that Foster wrote it in the negro dialect, it is more often sung in language with no suggestion of dialect whatever. Memories rise unbidden at the words:


All the world is sad and dreary,
Everywhere I roam,
Oh! darkies, how my heart grows weary,
Far from the old folks at home.

Stephen Foster with his sister visited a relative, John Rowan, who was a judge as well as a United States Senator, at the latter's plantation home at Bardstown, Kentucky. Seated one morning in the garden, Foster and his sister heard the notes of a mocking-bird in a tree overhead, and the song of the thrush in a nearby bush, while the slaves were at work and their children at play. Inspiration was upon the poet-composer, and he jotted down what had come to him. Then, when sufficient of it was written from which to obtain an' idea of song, he handed the manuscript to his sister, who sang:


The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home;
'Tis summer; the darkles are gay;
The corn top's ripe and the meadow's in bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.

A simple song of Foster's that always will retain a large degree of popularity is Old Black Joe. It has, with its harmonious chorus, been more frequently sung and has had a greater variety of instrumental settings than has any other song by the same composer. The reminiscent mood of this song gives it a peculiar attraction. All the world loves memories, be they sweet or sad, and Foster understood the sentimental side of human nature and how he might appeal to its tenderest emotions. We not only picture the old negro bereft of home ties and looking forward to a reunion in the mystic Beyond, but the heart-yearnings of Old Black Joe become more general and touch a responsive chord in each of us.


Stephen Foster was the most successful popular songwriter which America has yet produced. His success, however, was not a financial one, for he died in extreme poverty in New York in 1864; but he is judged successful in that his songs have obtained a wider and more lasting popularity than have those of any other native writer in the same field. In their general appeal his songs most nearly approach the requirements of what popular song should be, and he justly has been termed the American people's composer par excellence.


Henry Clay Work (1832-1884) won considerable fame as a writer of popular songs. We are coming, Sister Mary first brought him into prominence, and E. P. Christ sang it at all his concerts. In 1865, Mr. Work went to Europe and on his return wrote several popular songs relating to the temperance question, the one known as Come Home, Father having a wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. He wrote about eighty compositions in all, among them being the well-known Grandfather's Clock.


Will S. Hayes was another writer who had remarkable success with his songs for the people. His Write me a Letter from Home had a sale of three hundred and fifty thousand copies, while Parted by the River and some others reached the three hundred thousand mark. Mr. Hayes wrote altogether some three hundred songs, in all of which there is charming sentiment, flowing melody, and very effective accompaniments.
There were at this period many other popular song writers who had wide success. T. F. Seward's Rally Round the Flag, Boys and The Shining Shore became great favorites. Listen to the Mocking Bird, a song by Alice Hawthorne, who wrote under the nora de plume of Sep. Winner, is still much admired by the amateur whistlers. II. P. Danks wrote many songs which had a large sale, among them being Anna Lee, Don't be angry with me darling and Silver Threads Among the Gold. Among other successful writers in the same field were J. R. Thomas, William B. Bradbury, Chas. Carrol Sawyer, Henry Tucker, Daniel Emmett and C. A. White.


Popular music in America has obtained an ever increasing vogue during the last quarter century owing to the growth of what was first termed the variety, and later, the vaudeville show. Previous to this time the negro minstrel troupe had served as the leading factor in introducing this class of music to the public at large. Now it is in the vaudeville houses that popular songs first are heard. If a hit is made the song almost immediately has a large sale. Another mode of introduction is by way of the light opera or musical comedy; in fact many of these musical plays are made up almost entirely of songs and instrumental pieces of a popular style. Whether such music finds wide favor depends to a certain extent on the manner of its first introduction, and it is for this reason that writers of popular music make strenuous effort to become associated with successful players.


And yet, with a few notable exceptions, America's popular song writers are unknown, for we as a public give little heed as to who writes the song so long as words and music are pleasing. Such songs are almost impersonal. They do not bear the stamp of the composer's individuality so much as they reflect the taste of the day. When a song attains genuine and wide popularity it usually contains a sentiment which appeals to the heart of a whole people. Among the song hits of the present era "Comrades" was
one of the first. While the melody was pretty and catchy it was the spirit of fellowship suggested in the words which won for it its popularity. Annie Rooney was another song of the same period which gained success through its appeal to the remembrance of sweetheart days.


In all of the popular songs of the early part of the present era there is to be noted a very general similarity of construction and treatment; the melodies, harmonies and rhythms are simple, though not to the same extent as those of an earlier time. But our typical popular songs of the present day are far more complicated harmonically and rhythmically, if not in melody, than those of a decade ago. It is pleasing to note that the most popular songs of the closing years of the Nineteenth Century were songs of home, honor and pure love. Among them may be cited Sweet Marie, Sweetest Story Every Told, Sunshine of Paradise Alley, On the Banks of the Wabash, She was bred in Old Kentucky. There also were many coon songs of the period which exhibited a refinement not seen in those of the present day. Such songs were Little Alabama Coon, Kentucky Babe, My Gal's a High Born Lady, Stay in your own back yard.


Just why one song will make a hit, while another of equal merit will not, is a problem which writers and publishers never have been able to solve. In some cases a catch phrase will do the trick; witness for instance Ta-ra-ra boom de ay, There'll be a Hot Time,and the rather vulgar Lemon song. It is rather pleasing to learn that such hits are growing shorter lived from year to year. The test of time is the surest proof of the real worth of any song. After the Ball, Daisy Bell, Mr. Dooley, Hiawatha and Bedelia each in turn have had enormous sales, but they are now completely forgotten, while Oh, Promise Me, The Holy City and The Rosary, all songs of comparative intrinsic merit, still are heard.


Among the popular song writers of recent years the name of Chas. K. Harris of Milwaukee has become best known, owing perhaps first of all, to the fact that he has more surely gauged the public taste than has any contemporary writer in the same field, and also because he is his own publisher. Mr. Harris was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1865. He early began his career as a popular song writer, composing songs to order for professional people. After the Ball was the song which first brought him into prominence. Indeed it may be said that it was this song which really, started the popular song craze as we know it today. Over $100,000 was realized by the composer from the sale of this one song alone. As will be remembered, After the Ball is a song of the ballad character and tells' a complete story. It was first presented to the public by May Irwin in New York City, afterward being introduced in Hoyt's A Trip to Chinatown.
Mr. Harris has stated that he received many suggestions from the stage for the subjects of popular songs. He writes: "For example, about twelve years ago such plays as The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and The Crust of Society were in vogue. I then wrote Cast Aside, Fallen by the Wayside and There'Il Come a Time Someday. Over 300,000 copies were sold of each. Then came the era of society dramas such as Belasco's Charity Ball and The Wife. I wrote and published While the Dance Goes On, Hearts, You'll Never Know and Can Hearts So Soon Forget; which had enormous sales." Military dramas such as Held by the Enemyand Secret Servicecalled out such songs as Just Break the News to Mother and Tell Her that I Loved Her, Too.


Among the many successful popular song-writers of today are William B. Gray, who made a small fortune by his Volunteer Organist; H. W. Petrie, whose name is associated with the child song I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard; Charles Graham, who wrote Two Little Girls in Blue" Other familiar names are those of Raymon Moore, Paul Dresser, Felix McGlennon, Mabel McKinley, Edward B. Marks, Gus Edwards, Egbert Van Alstyne, Harry Von Tilzer and Nell Moret. Modern popular songs have been classified as follows: Coon Songs (rough, comic, refined, love or serenade); Comic Songs (topical, character or dialect); March Songs (patriotic, war, girl or character); Waltz Songs; Home or Mother Songs; Descriptive or Story Ballads; Child Songs; Love Ballads; Ballads of a Higher Class; Sacred Songs; Production Songs (for interpolation in big musical productions, entailing use of chorus, costumes, and stage business).


In the popular song of today the chorus is of most importance, for upon this part of the song usually rests its ultimate success or failure. The words of the chorus usually are applicable to every verse. In the descriptive song, the writer aims to tell a complete story in as few words and as graphically as possible. The success of the comic or topical song rests on the "gag" introduced into each verse and made apparent by the first or last line of the chorus. In the several classes or divisions of popular songs those of more serious character strive to make their appeal equally through both words and music; in the march song the music is of most account, while the comic song depends largely on the words.


Many reasons may be given for the ever-increasing vogue of popular music. Not the least of these is to be found in the presence of a piano or some musical instrument in nearly every home. Such was not the case a quarter century ago. The advent of the pianola and other mechanical players, together with the phonograph and gramophone also have tended to create a demand for popular music. Again, the teaching of the rudiments of music in the public schools has served to bring the art more closely before the public, with the result that nearly every girl in the country, whose parents can afford it, is receiving music lessons as a part of her general education. In homes where very little music of any kind previously had been heard it is but natural that music of a popular style at first would be most acceptable, this serving to satisfy until the taste be elevated so as to desire something of a better nature.


The appearance of singers of the first rank in musical comedy and in vaudeville undoubtedly has become a factor in forwarding the cause of popular music. While the presence of such singers in the vaudeville ranks has been deplored, the fact that they have made their appearance there has to some extent raised the standard of popular music in this country; for the class of music which they have sung has been in advance of that generally produced. There is no question but what the purveyors of popular music have shown more enterprise in the production of music that will please their patrons than have those who cater to a class with higher artistic perceptions.


Of the quantities of popular songs published in the last thirty years (ed. 1880 - 1910) but few have attained any lasting popularity. Songs of which hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold now are completely forgotten. The reason for this is hard to ascertain. It is not because the later songs are of inferior merit, for a steady advance has been made in all popular music. The public now readily accepts harmonies which but a few years ago would have been looked upon as too difficult and complicated.
In the matter of the text of our present day popular songs, however, the same advancement has not been made. There rarely is shown the same simplicity and wholesome sentiment seen in our earlier songs, such as Home, Sweet Home and Old Black Joe. Popular taste now looks for words touching on the events of the moment rather than those dealing with emotions and feeling which are common to all and which always are in evidence.


For short periods the majority of compositions written in popular style will be very similar. Take, for instance, the introduction of ragtime melodies. At first the words of such songs dealt almost exclusively with negro characterizations. Later came songs in a quasi-Indian manner. Mexico, Japan, China were all used as ragtime suggestions. Ragtime has been much abused and its incessant use decried by many people, yet it has done much in educating the public to an appreciation of the more complicated rhythms used in music of a higher grade. The tendencies all are favorable for the production of popular music of an even better character. What would have been listened to with delight by the public a generation ago now would be looked upon as decidedly flat and uninteresting. In the light operas and musical comedies of such composers as Victor Herbert and Reginald De Koven many numbers will be found which are of real musical worth. And yet they rarely last beyond two or three years at the most. As before suggested, the inanition of the text probably is responsible for the short life of the songs, while the nervous desire of the public for something new gives to the best of the popular instrumental music of today but an ephemeral existence. Doubtless as time goes on we shall revert to the ever passing stream of popular songs and the best will be saved, until finally they become incorporated into our folk-song literature. It is only in rare cases that a tune has any lengthy existence when separated from words of universal context...

To be continued..


 

In February we will present the conclusion of this article which goes on to discuss, College songs, Gospel songs, popular instrumental music and the future of American popular song.


The text of this document is taken from the following book, now in the public domain:

The American History and Encyclopedia Of Music, Hubbard, W.L. Editor in Chief, 1910, Irving Square, N.Y.C.

The article is presented as originally published with no editiong or abridgement of the text. Illustrations and images have been added by us to enhance and amplify the text.



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A great deal of work and effort has gone into these pages. The concept, design, images, written text and performance (MIDI and other recordings) of these works, the web pages, custom images and original content are Copyright © 1997-2014 by Richard A. Reublin or Richard G. Beil. Before using any of these images, text or performances (MIDI or other recordings), please read our usage policy for standard permissions and those requiring special attention. Thanks.

We respect your privacy and do not collect or divulge personal information see our privacy policy for more information


E-Mail us for more information or comments or read our FAQs to get instant answers to our most often asked questions.


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