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from its value as an historical document and deprive those of you who are interested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
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,
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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