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The Music of Chas. K. Harris, Part 1

 





Dear College Chums

1898


Music by: Chas. K. Harris, arr. Jos. Clauder
Lyrics by: Harris
Cover artist: Unknown

 

After the incredible success of After The Ball in 1892 (seen in our October edition ) Chas. K. Harris had well established himself as arguably, the top popular songwriter in America. His earlier works had met with little to no success and so Harris, being no man's fool, clearly set his path to success with the "tear jerker" format. Almost every song by him had a somber or sad theme with very few exceptions including some music for stage plays and silent movies. In addition, early in his career he correctly divined that it was the publisher who really made big money off music and vowed to be his own publisher. The cover of this work is quite interesting with various scenes of college life and a central photo of a very young Harris.

 

This song, at first appears to be one celebrating the comradeship of college and seems innocuous as far as any sort of dark message. But, like many of Harris' works, after the first verse, things get sad and gloomy. Three college chums sit in a tavern and agree to get together each fifteen years after graduation in the same place. As time passes, one after another die and one spends years in prison having accepted responsibility for a crime he did not commit in order to protect one of the pals. The song ends with the final survivor dying at the table alone after a final "Rah, Rah, Rah." Gadzooks, what pathos! Musically, this song is simple and with little to make it memorable except the story.


Enjoy this college tear jerker now (SCORCH format)

listen to MIDI version


For Old Times Sake

1900


Music by: Charles K. Harris, arr. Jos. Clauder
Lyrics by: Harris
Cover artist: unknown

 

If death was not always present in a Harris song, some other sad subject would often rear its head. In this case, we have the ever present love lost theme. In this case, we have a couple who somehow parted ways in youth and meet again. The man wants to marry her but she rebuffs him telling him basically that she is no good for him:

"I'd bring you nothing but a wasted life; I was a vain and foolish girl, when I refused your honest love, It's now too late, no wife for you I'd make."

But wait! there's more, there is a death after all. The man holds her in his arms and she passed away. He then says:
"And I buried her, For Old Time's Sake."
Shudder, it seems Harris really had a fixation on death. I wonder what a psychologist or psychiatrist would say about his constant fixations? Musically, this song's almost gay and upbeat melody belies the sad story it accompanies. It is among the more interesting melodies Harris wrote (in my humble opinion). Perhaps one little known fact about this song is that it is the song that really started Al Jolson's career. The song also has a basis in a real life experience, as did many of Harris' songs. In this case Harris was at the Milwauke Lodge of Elks, playing cards when he noticed a man with a photograph button on his lapel. Harris asked him who the beautiful young lady was on the button and, in Harris' words:¹
"His face grew quite serious as he said that she was an old sweetheart of his whom he intended to marry. The two were neighbors and had become sweethearts as youngsters; but one day a traveling salesman came along, filled her ears with dreams of the city and prevailed upon her to run away and be married in Chicago. A year later he had occasion to go to Chicago and met her on the street. She collapsed upon seeing him and proceeded to tell him a sad story of her life and that the man had deserted her. He told her that for old time's sake he wanted always to be near her and he would marry her. Like a flash, came the idea for a song and I followed the above incident literally."

 

Charles Kassell Harris was born in 1867 in Poughkipsie, NY and died in NYC in 1930. He lived for many years in Milwaukee and published many of his early songs there. After The Ball, is generally considered to be the watershed song that started the popular song industry in earnest as a commercial juggernaught. Though Harris wrote many songs over the years, none ever rose to the level of popularity as After The Ball. For more complete information about him, see our special biography of Harris.


Listen to this fine work (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version

 

Hello Central, Give Me Heaven

1901


Music by: Charles K. Harris, arr. Clauder
Lyrics by: Harris
Cover artist: unknown

 

Once again, death is at the door in this, one of Harris' greatest hits. Though Harris wrote and published scores of songs, only three were highly successful. The financial success of After The Ball, probably was enough to fund his entire life. Though only two other songs were huge hits, his name managed to sell all his other works at a level that sustained his publishing business with many songs selling close to a million copies each. Harris seemingly refused to share his success with others and always wrote his own lyrics. In addition, unable to play the piano by some accounts, his music was actually written by others. According to his autobiography, he would pluck out the melody and his "arranger" would complete the manuscript. Though he was an accomplished banjoist, it is said he never could master the piano. In addition, like Irving Berlin, he could not read music so he would generate a melodic idea and Clauder and others would actually write the music. One source states that the great composer Theodore Morse may have actually provided the music for After The Ball, yet Harris never credited him and makes no mention of him in his own account of the writing of the song. In addition, his faithful "arranger" Joseph Clauder, never was given more than credit as arranger when it is highly likely that Clauder was completely responsible for the music of many of Harris' songs. It seems that Harris' desire to not share the limelight with anyone also extended to his covers as very few of them seem too have any artists credit or signature.

 

This work, is a sad, sad story of a young child whose mother passes away and the child is having trouble understanding death and whose father seems disconsolate. To help, the child decides to call heaven and ask mother to return home. A kindly telephone operator helps (?) by telling the child that mother will come home soon. Melodically, Harris hit the jackpot with this one and I think you'll find it really interesting and enjoyable. Harris also recounted in his autobiography the provenance of the story behind this song:

I remember one morning at breakfast my wife called my attention to an interesting item in a newspaper. It was the story of a coal dealer in Chicago who had lost his wife, leaving a little daughter age seven. As he was reading his evening paper, his little girl suddenly climbed a chair so as to reach a telephone hanging on the wall. Cranking the small handle she said: "Hello, Central, give me heaven for my mamma's there."
According to the father the telephone operators then carried on a conversation with the little girl pretending to be the mother. And there you have another Harris song.

 


Hear this sad, sad hit song (scorch format)

listen to MIDI version

Always In The Way

1903


Music by: Charles K. Harris, arr. Clauder
Lyrics by: Harris
Cover artist: unknown

 

In 1903, Harris once again used the "mother in heaven" idea for another song about a child who is sad and lonely for a departed mother. However, with this song Harris added a twist; the evil stepmother. The child approaches a man with a car to please give him a ride to heaven to retrieve his mama.

"My new mamma is very cross, and scolds me ev'ry day, I guess she does not love me, for I'm always in the way."

Where did this man ever come up with this stuff? He must have been tormented by dreams of death and nightmares of lost love and tortured children. In some respects, he is the Stephen King of early popular music.

Musically, almost all of Harris' songs are memorable and enjoyable. This song is one of the many waltz style works Harris wrote and is cited as one of his best. It has a childlike quality to it and an almost gentle and innocent sound that really complements the theme of the lyrics. The rather buck toothed young lady on the cover is Marie Laurent, a performer of the day who probably introduced the song or who somehow became associated with it. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out anything about her.

Once again we have an account by Harris that details where he got the idea for this song:

It was during Christmas week and a large tree had been placed in the window of a department store opposite my office. many little tots crowded around the windo and peered longingly at that tree.
A little boy and girl especially caught my attention. The girl uncounciously stepped on the foot of the boy and he quickly pushed her aside saying: "You're always in the way."
Those words kept ringing in my ears on my way home. A few days later I composed
Always In The Way.


Hear this eternally beautiful song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version

 



Down In The Vale Of Shenandoah

1904


Music by: Charles K. Harris
Lyrics by: Harris
Cover artist: Starmer

 

Perhaps by 1904 Harris was mellowing for here is a pleasant song that does not kill off anyone. Rather, it is a very nice waltz song with a common time introduction. Though no one does, it is a wistful song that speaks to memories of a girl left back home and the beauty of Shenandoah. The cover is unusual for a Harris work in that it is signed by Starmer, one of the more prolific sheet music cover artists of the period. The young lady on the cover is Belle Gold, yet another of the performers "lost" to our musical history.

Harris commented on the composition of this song and others like it, he called them "Heart-story Ballads." he wrote several like this one such as I've a Longing In My Heart For You, Louise, In The Hills Of Old Carolina and Mid The Green Fields of Virginia. When asked how he could write such descriptive songs about the South for someone who had never been in the South, Harris replied:

All imagination,I had to inquire of there was corn raised in Virginia and if there were hills in Carolina. This information was given to me by my office superintendent Mr. Blaise, a native southerner and my imagination did the rest.

 

Enjoy this great 1904 song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version

 


And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

1906


Music by: Charles K. Harris
Lyrics by: Harris
Cover artist: Starmer

 

Harris turned to a child oriented them again in this very touching song about a couple who have parted ways, perhaps already divorced and the child who shows them the path to love and happiness. Still a tear jerker but at least the images of death and deep agony are gone from this song. Of course, for those who have experienced it, especially for children, divorce can be one of the most gut wrenching experiences in life. Harris has managed to put together some meaningful lyrics against a very nice gentle tune to create a very nice song. Once again, we also have a cover by Starmer that includes a topical photograph of a couple and their child. No credit is given to Clauder so perhaps by this time, Harris has parted ways with him.

 

His autobiography says little about Clauder and their relationship except for one revealing recount of the writing of After The Ball where he desribed Clauder as an accomplished musician. Harris mentioned that first he would sing the melody to Clauder and then Clauder would transcribe the melody and fill in the "orchestration."

 


Listen to this 1906 ballad(scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version

 

 

1. From After The Ball, by Charles K. Harris, Frank Maurice, Inc., N.Y., 1926

See our resources page for a complete listing of all resources used to research this and other articles in our series.

WAIT! There are more Charles K. Harris masterpieces to see and hear. The second part of this issue features more rare and different works.

More Harris music and covers in this month's issue, go to part B.



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