Enduring American Song Hits,
Part 1, page 1

The phenomenon of "hit" songs did not really come into the American consciousness until the 1890's. Of course, the oft mentioned After The Ball, established a benchmark that all songs that followed were measured against. Before the 90's, the American music publishing industry was scattered and ill defined. Hit songs were disconnected and generally regional, save for a few from early American popular song composers such as Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work. It was with the establishment of a central publishing industry, Tin Pan Alley, and the growth of communication media and later the phonograph and radio that fostered the idea of nation wide and even world wide hit songs.

This first feature on the subject of hits explores the years from 1890 to 1910 and some of the enduring hits that came from those years. be sure to see our February, 2002 feature for a review of the decade when hit songs exploded onto the scene, 1911 - 1920. Also, be sure to see our "In Search Of" series for articles about the concept of hit songs and what makes a song successful.

Oh Promise Me

1889 (90)

Music by: Reginald De Koven
Lyrics by: Clement Scott
Cover artist: Unknown


Robin Hood premiered on June 9, 1890 in Chicago and was given Sept. 20 that same year in London at Camden Town Park Hall. Robin Hood is actually a "light opera" and is still supposedly popular, but I've never seen nor heard of it being performed of late. Regardless, this song, and a few others from the opera have endured as lasting hits that even after 110 years are still routinely heard. It's most common setting is at weddings where the song has become a perennial favorite. The beautiful melody and wonderful sentiment have seemingly tailor made this work for weddings. Oh Promise Me
was actually written in 1889 and was added to "Robin Hood" as an expediency. Supposedly, De Koven, borrowed the tune from an Italian piece titled "Musica Proibita". The reason the tune was added was because the contralto playing Alan-a-Dale (Jesse Bartlet Davis) needed a song that would properly display her voice.
According to the story, she threatened to walk out on the performance and De
Koven grabbed a copy of "Oh Promise Me" and gave it to her saving the day
and the opera and as a result, the song became an immediate hit.


Reginald De Koven (b. Middletown, CT, 1859 - d. Chicago, IL, 1920) was musically trained in Europe and was a graduate of Oxford. In 1827 he traveled to Europe and studied piano and composition in Stuttgart. He earned his degree at Oxford in 1879. During his time there he also studied with Von Suppé, Delibes, Genée and Vanuccini, all operatic composers. In 1882 he returned to the US and was employed primarily as a music critic with Harper's Weekly, The New York World, Herald and Journal and the Chicago Evening Post from around 1889 to 1912. He founded and conducted the Washington (DC) Symphony Orchestra in 1902.

At the same time he was writing and conducting, DeKoven was composing well over 400 songs, orchestral works, sonatas, ballets and two grand operas, most of which have faded into obscurity. It is Robin Hood though, his operetta set in Europe that dominated DeKoven's popularity. His music draws on both traditional opera as well as folk melodies. Banking on
the success of Robin Hood, de Koven later produced Rob Roy(1896), The
(1897) and Maid Marian in 1901. None of them ever rose to the
popularity of Robin Hood.

Enjoy this beautiful wedding song(SCORCH format)

listen to MIDI version


Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay!


Music by: Henry J. Sayers
Lyrics by: Sayers
Cover artist: unknown


Though a pure American song, written by Sayers in Missouri, the song was actually introduced in London by Lottie Collins. Collins performed the song at Koster's and Bial's theaters in New York in 1892 and launched the song's US success. Over the years, the easily sung and remembered tune has been claimed by many other composers and lyricists who have added their own version of the words. Almost all versions after the first, include extra verses and a "Gentleman's" version that sets the main character as a man rather than a woman as originally written. Recorded often, with one recording by the U.S. Marine Corps band, the song has also been featured in two movies, 1943's Happy Go Lucky and 1947's Mother Wore tights.

The song has also often been used for many other settings; as a drinking song, a fraternity song and for many other "made up" occasions. As a result, I think most people only are familiar with the chorus and fewer still have ever heard or seen the original lyrics. A bit ribald yet full of humor and good natured fun, this is the kind of song that will probably go on for another 110 years and beyond. There has been some debate even as to Sayers originality with the refrain. Music scholars have found the tune in an old German songbook. At one point, lawsuits were filed against various users of the song and Judge Robert Patterson declared the refrain to be in public domain. In spite of that, a number of people who laid claim to the song often extorted money from performers of the song. Cited as a "freak song" by Sigmund Spaeth¹, it has nonetheless proven to be inextinguishable.

Little is know about Henry J. Sayers beyond his publication of this song. He was a press agent handling the publicity for a number of performing companies in 1891 when the song was published. Yet another story related to the song says that Sayers heard the song performed by "Mamma Lou" in St. Louis and that she actually wrote it. Sayers supposedly copied it and had it published therefore earning himself the title of composer.

Listen to and see this funny song (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version


Hearts and Flowers

1893 (hit status, 1899)

Music by: Theo. Moses Tobani
Lyrics by: none
Cover artist: Unknown


Originally not a song at all but a piano solo piece, Hearts and Flowers has become best known and remembered not for the words that were later added by Mary D. Brine in 1899 that made it a hit song, but for its haunting melody. That melody has often been used in cartoons and as a sarcastic symbol of sympathy for those who openly seek it when it seems undeserved. Most often accompanied by a violin miming, you'll know it instantly when you hear it. The music was a standard played by silent movie accompanists for any scene where the heroine was pleading for mercy from the villain. It is possible that Tobani purloined this entire melody from a work titled Wintermärchen published in 1891 by Hungarian composer Alphonse Czibulka as the entire melody is contained in that work. Or, it is possible that Czibulka took the melody from Tobani as both were originally published the same year.


Theodore Moses Tobiani (b. Hamburg, Germany, 1855 - d. New York, 1933) though born in Germany, became a notable American composer and arranger. He was an accomplished violinist who was performing in concert by age ten. His family brought him to the USA when he was a child but he later returned to Europe to further his musical education. In 1870 he returned to the US and worked as a composer and performer in various theaters in Philadelphia. Tobiani composed over 550 works and made over 4500 arrangements! Many of his works were arranged or published under the pseudonyms Florence Reed, Andrew Herman and Theodore Moses. Of all his works, Hearts and Flowers is is only enduring original popular song composition however, his band arrangements continue to be played at traditional band concerts

Hear this lilting original melody (scorch format)

listen to MIDI version


The Sidewalks Of New York


Music by: Chas B. Lawlor
Lyrics by: James W. Blake
Cover artist: Unknown


Songs about New York abound and this is one that has been around since the sidewalks were dirt! Still heard regularly, the song was used as the campaign song for Alfred E. Smith, Democratic nominee for President in the 1924 campaign. It was first introduced at the Old London Theater in the Bowery of New York City by Lottie Gilson, a popular singer of the day. As with all of the songs featured this month, it enjoyed a long recording history. Betty Grable sang it with June Haver in the 1945 film, The Dolly Sisters and Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope sang it in the 1957 film about Mayor Jimmy Walker, Beau James. A lovely waltz, it is in the same vein as the Great Daisy Bell (Bicycle built for two) and the two songs are often heard together. This song was one of the new publishing house of Howley, Haviland & Co.'s first publications and helped to establish them as a flourishing publisher. It was one of their most profitable publications.


Charles B. Lawlor was part of a vaudeville team including James Thornton. The lyricist, James Blake was a salesman in a hatter's shop who liked to write verses. Lawlor, described as a "buck and wing" performer² and amateur composer also had written some verses about New York. Lawlor whistled the original tune to Blake, who took their combined ideas and created the full lyrics we know today. The two convinced Gilson to perform the song and it is said that the audience became so enchanted that they joined her in singing a repeat of the chorus. As with many of the lasting hits, it is the choruses that are most remembered. Very few people have heard the full verse and choruses so we are pleased to present the complete songs and lyrics to you through the scorch presentation format.


Hear this eternally loved New York song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version


The Band Played On


Music by: Chas. B. Ward
Lyrics by: John F. Palmer
Cover artist: unknown


This song was first performed by the composer, Charles Ward in his own vaudeville act in 1895 at Hammerstein's Harlem Opera House. Long a favorite, it's lilting waltz melody and chorus are the kind of tunes that "stick in your head" and make for a lasting hit. Again, we have a song where mostly we recall the chorus but the fascinating verses are often not heard. Be sure to get your scorch player to ensure full enjoyment. As with all lasting hits, this one appeared in several films including a performance by James Cagney and Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde in 1941 and Dennis Morgan in Cattle Town in 1951. Perhaps it's biggest hit recording was the 1941 version by Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra on Decca. This song enjoys the status of being the first song ever promoted by newspaper, the New York World. It sold over one million copies then, and millions since. Clearly, the publishers were learning how to "hype" their wares and generate interest and sales by this time.


Charles B. Ward ( 1865 - 1917) was born in London and composed at least one other enduring hit during his life, Strike Up The Band, also in 1895. He died in New York in 1917. I've been unable to find any information about the lyricist, John F. Palmer.


Enjoy this great song (scorch)

Listen to MIDI version


A Hot Time In The Old Town


Music by: Joe Hayden
Lyrics by: Theo. A. Metz
Cover artist: unknown


By 1896, Tin Pan Alley was well established and beginning to crank out plenty of hits, short-term and enduring ones. Though public tastes were still evolving and "classical" works still held sway in many homes, popular song was taking hold as the predominant music form heard in America. Coon songs, or songs using contrived black dialect were quite popular and this song used that fashion to send it to the top of the charts in 1896. Again, we have a song where the chorus is what we recall and the verses are rarely heard. We also have seen many of the songs "sanitized" from their original form through the elimination of the offensive stereotype dialect. I suspect most people who sing these songs today are completely unaware of their original form or lyric structure. The first recording of this song was in 1897 by the ragtime singer, Lew Spencer. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders used this song as their "theme song" during the battle of San Juan Hill, probably one of the first uses of a popular song in this manner.


Theodore H. Metz (b. Hanover, Germany, 1848 - d. New York, 1936) was the bandleader for a popular minstrel group, the McIntyre and Heath Minstrels who first introduced the song (hence the coon song structure).


Listen to this rousing song (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version



¹ A History of Popular Music in America, p. 258.
² All The Years Of American Popular Music, p. 115
See our resources page for a complete bibliography of all resources used to research this and other articles in our series.


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

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

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