In Search of American Popular Song; The Dead Zone

It's quite possible we are the only website on earth ignoring the Y2K & Millenium as a theme for our first edition for the new year. Join us in ignoring all the hoopla and simply enjoy the continuing voyage of musical discovery that has pioneered on the web. This month we will explore the origins of American Popular music and one of the many odd discontinuities that have occurred over the last two centuries.

Popular music, indeed all musical development can be viewed in some ways as a continuum of change that generally matches and reflects social development. Usually, the continuum is a seamless path. Yet often there are interruptions in the path that seem to either depart from the directions it seems to have been headed in, or development reverts to earlier times and/or goes off on a path that seems unrelated to what has gone before.

One such discontinuity occurred from around the start of the American Civil War and lasted till nearly 1890. In the period from 1800 - c1865, American Popular music began to depart from the European musical model into a less formal, melodic and rhythmic style that is easily recognizable. This distinctive style was developed by Stephen Foster and others up through the 1850s. After Foster's death, music took a turn for the worse and the style that was emerging virtually dissappeared from the scene for over twenty years.

What happened? Why did music change and what caused this discontinuity and other discontinuities that came later? Our music this month demonstrates what occurred and offers you some musical examples to consider. In addition, since this is an interesting and puzzling situation, we offer you a special essay this month to explore the question in more depth. After listening to this month's music, read our essay on the 1865-1885 "Dead Zone".

Sheet Music Cover Gentle Annie

Music & Lyrics by: Stephen Foster
Cover artist: unknown

Of course everyone knows of Stephen Collins Foster, perhaps the true father of American Song. Born on the 4th of July, 1826, it is said that Foster drew much of his inspiration from African-Americans at his mother's home in the South (more on that later). Though Foster wrote hundreds of songs that sold thousands of copies, he saw little in the way of compensation. Much of what happened to Foster was responsible for changes in copyright laws that protect creators of music. Foster's publishers and later his heirs were made wildly rich as a result of his work yet he barely managed to eke out a living. Foster bled to death on January 14, 1864 as a result of a fall that caused a gash to his face and neck.

Foster's music is without question some of the greatest American folk music ever written. His melodies linger on today as favorites after more than 150 years. This song, Gentle Annie, written in 1856 is a fine example of the melodic style and "singable" nature of Foster's songs. Of course there are hundreds of his songs that we could quote as examples, O' Susanna", Massa's In The Cold, Cold, Ground", "Old Folks at Home", "Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair" and many others. Some very upbeat such as "Camptown Races" and many other ballads like "Gentle Annie".

In listening to his songs, one can hear the African American influence in some of them (however, not really in this one), yet there is much more to his work. To oversimplify the emergence of American style by attributing much of it to African influences ignores the realities of style of most African rhythm and music. In many respects, much of what emerged in America was new and innovative and represents entirely new approaches to song. Let's use this song as one of the benchmarks as we approach the dead zone.

Hear this classic Foster song.

Sheet Music Cover Dixie's Land
Music & Lyrics by: Dan Emmett

Perhaps no other song in history so exemplifies American folk music as "Dixie's Land", usually incorrectly referred to as Dixie Land. Written in 1859 by Dan Emmett, a member of the famous Bryant's Minstrels of New York. The Minstrel show was a hot item from around 1845 - 1865 and many great songs came into being as a result. According to a story in the Richmond Dispatch from March of 1893, Emmett was asked by Mr. Bryant to provide a "walkaround" for the show.

Bryant supposedly told Emmett that he wanted "something new and lively for Monday night" (this was Saturday). At the time, all minstrel shows ended with a walkaround and Emmett was the show's composer of these works. As the composer of all the show walkarounds, you can imagine how difficult it would be to continually find new material. Nonetheless, By Sunday, he had the opening bars and the tag line "I wish I was in Dixie". That expression by the way, was not a southern phrase as many people assume today. In fact, it has it origins in the carvival and circus people who in early fall up North when there was a nip in the air, would think of the warmth in the South and comment, "Well, I wish I was down in Dixie".

Unfortunately, this great and tuneful melody over the years has come to be associated with the Confederacy and many African Americans find the tune a distasteful reminder of what the Confederacy stood for. Let's hope that we can still retain our focus on the musical greatness of this song and understand that its origins were as far from the meaning of slavery as one could get. The performance here is meant to represent the presentation one might have seen and heard in the minstrel shows of the time. The initial melody is presented simply with a solo banjo with bass accompaniment. The chorus is performed with several banjos. As you listen, imagine Mr. Emmett and his fellow minstrels strutting about the stage while this walkaround is played.

Using this songs as yet another benchmark, we shall now fall off into the dead zone of 19th century American popular music.

Hear this famous song.
Sheet Music Cover
Innocence March
Music by: J. Harmistoun
Cover artist: Unknown

We have jumped ahead now nearly twenty years and we are deep into the dead zone, a strange discontinuity in American music. The Civil War ended more than twelve years ago and America is in the midst of reconstruction.What was once quaint folksy music has long been replaced by more formal music, representative of the European classical model.

Though marches later became one of the most popular musical styles for American popular song (see our March feature, April, '99 for a comparison of style), the marches from that period (ca 1900 - 1920) had a more flowing and free style that this song does not share. This piece is strictly classical in nature, in fact listening to it it reminded me of the short little march composed by Salieri presented in the movie "Amadeus".

The structure, A-A-B-B-C-C-A-A, is pretty formal and the melody rather simple and straightforward. The song has one of the main attributes of music from this period; it is rather common. By that I mean it sounds like any number of other songs written during the period. Somewhat unremarkable yet a familiar tune that you think you must know. In fact, we are providing a link to Grant's March for comparison. Notice the melody and structure. Written during the same period, Grant's march and this song could have been cut from the same pattern. You will find the two songs are almost identical.

Listen now, to this rather simple but pleasant tune.

Listen to "Grant's March" to hear the similarity.

Sheet Music Cover
Pussy's Concert Waltz
Music by: August Loumy
Cover artist: unknown

Another five years has passed and we are now deep into some of the most boring and uninspiring music perhaps ever written. Reconstruction is continuing, not much is happening in the country politically. African American influences such as we saw in the period before the war are virtually non-existant as the former slaves are attempting to find themselves a new identity and a place in the new society

Musically this song is pretty reflective of the era, not very original, not very inspiring or exciting. According to Alec Wilder, author of "American Popular Song, The Great Innovators", there were thousands of hack song writers and composers who simply wrote common music without any innovation or new ideas.

It is almost as though with Foster's death and the end of the Civil war that all that was American faded away and was not replaced. America reverted to a rather sterile social and musical era.

Though pleasant, this tune is almost a labor to listen through. It has no life to it in my opinion. Though I respect any creator of music, even the uninspired since I could not create a tune that would rival the worst, the music of this period has now reached a level that can only be described as dreary. This song is a simple waltz with a simple tune. The chord progression is limited and becomes rather tiresome after just a short while. In the hands of a great pianist, I am sure this music could be transformed. However, these songs were mostly played in the home by amateurs and common folks who would probably play it as I have here. It is one of those songs a piano student would suffer through and once mastered, most likely place it at the bottom of the stack in the piano bench.

Hear Pussy's Concert waltz" now..

Sheet Music Cover
Fairy's Cradle Song
Music by: Irma
Lyrics by: Annette Bishop
Cover artist: unknown

Much of the music from this period was solo piano only. It seems that in reverting to the European style, less song was composed. Unfortunately, the songs that were composed were also uninspired. Lyrics were less free and spirited and also reverted to a more restrained flavor. There certainly were no walkabouts or "Camptown Races" being sung.

In terms of bordom level, perhaps this little cradle song reaches new heights. One thing is for sure, the song would perform its intended task; to put someone to sleep. The main risk is that the performers may be the first to nod off.

The composer, known only as Irma, must have been a popular composer of the era, perhaps a "Cher" of the times. Few performers or composers or performers become known by a single name so Irma must have been a hot property in 1870. If, in fact, Irma represents a pinnacle, imagine the depth of the valleys. Perhaps I am being too cruel, certainly composers and performers stylize their work to appeal to the masses. Perhaps one contributing factor during this time was the collective ennui that the post war period brought to the country. As a result, composers may have simply been giving the public what they seemed to want.

At the risk of alienating you, perhaps a few lines from the lyrics will further underscore the depth of the dead zone we are in.

Rock, rock! sweetest rose
Swing my ba-by, swing him;
Silk-en curtains o'er him close
While a-sleep I sing him

Lull-a-by!, dar-ling one
Shut your pret-ty eyes;

Ok, enough is enough, Wake up! and move on to the next work.

Rock yourself to sleep with this song.
Sheet Music Cover Bay View Polka
Music by: L. Mathias
Cover artist: unknown

In spite of the general mood and ennui taking the nation by storm, there were some rather interesting works that showed some innovation or at least were melodically exciting. This work, apparently inspired by Put-In-Bay, Ohio (my birth state), is one of the more musically well done works.

Among the more popular works of the period, Polkas were by nature a more uplifting style. The polkas of this period have their origins in the polkas popularized by the Strauss family in the mid-to late 19th century. Later, a different style of ethnic and even Americanized polka (i.e. "The Beer Barrel Polka") emerged that is nothing like the Viennese style polkas.

Though we are in the middle of the dead zone, certain compositions still manage to show some originality and "fun". This song is one such example. Though we can still hear a familiar, common style here and the structure is still of the classical style, the melody and pace of this song at least adds some interest and is upbeat.

Unfortunatly we are still seeing no real originality and innovation that speaks "America" or is reflective of what we would now recognize as American music. Though a well crafted tune, we are still in another zone. Put-In-Bay by the way is in Northeastern Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie. A very historical area, near where during the war of 1812 Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry penned the phrase, "We have met the enemy and they are ours" following the battle of Lake Erie in 1813. The area emerged as a recreational area in the late 19th century. Today it is still an historic and beautiful area with amusement parks and fascinating geologic features (glacial grooves) as well as a beautiful monument to Perry as seen below in a photo from the Put-in-Bay website.

Hear this pleasant Ohio inspired song.

The Vagrants
Music by: Frank Van Duzer
Cover artist: unknown

In spite of all my negativism on the subject of music from this era, I have encountered some delightful music among the commonplace. This work is one that has somehow grasped my musical soul and has become a favorite. First, the music shows a flair for the dramatic and is creative in its use of piano technique. Though we are still in the classical mode, there are some elements of this song that seem to point the way to the sudden explosion of innovation and creativity that signals the end of this dreadful period of American music.

The work is titled as a "polka caprice", somewhat in the style of the Bay View piece. The construct is an A-A-B-A-C form which departs from the style of the other works we have examined. Musically the melodies are memorable and very exciting. The composer made good use of the variations style in developing the music and then returning to the familiar opening.

Yet, there is still something different about it. Is it the melody? Is it the rhythm? Is it the uninhibited pianistic style? I can't quite put my finger on it yet this work seems to pave the way for the greatness to follow in the golden age of American Popular song that would emerge in the 1890's.

In searching for more works by Mr. Van Duzer, I only could find reference to a few. Interestingly, one of his works from 1885, "Now Suppose You Pass This Measure" (a song about pending prohibitionist legislation) begins to look like and sound like the later music that we now recognize as purely American Popular music. Even the cover of that work is more in the style of what we see later. That year (1885) is notable in that it seems to be the date around which the "dead zone" ended. Is it possible, that Mr. Van Duzer is one of the unsung innovators that took us back to the path that Foster and Emmett had us on in 1859?

Hear this fascinating work.

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Also don't forget to read our essay on the 1865-1885 "Dead Zone".

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