Popular song in America, part 1: from colonial times to ca. 1825

It never ceases to amaze me how many books on American popular song begin their coverage somewhere in the twentieth century, as if nothing of interest came before. Popular music is essentially a business that requires constantly updated products. It is an older business than perhaps many people imagine.

The first ballad operas heard in Britain’s American colonies were performed as early as the 1730s. American cities began to establish pleasure gardens, likely as not named for one of the major gardens in London, as early as the 1760. For most of the rest of the eighteenth century, the colonies basically imported all of their popular songs from England, although several American publishers brought out their own editions. Significantly, Americans especially admired the more serious song texts to the humorous, even somewhat bawdy songs that outnumbered them in England. Needless to say, when American composers first began to write songs, they did not differ significantly from the English songs most popular in this country.

Since popular song by definition requires a constant stream of new songs that are similar enough to already well known songs to be familiar and comfortable yet at the same time present some novelty, a quick survey can only point out some of the important new novelties that occasionally captured the popular imagination. I suggest Yesterdays: Popular Song in America by Charles Hamm to anyone interested in a more detailed study.

The first songwriters active in America were British by birth and training. Their American songs differed in subject matter and expression from those they wrote in England, which shows that their sensitivity to a different audience, but not in style.

Although the Irish had a poor reputation both in England and America, Irish tunes occasionally appeared in anthologies. Between 1808 and 1834, publishers James and William Power of Dublin and London issued ten volumes of  Irish Melodies, compiled by Thomas Moore, who supplied new words.

Many of these songs, including “‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer” and “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” remain among the most popular and recognizable English-language songs of the  entire nineteenth century. American publishers issued their own editions, which exerted a powerful influence on American songwriting.

Since these melodies ultimately came from an oral folk tradition and not from the carefully structured works of professional composers, they seemed somehow wild and untamed in their irregularity and pentatonic simplicity. Because publishers had issued some Irish tunes for decades, they were familiar enough to be comfortable, but very novel compared to the well-established style dating back to London’s pleasure gardens and songs by Thomas Arne and Joseph Hook. It also opened audiences to the beauties of the folk music of common people in contrast to the aristocratic origins of more learned music.

Moore’s poetry likewise differed from traditional English song texts. Much of it was in first person and deal with personal emotions and experiences rather than third-person narratives of observed events. It also overlooks the present low estate of the Irish to focus on their glorious past. This element of nostalgia became dominant in nineteenth-century literature, and it was Moore’s anthologies above all else that transmitted it to America.

To a lesser extent, the music of Scotland and the poetry of Robert Burns had a similar influence. Burns’ texts varied more in themes and content and so emphasized nostalgia less, but he, like Moore, wrote them to folk tunes that seemed very novel and very democratic compared to the works of English composers.

The coming decades saw numerous other foreign influences on American popular song, but the Irish and Scots influence remained strong throughout the nineteenth century.


Popular song in America, part 1: from colonial times to ca. 1825 — 2 Comments

  1. David, thanks for your post, and for pointing to Charles Hamm's book! I have to draw attention, however, to the larger subject. You're telling the story of the east-coast colonization of the continent that preceded the Revolutionary War and the founding of the USA, and we can understand why. But there are other strands of popular music that may be worthy of mention, even though they don't connect to you and me quite as directly.

    The music of colonial Spain that made its way to Florida, California, and the southwest was pretty significant — probably at least as significant as that of the east coast, and certainly earlier. Robert M. Stevenson has written several good histories of this era that *might* shed some light on the subject (sorry, can't remember).

    And we should not forget the popular music of the indiginous inhabitants of the continent. Native Americans have been marginalized for so long… we need to be aware of this try not to do it!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Bob. I have planned a series of posts based on Hamm's book (which I will interrupt for posts on Christmas music a couple of times.

    I am familiar with some of Stevenson's writings, but I suspect they would be out of scope for this series. At least, I am not aware of how the music of colonial Spain influenced popular song in America. Thanks for the reminder to explore that music in future blog posts.

    As my previous posts make clear, I define popular music very narrowly–perhaps not quite as narrowly as Hamm–but narrowly enough to preclude "popular music of indigenous inhabitants." I agree that their culture deserves to be better known than it is. I know a little about it, but not enough that I'm likely to blog about it any time soon.

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