Popular song in America, part 8: After the Civil War

It takes a long time to recover from a trauma. The United States did not begin to recover from the Civil War for at least two decades after it ended. The healing of mutual hatred between North and South did not begin until much later than that.

Perhaps because of the continuing bitterness and recrimination in business and politics, popular music of the postwar period did not witness any important innovations or new song writers.

Many composers who made their reputations before and during the war continued to produce new songs, but without any reference to current events or social conditions. Nostalgia, out of favor in Europe, characterized American song so thoroughly that it became a means of escaping from the pressures of the modern world.

Two songs by Henry Clay Work became especially popular after the war. “Come Home, Father,” a temperance song, is one of the few songs dealing with any social issue that achieved real popularity. The other, “Grand-Father’s Clock,” captures the spirit of the 1870s in being emotionally gentle, with no drama or pathos.

Hart Pease Danks, composer of “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” became the second American (after Stephen Foster) to make his entire living from song writing. Others who achieved success after the war include Septimus Winner (“Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone”), Thomas Paine Westendorf (I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen”), Will Hays (“Write Me a Letter from Home”), and Charles A. White (“The Little Church Around the Corner”).

Minstrel shows continued as popular entertainment long after the end of the war, but their character changed. Still loosely organized sequences of a variety of acts, their productions became more polished and more lavish.

While they still continued to present the same kind of racial stereotyping as the prewar show, they broadened their focus in two different ways. They began to subject other ethnic groups such as  American Indians, Chinese, Irish, and Germans to the same satirical treatment. And they began to include black performers, sometimes with their faces blackened.

Both Hays and White made their reputations as composers of minstrel songs. So did James Bland, the first successful black song writer. Son of a black lawyer educated at Howard University, Bland dropped out of Howard to pursue a career on the minstrel stage.

His songs, including “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” and “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” are no different either musically or textually from any other minstrel songs. He could not have achieved success if they had dared any but the traditional image of black people.

A somewhat more authentic black voice emerged when the Fisk Jubilee Singers began to tour to raise money for Fisk University in Nashville, the first all-black university in America. George White, their founder and conductor, transcribed words and melodies from songs slaves had traditionally sung, but arranged them for performance using European-style harmony.

The postwar years saw little innovation in song, but did witness a certain standardization of form, resulting in a distinctly American pattern. The typical song began with an introduction for piano, had two to four verses, a refrain, and a postlude.

The sixteen-measure verse, which always reused the music of the introduction, could exhibit some variety of structure using various permutations of two or three different four-measure phrases.

The refrain, usually arranged for four voices, was based on one of the phrases in the verse. The postlude, often identical to the introduction, featured material from the first phrase of the verse.

Poetically, the verse presented a brief dramatic story line, which could have a tragic, nostalgic, pathetic, or cautionary coloring. The refrain text, usually derived from the first verse, offered an unchanging commentary on the verses.


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