“After the Ball,” by Charles K. Harris kicked American popular music into a higher gear. I have even encountered the claim that it marks the birth of American popular music! Certainly, publishers and performers had long attempted to make as much money as they could by appealing to the tastes of a mass audience. Songwriters too often had to sell the rights for a song to a publisher for very little money. In fact, it was because Harris was offended by low payment for another song that he decided to publish “After the Ball” himself. It became the first sheet music in history to sell a million copies. It didn’t stop there, either. Eventually it sold about five million copies worldwide.
According to his autobiography, Harris was living in Milwaukee when he escorted his younger sister to a ball in Chicago. Among other people he met there was “a charming young couple, engaged to be married. Suddenly we learned that the engagement was broken. Just a lover’s quarrel, I presumed at the time; but they were both too proud to acknowledge that they were in the wrong.” Later, he noticed the young man escorting another young lady home as his former fiancée tried to hide her tears. Harris thought, “Many a heart is aching after the ball.”
He had a studio in Milwaukee, with a shingle that proclaimed “Charles K. Harris / Banjoist and Songwriter / Songs Written to Order.” The day after returning from Chicago, when he would have rather just napped, a customer came in asking for a new song for an upcoming minstrel show. Inspired by the breakup he had witnessed the evening before, he made up a story of an old bachelor explaining to his niece why he was still single: he had seen his sweetheart in the arms of another and angrily rejected her. It turns out the man was her brother, and the verse that describes his letter darkly hints that she took her own life.
Like many popular songwriters before and since, Harris never learned to read or write musical notation. In the space of an hour, he had written the lyrics, devised a melody, and figured out an accompaniment on the piano. Then he called for his arranger, Joseph Clauder, to come to the studio and write down the music as Harris sang and played it over and over. Then Clauder played it from the notation, and Harris pointed out whatever wrong notes there may have been. For the sum of $10.00, Clauder made polished arrangements both for piano and orchestra. (Harris’ rent for his studio was $7.50 per month.)
The first performance of “After the Ball” didn’t go well. The man who commissioned the song couldn’t remember all the words and mangled the story. No one was impressed, but Harris thought it had potential. Rather than risk another 85¢ payment from an established publisher, he published himself then set about to badger established singers to perform it. J. Aldrich Libby introduced it in a hit show called A Trip to Chinatown with great success. John Philip Sousa liked the song and played it every day during his band’s six-week engagement at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893). Plenty of other bands and singers performed it, too.
Harris moved his office from Milwaukee to New York. While none of his later songs approached the unprecedented success of “After the Ball,” his publishing company did well enough to inspire other songwriters to open their own companies on Tin Pan Alley, which became so dominant in the publication and dissemination of sheet music that publishers in other cities became completely marginalized. And if Harris never wrote such an instant hit again, other songwriters did.
Meanwhile, in Europe, operas had been the predominant form of popular music for most of the nineteenth century, but Wagner, and to a lesser extent Verdi, began composing operas from which it was more difficult to extract popular tunes. As their operas became more intellectually demanding and moved more firmly into the realm of art music, the audience for popular music began to move from the opera house to the music hall, where they could not only listen to simple songs, but also drink. These music halls were much more open to American influence than the opera houses had ever been. “After the Ball” and other American mega-hits swept Europe (translated into local languages) and eventually inspired European songwriters to present original songs “in the American style.”
While Harris was not the first musically illiterate person to achieve success as a writer of popular songs, he certainly appears to be the first to exert an international influence on the composition, publication, and marketing of popular music. And in a day when it seems like our culture almost regards anything before Elvis Presley as “classical” music, “After the Ball” still holds up well in comparison to the hits that followed so closely behind.
“Charles K. Harris on writing hits for Tin Pan Alley” in Music in the USA: a documentary companion, ed. Judith Tick (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 361 ff.