American booster songs

Booster song coverEveryone knows hit songs about cities, such as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Wannabe commercial songwriters churned out thousands more that never became hits.

I have also found a surprising number of songs about cities written with no apparent thought of commercial success. They exist only to promote the virtues of a particular town, almost like an advertisement or jingle. I call them booster songs

The booster spirit and music

Countless American towns got their start when someone set up a trading post or some other business and then began a campaign to attract other residents and visitors. In other words, they and some of their followers became town boosters.

For example, every little town had a newspaper. Or maybe more than one. The publishers would send them out to other newspapers in hope that they would pick up some of the stories.

The booster spirit helped turn the frontier into a civil society. Not all the towns flourished, but many did. Some even became major cities. The booster spirit did not stop when a town became successful. In fact, it continues to this day, as civic organizations constantly try to attract new businesses and new residents.

The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition, came about as a result of boosterism. Barely 20 years after Chicago burned to the ground, it sought congressional approval to host a world’s fair in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage of discovery.

Chicago got it’s nickname “Windy City” because boosters from New York reminded Congress of the recent devastation there. The New Yorkers urged Congress not to pay attention to the delegates from “that windy city.”

The World’s Columbian Exposition was the first world’s fair with its own publicity department. Is it just a coincidence that it is the subject of the earliest booster song I know?

“Are You Going to the Fair at Chicago?” is the work of a poetic and musical incompetent, but it was jointly published in Chicago and New York. The enticing cover looks like a billboard, both on display in a music shop and on the buyers’ pianos at home.

Booster songs

Published booster songs appeared at least through the Second World War. After that, recordings supplanted sheet music as the primary way of selling music. Booster songs have promoted everything from small towns to great cities from coast to coast.

Here are some of the hallmarks of booster songs in sheet music

  • They were not written or composed by professional lyricists or musicians.
  • They were not intended to be commercial hits.
  • They extol the town’s virtues and both citizens and visitors to take advantage of them.
  • They mention numerous specific local places and events.
  • They make a virtue of whatever weather, geography, and pace of life the town has.
  • They often include the words “booster song,” “booster club,” or some similar indication that they were commissioned by the local chamber of commerce or similar organization.

Years ago, I ran into a collection of songs about Des Moines, Iowa and wrote to as many of the composers as I could identify. One in particular wrote back that the purpose of a jingle is not to close the sale, but to presell. He was actually in the advertising business

He thought his had been pretty successful, at least in terms of boosting civic pride. Many other booster songs must have been successful on the same basis. That would explain how many got published over half a century.

Thoughts on artistic merit

Des Moines yes mamWords and music (frequently by the same person, who also published the song) range from enjoyable to atrocious. I suspect that the worst ones make the most fun reading.

One of my favorite howlers comes from “Chicago Was A Village Then,” composed and privately published in 1903 by John J. Harden. It celebrated the centennial of the building of Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River.

Over four verses, Harden celebrated all the ways a great city had emerged from such humble beginnings. The words, “since that old fort was new” recur frequently, which got the poet in some trouble in the last verse:

Strange things have taken place, my friends, since that old fort was new.
A mighty city now appears, magnificent to view.
Though (sic) flood and fire, up from the mire, like magic it has grew (ouch!!)
Since that old fort was new, my friends, since that old fort was new.

Maybe he hoped no one would notice.
 
Bits of musical plagiarism turn up in some booster songs. Bob Eaton composed and published “Des Moines, Yes Mam (sic)!” in 1944—not from any connection with an official promotion, but simply because he loved the place.

He must have also liked “See the USA in your Chevrolet” even before it became Dinah Shore’s theme song. At least snatches of the chorus certainly sound like it.

The composer of “Rodeo Romeo” does not appear on the undated sheet music, which identifies it as the “Cedar Rapids Frontier Days Song,” He or she borrowed both bits of the words and music of the hit song “Pony Boy.”

The verse in Lee Austin’s “Fare Thee Well, Old San Diego” (1916) breaks incongruously into “O Tannenbaum.”

But whether booster songs are artistically good, bad, or indifferent misses the point. They exist to attract favorable attention to the town or city.

It would be hard to measure if a booster song ever actually attracted new businesses. Some of them may have attracted some new tourists.  If they merely boosted civic pride, that was probably success enough.

Sources:
“Booster Songs: Musical Manifestations of Civic Pride in American Towns and Cities” / David Guion. Journal of American Culture (Summer 1982), pp. 56-61.
“Eye-Catching Music” / David M. Guion. Chicago History (Fall/Winter 1987), pp. 90-103
Personal correspondence.


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