Popular song in America, part 10: The rock revolution

Tin Pan Alley songs appealed to a predominantly urban, white, affluent, and musically literate segment of the population. They remained unknown to much of the rest of the country, including most blacks and rural whites, who had their own music, learned and passed down orally. The advent of the recording industry and radio gave this music a wider reach within their respective niches. Consequently, when Billboard began to document record sales, it kept three charts, one for “popular music,” (Tin Pan Alley songs), one for Country-Western, and one for black music, labeled at various times Harlem Hit Parade, Race Records, … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 9: Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley started during a time of transition in American musical theater. Late in the nineteenth century, the variety show began to supplant the minstrel show as America’s chief form of entertainment. Both consisted of sequences of various acts with no plot, but in the minstrel show, the entire cast stayed on stage from beginning to end and sometimes performed as an ensemble. Variety shows had a wider range of acts, and performers took the stage only for their own. Songs continued to follow the traditional verse/chorus form, but the change in theatrical practice eliminated four-part harmony from the … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 7: Civil War Songs

Issues of slavery and states rights so divided the nation that the American Civil War broke out as soon as Abraham Lincoln was proclaimed President-elect. It lasted four years, but strangely music unified the opposing armies at times.   Two publishers, the Chicago’s Root & Cady and Boston’s Oliver Ditson, account for the bulk of the North’s best war songs. George Frederick Root, brother of one of the Root & Cady’s founders, wrote “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Vacant Chair,” “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” and Brother, Tell Me of the Battle.” Henry Clay Work, who also published with … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 6: Stephen Collins Foster

I can remember as a child reading of Stephen Foster as the “American Schubert.” That is absurd. His knowledge of musical composition was too scanty to deserve that comparison. But during his lifetime he was regarded as the best American songwriter ever. Not until the twentieth century did anyone surpass him. He was the first full-time professional songwriter in American history. His predecessors had all earned most of their living from performing, publishing, or some other activity and could not have survived on their songs alone. Publishers usually bought songs outright, and if they sold well over a period of … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 5: some early American song-writers

Nineteenth-century America’s greatest song writer, Stephen Collins Foster, owed much to a variety of musical influences. Earlier posts in this series have shown the amalgam of English, Irish, and Italian influences that led to the first distinctively American style of song. The first recognized American form of entertainment added detailed (if racist) observation of the dialect and mannerisms of African slaves to make up a separate genre, the plantation song. With its choral refrains and other innovations, plantation songs in turn influenced other American song writers who were not at all involved with minstrel shows. At about the same time, … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 4: the influence of German songs

German-speaking people began to emigrate to America in modest numbers as early as the late seventeenth century. Generally, they got on well with the Anglophone majority and willingly adopted American habits and viewpoints. Settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina by the Moravian Church featured musical practices inherited from Germany, but had little influence on the surrounding culture. Things began to change by about the 1830s. The rate of immigration from Germany increased rapidly. This new influx brought German culture not to isolated settlements, but to major cities. Simply examining census records over the course of several decades of the nineteenth … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 3: minstrel shows and plantation songs

As was the case with many things popular in America, black characters played by whites on stage originated in England. As early as 1768, black characters offered comic relief in English operas. Some of these same operas were equally popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Poets attempted to develop a dialect that could sound suitably like how a black person might speak, although they didn’t use it consistently even within a single song. Composers had no idea what kinds of melodies blacks may have sung. Some made no attempt, writing the same kinds of melodies they would have used … Continue reading

Popular song in America, part 2: the influence of Italian opera

At first glance, the performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in New York on November 29, 1825, seems to have little to do with popular music. It marks the first American production of any opera in Italian, or indeed any other foreign language. (New Orleans had a long tradition of presenting opera in French, but then it was originally a French city and remained largely French in culture long after the United States acquired it. Opera in French there hardly counted as a foreign language.) Actually, it affected American popular music almost as much as … Continue reading

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 … Continue reading