Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied. His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he … Continue reading

Kingdom Coming by Henry C. Work: abolitionist minstrel song

Popular songs usually don’t have a very long shelf life, but sometimes they’re more than just songs. Some of them affect the course of social and political events. Even after no one sings them or recognizes them any more, these are worth studying for their historical significance. I thought “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work was such a song. In form it’s a minstrel song, with a text in the slave dialect. Unlike almost any other minstrel song, it conveys a strong abolitionist sentiment. Poets who disdained the minstrel song tradition wrote abolitionist texts in dialect, which also became popular … Continue reading

Songs about Cities from Tin Pan Alley

Can you name a song about New York? Chicago? San Francisco? Maybe you can name two or more about each. Maybe you can even sing one or more. How about New Orleans? Very possibly. Ypsilanti? Um. It’s in Michigan. Yes. There’s a song about it. Published in New York. From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, New York the hub of the popular music industry in the U.S. A handful of mostly Jewish songwriters congregated in a part of town called Tin Pan Alley and churned out songs week after week. Like the music industry today, … Continue reading

American booster songs

Everyone 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 … Continue reading

D.P. Faulds: Border State music publisher

Louisville, Kentucky, located across the Ohio River from Indiana, was home to a thriving music publishing industry throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, D.P. Faulds being one of the more prominent. It issued music representing both sides of the Civil War, as did other Border State publishers. Four slave states, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware voted down attempts to secede from the Union. They became known as Border States. Pro-Union and pro-Confederate sentiment ran high in all of these states, and troops from all of them served on both sides of the war. Is it any wonder that music … Continue reading

American shaped notes tune books and the fasola tradition

When William Little and William Smith published The Easy Instructor (Philadelphia 1801), they started a spate of shaped notes tune books over the next half century or so. Perhaps the best known today is The Sacred Harp (1844). The traditional singing style associated with these books is known as the Sacred Harp style. The four shapes correspond to four syllables (fa, sol, la, mi) that form the theoretical underpinnings for the way these tunes have long been taught. Anyone who knows “Do, a deer” from The Sound of Music knows that there are seven syllables. Where did this fasola come … Continue reading

The quest for a national anthem: Civil War edition

The Star Spangled Banner became the legal national anthem of the United States in 1931, the first time any song received that designation. That doesn’t mean no one perceived a need for a national anthem any earlier. In the early days of the Civil War, people attending rallies on the northern side sang two other songs besides The Star Spangled Banner: Yankee Doodle and Hail, Columbia. My Country ‘Tis of Thee dates from 1831, but apparently it was not as popular as the others.The other three were all good, emotional rallying cries, but more and more people were beginning to … Continue reading

Henry Clay Work’s Civil War Songs

The son of an ardent abolitionist, Henry Clay Work was born in Connecticut in 1832. He trained as a printer and started a career setting musical type. Along the way, he taught himself music. By 1853, he had moved to Chicago and started writing his own songs. His first publication, “We Are Coming, Sister Mary,” became nationally famous after the Christy Minstrels started performing it regularly. After a fatal shipwreck on Lake Michigan, Work wrote the music to “Lost on the Lady Elgin,” and even that song was published in New York as well as Chicago. Not long after the … Continue reading

Root & Cady: leading publisher of Civil War songs

Soon after Ebenezer T. Root and Chauncey M. Cady founded their music store and publishing house (Chicago, 1858), they became the city’s leading music dealer. Content at first to be, like other Chicago music companies, a general music dealer and publisher of songs for the local market, the partners could not have imagined that they would be best remembered for the songs they sold nationwide during the Civil War. During that time, most American music publishers catered to the local market. They made no particular attempt to promote their songs; the songwriters themselves did that. In fact, publishing was usually … Continue reading

Benjamin Franklin on Handel

I have written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about how the distinction between classical and popular music arose. (See, for example, “Popular Music: the Birth of an Idea.”)  Years before it became apparent, Benjamin Franklin anticipated it when he advised his brother on how to write a popular ballad: don’t use Handel’s music for a model. Peter Franklin had written a ballad text disapproving of expensive foppery and encouraging hard work and thriftiness. Benjamin thought it very good, but pointed out that its poetic meter did not resemble that of any of the common and well-known tunes. That would … Continue reading