"Easter Parade," by Irving Berlin

Perhaps the most popular Easter song in the English language, “Easter Parade” started out with completely different words. In 1917, Berlin wrote “Smile and Show Your Dimple” to cheer up women whose men had just been deployed to fight in the First World War. No one remembered it very long except Berlin himself. In 1933, Berlin and playwright Moss Hart decided to collaborate on a satiric review with sketches taken from the daily newspaper. They called it As Thousands Cheer. It had sketches not only from the news sections, but also the society column, advice column, weather report, and comics. … Continue reading

An early song about Chicago

Probably everyone knows, or at least knows about, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” and “My Kind of Town.” Frank Sinatra sang both with great success. Surely no one will be surprised to learn that nearly 200 more songs about Chicago exist that no one is ever likely to sing again. But could anyone expect that the earliest published song about Chicago takes such a dim view of the place? In 1868, Chicago music publisher H. M. Higgins found a very insulting poem about Chicago in a Pittsburgh newspaper and decided to set it to music. Musically, the piece has little interest, … Continue reading

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