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

Summertime, by George Gershwin




Is it even conceivable that any series of outdoor orchestra or concert band concerts (at least in the US) has never presented someone singing “Summertime”? If a series has lasted more than five or ten years, its audiences have probably heard it sung multiple times—not to mention instrumental arrangements on those or a wide variety of other concerts. It’s one of George Gershwin’s best-loved works, and certainly his most recorded. Some people regard Gershwin as America’s greatest composer. Too many professional critics dismiss him, looking askance at the fact that he devoted most of his energy to (shudder) popular music. … Continue reading

We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast: Civil War protest music




On January 17, 1862 the Hutchinson family intended to perform for the First New Jersey Regiment at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia, but members of other units crowded into the room, too. The Hutchinsons were evangelical Christians with a passion for temperance, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. They did not sing merely to entertain and amuse. They sought to deter their audiences from sin and also influence their politics. A new, unpublished song That night in Fairfax they sang a setting of “We Wait beneath the Furnace Blast,” a recent abolitionist poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that he wrote to … Continue reading

Beautiful Ohio: from pop song to official state song




Ohio’s state song, “Beautiful Ohio,” began life as a popular song. It’s not one of the songs whose popularity has lasted for several generations. It is now as obscure as most state songs. It has a strange story, but where did the idea of an official state song come from, anyway? American song writers have chosen cities as subject matter at least since 1831, when J. A. Gairdner composed and published “New York, O! What a Charming City.” I have no idea what might be the first song about a state, but Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” appeared well … Continue reading

Home, Sweet Home, by Henry Rowley Bishop




Home, Sweet Home” was the single most popular song of the entire 19th century, both in the United States and in England. Its success may owe more to the American poet who wrote the words than to the English composer of the tune. Henry Rowley Bishop was the most respected English musician of his generation. Contemporaries even called him the “English Mozart.” Almost single-handed, he kept the tradition of English opera alive. English opera and Bishop’s reputation. “Opera” seems highbrow nowadays. In the early nineteenth century it was the popular music of the upper class–that is, if it was in … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Carol of the Bells




Peter Wilhousky, a distinguished American choral conductor, music educator, and arranger, wrote the words to “Carol of the Bells” and published his arrangement of the piece in 1936. The tune has a much longer history. It was originally a Ukrainian folksong. And it had nothing to do with Christmas. In 1916, a Ukrainian choral director named Oleksander Koshetz commissioned local composer Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych to provide a new choral piece based on folk music. Leontovych looked through an anthology of Ukrainian folk music and selected a four-note tune with lyrics to a song of well-wishing, traditionally sung at New Year’s. … Continue reading

Divided loyalties?




My posts about Confederate music of the Civil War are all based on a spreadsheet of songs in the Library of Congress’ sheet music collection. It took a long time to compile it, and there are just under 500 items labeled as representing the Confederate side. There are 1950 pieces in the same collection identified as representing the Union side. I finally broke down and paid someone else to prepare a spreadsheet. I have just now had a chance to glance at it. Some names familiar to me from the Confederate spreadsheet also appear on the Union spreadsheet. For example, … Continue reading

The Bonnie Blue Flag, by Harry Macarthy




In its short existence, the Confederate States of America adopted two official flags. The Southern Cross flag so familiar today was adopted only in 1863 after it became apparent that the original Stars and Bars looked enough like the American Stars and Stripes to confuse soldiers in battle. No song about either flag ever approached the popularity of Harry Macarthy’s tribute to the Bonnie Blue Flag, which was never an official Confederate flag at all. The flag Search for “Confederate Flag” on Google, and you might find one or two references to the Bonnie Blue Flag, but it’s not the … Continue reading

The Battle Cry of Freedom: best song of the Civil War?




Several songs of the Civil War remain well known to this day. Perhaps the best known today is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but certainly the preeminent war song of its own day was “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” by George Frederick Root. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its religious allusions, quickly found a place in hymnals, which it retains to this day. “The Battle Cry of Freedom” is nothing but a war song, yet many of you reading this are probably humming it right now. What is it about this song that has given it such … Continue reading

The centennial of that other war and our national anthem




From last year through 2015, the United States is observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Regular readers know that I have contributed several post here about the music of the Civil War. This year also marks the centennial of the War of 1812. That one gets lost in the shuffle. It had one important musical consequence, though: the words to our national anthem The war The War of 1812 is sort of the nineteenth-century equivalent of our wars in Korea or Vietnam. It did not end well. It created national divisions. It gave no one any particularly good … Continue reading