Music That Americans Loved 100 Years Ago --
Tin Pan Alley, Broadway Show Tunes, Ragtime, and Sousa Marches
- by Tim Gracyk
American "popular music" a century ago was the entertainment that sprang from a rapidly growing music industry. It was commercial music, published in some format, usually sheet music. It was the music on the best selling wax cylinders and one-sided discs, which were the two formats for records. It was in Broadway productions, minstrel shows, band concerts, and vaudeville. It was the music that Americans typically heard during a day's outing to Coney Island or a trip in 1904 to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the St. Louis World's Fair.
It was the music that delighted Americans. Not everyone, of course. Some in the upper and middle classes patronized only "serious" music, usually works by European composers. Many in the middle-class objected to anything too "lowbrow." Strict churchgoers allowed only hymns into their homes, some objecting if citizens in their town organized stage shows. Many living in rural areas had little opportunity to hear hits of the day.
But enough Americans enjoyed what we now characterize as "popular music" to keep the music industry humming. It is a misleading term since it implies that other musical forms were not popular. For example, folk music once thrived in American rural areas, with one generation passing along favorite tunes to another, the music not written down--that is not included in the term "popular music." Nor does it include ethnic music, which was enjoyed in most cities by many who had emigrated from the Old World. It is not "Ring Around the Rosie" and other songs cherished by children. It is not opera or concert pieces requiring the skills of highly trained performers. It is not hymns or spirituals. But most other forms are covered by the term "popular music."
Where Was Popular Music Heard?
Tin Pan Alley and Sheet Music
Broadway Show Tunes
Ragtime and "Coon Songs"
Marches and Other Numbers Played By Bands
Records of Music That Was Popular Long Ago
Broadway show tunes, ragtime (and related "coon songs"), marches, vocal numbers on sheet music ranging from sentimental ballads to comic songs--these categories broadly cover what Americans listened to a century ago, let's say from 1895 to 1905. These categories are loose and overlap considerably. For example, some Broadway show tunes were published in sheet music form, and some songs that had first appeared on sheet music were interpolated into Broadway shows. Classic rags were patterned after the march, were often played in march time ("Tempo di Marcia"), and were sometimes characterized on sheet music as march two-steps. If we add traditional forms that were popular for social dancing--the waltz, polka, and two- step--and also add standards of earlier generations, such as Stephen Foster songs and Civil War numbers, we are closer to identifying American popular music a century ago.
No one type of music dominated. The period is sometimes called The Ragtime Era but that is as inaccurate as calling the 1990s an Age of Hip-Hop. Ragtime is notable because it was fresh and wholly American, with some outstanding new compositions springing from ragtime composers, especially Scott Joplin. But whether measuring by records issued at the time or sheet music found today, we have to conclude that ragtime, even loosely defined to include ragtime-influenced vocal numbers, was only a small part of the popular music scene.
On old records and sheet music, we more often find sentimental songs than ragtime. Sentimental songs may have sold better than any other type of popular music. Such music had long been popular and remained popular decades afterwards. "Silver Threads Among the Gold" (words by Eben Eugene Rexford, music by Hart Pease Danks) may have been the most recorded song from 1903 until the Great Depression, with record companies issuing over a hundred different versions, vocal and instrumental. When one version became dated and removed from a company's catalog, another was recorded to take its place. "St. Louis Blues" eventually replaced it as the most recorded American song, with countless jazz and big band ensembles waxing versions of W. C. Handy's classic.
In the New World, musical traditions of nearly all cultures--African-American, Eastern European, Irish, English, many more--were being mixed, resulting in new and distinctly American forms. Popular music a century ago was incredibly varied, with many genres being popular. To characterize every facet of the era's popular music is not possible here, but to discuss ways in which songs were performed, promoted, and enjoyed is worthwhile. To understand popular music of the era is to know at least a little about the sheet music industry, Broadway shows and vaudeville, concert bands such as Sousa's, and the infant recording industry.
Melodies were arranged in different ways, which is essential to keep in mind. For example, audiences loved band arrangements of pop tunes such as "Hiawatha" and ragtime novelties such as "Maple Leaf Rag." These were popular when played by Sousa's Band. Male quartet arrangements were popular, with tunes often sung by a vocal ensemble consisting of a first tenor (the highest pitch), second tenor (usually the leading voice), baritone, and bass. They may have harmonized on "Sweet Adeline," incidentally, but these were not "barbershop quartets." The phrase "barbershop quartet" was not used in music trade journals or on sheet music a century ago. That term caught on in the 1920s and became widely used in the 1940s and later. In other words, during the period with which we now associate "barbershop quartet" singing--the 1890s through the World War I years or so--no singers used that term and none wore barbershop uniforms.
When music was played in the home a century ago, it was sometimes produced mechanically--that is, by a music box, player piano, or phonograph (often called a talking machine). More often, it was played by someone seated at a piano, perhaps accompanying family members who sang at full voice, sheet music propped. With prices for pianos gradually decreasing in the late nineteenth century, Americans purchased instruments for their parlors, which fueled demand for published music.
Music was also heard in public. Consider how one song, "Pride of the Prairie," is promoted on page 16 in the August 1908 issue of the trade journal Edison Phonograph Monthly: "The past summer brought out some clever popular songs, but none to take the public fancy more than 'Pride of the Prairie.' It was heard in vaudeville, in illustrated songs at the moving picture shows; the bands took it up in the parks and passed it on to the orchestras on excursion boats. It is just the stripe of song that starts the gallery whistling."
This statement exaggerates the popularity of "Pride of the Prairie" but the blurb is interesting because it lists typical places in which songs were heard a century ago. The "illustrated song," once popular at Coney Island's Wackie's Theatre and elsewhere, is a lost art form. As a singer performed, colored slides with images related to a song's theme were projected on a screen. The reference to the "gallery whistling" is significant. In many theaters, cheap seats were in the gallery, filled by members of the lower middle class such as white-collar workers, tradesmen, and skilled workers (members of the working class earned below $500 a year--they spent almost nothing on entertainment). Songwriters believed that if people in cheap seats were pleased enough by new tunes to whistle them, chances for the songs to become hits were excellent.
However, people who sat in the cheap seats of theaters were not buying records. Only members of more prosperous classes could afford wax cylinders and one-sided discs featuring popular songs. For example, "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" as sung by Billy Murray on Columbia disc 1792 could be purchased in June 1904 for a dollar. Records delivered only two to three minutes of music! Even those with a little disposable income had to be careful when selecting songs priced at a dollar each. Of course, one could buy in 1904 a wax cylinder version for twenty-five cents. Cylinders had come down in price, being fifty cents only a few years earlier. But buyers realized that wax cylinder were more fragile than discs. For this and other reasons, an increasing number of music lovers favored the relatively new disc format.
Study a magazine from 1898 and you may find an advertisement for Edison's "Gem" cylinder machine. Early models were designed to play brown wax cylinders, not the Blue Amberols records pictured above (the blue ones above happen to be in wax Amberol boxes, not their original Blue Amberol containers).
Sheet music today plays no role in creating hits, but a century ago the availability of a song in sheet music was crucial to that song's success. A song's popularity could be determined by the number of copies of sheet music it sold (before 1905, records were too primitive and expensive to create hits of new songs). Sheet music was at the heart of the music industry. Most new songs were presented to the public in sheet music form, the music transcribed for voice and piano. Chances for a new song to become a hit were improved if entertainers performed it to large audiences, but sheet music generally came first.
Publishing songs was not especially lucrative prior to the 1890s, but strong sales of Charles K. Harris's "After the Ball," published by the composer himself in 1892, made businessmen aware that incredible profits could be made from popular songs. In the 1890s publishers took great care over art work on covers, and promotional efforts became more sophisticated, with "pluggers"--that is, salesmen of songs--multiplying. The sheet music industry soon enjoyed a Golden Age.
No map shows a location for Tin Pan Alley. It is simply a nickname for the New York City neighborhood that once hosted several music publishers. On West 28th Street near Fifth Avenue, many songwriters once plied their craft (the important William Morris Talent Agency was here, as was vaudeville's trade journal, The New York Clipper). Journalist and songwriter Monroe H. Rosenfeld is credited for coining the term. Harry Von Tilzer told the colorful tale of Rosenfeld visiting him on West 28th Street and exclaiming, "It sounds like a tin pan." He was referring to the sound of Von Tilzer's piano, which had been muted with paper. Or perhaps Rosenfeld was referring to a combination of Von Tilzer's instrument along with competing pianos in that building and in neighboring buildings. In any case, Rosenfeld soon afterwards gave the title "Tin Pan Alley" to one of his newspaper articles, and the name stuck by 1903. By the 1920s most music publishers had moved uptown, to 42nd Street and elsewhere (the famous Brill Building was built in 1931 at 1619 Broadway at 49th Street), but though publishers moved from 28th Street, the term "Tin Pan Alley" stuck as a nickname.
Strictly speaking, Tin Pan Alley refers to New York City music publishers. Firms with incredible sales, such as Witmark, Harms, Feist, and Von Tilzer, were located in Manhattan. Remick was Detroit-based but had a huge office in New York City. Other cities had music publishers, with Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago hosting several. Hit songs sprang from surprising places. For example, Hattie Nevada's "Letter Edged in Black," popular in 1897, was published in Kansas City. But New York City's music publishers dominated the sheet music industry.
Tin Pan Alley grew in importance to the music industry around the time variety shows--or vaudeville acts--were becoming popular, with minstrel shows in decline. More Americans were hearing new songs in vaudeville than in any other form of live entertainment. Sheet music publishers and vaudeville's leading artists naturally worked together. Publishers wanted their newly published songs introduced to the public in an effective way, so they turned to vaudeville stars for plugging. Vaudeville artists were eager to find good new material.
Tin Pan Alley material ranged from comic songs that were genuinely funny to sentimental ballads designed to stir the emotions of even the most cynical. To convey the richness of popular songs a century ago would require a book. In fact, books have been written about Tin Pan Alley alone, beginning with Isaac Goldberg's Tin Pan Alley: A Chronicle of American Popular Music (New York: John Day, 1930). Later books include Maxwell F. Marcuse's Tin Pan Alley In Gaslight (Watkins Glen, New York: Century House, 1959), David Jasen's Tin Pan Alley (New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1988), and Nicholas E. Tawa's The Way To Tin Pan Alley (New York: Schirmer Books, 1990).
Listed are ten songs that were genuinely popular from 1896 to 1905, one tune representing one year. Each started out as sheet music. Several caught on after being interpolated into Broadway shows or after being performed by vaudeville stars.
1) "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" (1896), words by Joe Hayden, music by Theodore M. Metz. Lyrics are in black dialect ("When you hear dem a bells go ding, ling, ling...") but avoid the worst stereotypes of "coon songs" popular at the time. The song predates the Spanish-American War but became associated with that war because regiments sang it as they debarked for Cuba. Despite a bit of syncopation, it was essentially a marching tune. A volunteer regiment called the Rough Riders, under Colonel Leonard Wood and Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, adopted it as they went up San Juan Hill. Jack Nicholson, playing the role of Joker, sings part of the famous chorus in the 1989 motion picture Batman.
2) "On The Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" (1897), words and music by Paul Dresser. The songwriter's real name was Dreiser--his younger brother was novelist Theodore Dreiser. This tearjerker became the official song of Indiana in 1913. I recommend Joan Morris's performance on After The Ball (Elektra/Nonesuch 79148). The song was popular enough soon after being published to inspire a comic take-off, "And My 'Bank' Is In The Wabash Far Away," words and music by H. Bower.
3) "My Old New Hampshire Home" (1898), words by Andrew B. Sterling, music by Harry Von Tilzer. For a few years, this sentimental number--the first of many Von Tilzer hits--was almost as popular as James Bland's "Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny." Naming a state in a song title (and chorus) was a gimmick that often worked. "My Old New Hampshire Home" is a good example of a song that was widely recorded a century ago but is unavailable today.
4) "Hello! My Baby" (1899), by Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson (they were married to each other). The chorus speaks of my "ragtime gal," which is evidence that the new music ragtime was no longer obscure. It is also one of the earliest popular songs to refer to a telephone. Frank P. Banta cut a piano solo of it for Victor on September 27, 1900 (seven-inch A-402), which is noteworthy since few piano solos were issued on records at this time. An old Victor catalog identifies the performance as "An Original Fantasie." Pianist Dick Wellstood performs a lively instrumental version on Ragtime Piano Favorites (Special Music 4528).
5) "The Blue and the Grey" (1900), words and music by Paul Dresser. This tells of a mother who lost two sons in the Civil War (Appomattox and Chickamauga) and, four decades later, lost a third son in Cuba, "in a trench in Santiago," during the Spanish-American War. The song was published two years after President McKinley's war ended. The lyrics brought tears to many eyes a century ago. Did any mother actually lose sons in both wars?
6) "Hiawatha" (1901), music by Neil Moret, whose real name was Charles N. Daniels. It caught on because John Philip Sousa included it in his band's repertoire, possibly by the summer of 1901. The composer recalled late in life that he learned about the song's success from this telegram sent by Sousa: "Congratulations, dear boy. Hiawatha the biggest hit I've ever played." It reached its peak in popularity after lyrics by James O'Dea were added in 1903. The song version of "Hiawatha" sparked an "Indian Intermezzo" fad, inspiring Kerry Mills' "Red Wing," Percy Wenrich's "Silver Bells," Egbert Van Alstyne's "Navajo," and Fred Hager's "Laughing Water." No early recordings have been reissued, but lively jazz interpretations are available. I recommend the version by Turk Murphy's Jazz Band on San Francisco Jazz (MMRC CD-3).
7) "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home" (1902), words and music by Hughie Cannon. It was popular soon after it was published and decades later became a standard among traditional jazz ensembles. Baritone Arthur Collins recorded it for a few companies around 1902. His Columbia version has been reissued on the nine-cd set American Pop: An Audio History (Silva 1017). Dan Quinn and Silas Leachman cut it for Victor in 1902. The song inspired a few once-popular but now-forgotten sequels, including "I Wonder Why Bill Bailey Won't Come Home," "He Done Me Wrong, or, The Death of Bill Bailey," and "When Old Bill Bailey Plays the Ukelele."
8) "Bedelia" (1903), words by William Jerome, music by Jean Schwartz. Building songs around girls' names was popular, and this one may have been the most popular of all. Others from the era include "My Gal Sal," "Elsie From Chelsea," and "Mariah." "Bedelia' is notable for its use of Irish folk material.
9) "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" (1904), words by Andrew B. Sterling, music by Kerry Mills. This was a promotional song for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. Four singers who popularized the song on discs and cylinders in 1904 are S. H. Dudley, Billy Murray, Will F. Denny, and J. W. Myers. In that year one could also buy "Meet Me In St. Louis Medley" performed by Arthur Pryor's Band on Victor #2960. The song is on various Judy Garland compilations since she famously revived it in 1944 in the film Meet Me in St. Louis. I prefer a performance on the excellent 20-cut cd After The Ball (Elektra/Nonesuch 79148), featuring mezzo- soprano Joan Morris, who sings to William Bolcom's piano accompaniment.
10) "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" (1905), words by Harry H. Williams, music by Egbert Van Alstyne. This team of songwriters was remarkably versatile. No matter the genre, they could produce hits, with other popular songs including an Indian Intermezzo ("Navajo"), a cowboy song ("Cheyenne"), and a "coon song" ("Back, Back, Back to Baltimore"). Though "Wait 'Til the Sun Shines, Nellie" and a few others came close, no songs of 1905 matched the popularity of this sentimental one about the apple tree. Henry Burr was the recording artist most associated with this hit. Burr enjoyed success with other Van Alstyne compositions, including "Won't You Come Over To My House" and "Old Pal." Until one of the earliest vocal versions is reissued, I recommend the version on Mills Brothers, Volume 4: 1937 - 1940 (Giants of Jazz 53279).
The prolific tenor Henry Burr was the
recording artist most identified with "In
the Shade of the Old Apple Tree."
Sentimental songs were so popular that a few more should be mentioned here. Typical from the late 1890s are "With All Her Faults I Love Her Still," "She's More to Be Pitied Than Censured," and "Take Back Your Gold." In the early years of the twentieth century, some of the most popular songs were the tearjerkers "Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder" (1900; words by Arthur Gillespie, music by Herbert Dillea) and "Dear Old Girl" (1903; words by Richard Henry Buck, music by Theodore F. Morse).
The name Ethelbert Nevin is obscure today, but his name and most famous composition--"The Rosary" (1898), with words by Robert C. Rogers--were known to most Americans a century ago. It had been conceived for an art-loving crowd, and it was widely sung on concert stages. But it was also loved by the masses, which means it was sung by regular folks in parlors throughout America or in just about any room with a piano. It even inspired in 1911 the comic "When Ragtime Rosie Ragged the Rosary" though this was not a hit. "Mighty Lak' a Rose" (1901) was another success for Nevin.
Carrie Jacobs-Bond (1862 - 1946) is likewise forgotten, but she was once a revered composer. She was clearly America's most prominent female songwriter a century ago. Especially popular were "Just a-Wearyin' for You" (1901), "I Love You Truly" (1906), and "A Perfect Day" (1910). Other women who wrote hits include Hattie Starr ("Little Alabama Coon"), Maude Nugent ("Sweet Rosie O'Grady"), and Hattie Nevada ("Letter Edged in Black").
The prolific bass-baritone Frank C. Stanley covered,
on cylinders and single-sided discs, many numbers
that had been introduced in Broadway shows. He was never
featured in shows--he became indespensible to the
recording studios because he was an excellent sight-reader
sheet music and his voice recorded "just right."
In contrast to songs published on sheet music and then popularized in vaudeville were songs introduced in Broadway musical shows, the chief forms being operetta, musical comedy, and revue. In the 1890s American musical theater became more distinctly American, less influenced by London productions. British musical comedies--especially Gilbert and Sullivan productions--had been the most popular productions on Broadway (the best songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were published as sheet music), but by the 1890s, Americans were as enthusiastic about some homegrown shows as they had been for Gilbert and Sullivan in previous decades.
There were breakthroughs in black musical comedy, which essentially began with A Trip to Coontown. The show's title, which is offensive today, parodies that of one of the best-loved shows of the 1890s, A Trip to Chinatown. The all-black show was not a Broadway production (it opened on April 4, 1898, at an out-of-the-way theater in New York City), nor was it especially successful. But the show was a landmark since it was completely written, produced, and performed by African Americans. Months later, in July, a short play featuring an all-black cast opened at the Casino Roof Garden, at the top of Broadway's Casino Theatre, which was patronized by white audiences. Titled Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk, it introduced the popular song "Darktown Is Out Tonight." Within a few years, Bert Williams and George Walker--the comic team of Williams and Walker--would be stars in Broadway shows.
American musical theater did not exactly come of age. It was still heavily influenced by European shows, such as one imported from England titled Florodora, Opening in 1900, this was the second show in Broadway history to have a run of over 500 performances. Its popularity owed much to the show's best production number. While singing "Tell Me, Pretty Maiden," six beautiful women with parasols and six men walked in unison with arms locked. The success of this carefully choreographed scene led to larger budgets for choruses and stage effects in subsequent musical comedies.
Ada Jones was the recording industry's
most popular female singer from 1904 to 1912.
Her recording of "The Bully" is superb,
as is May Irwin's.
The Merry Widow and other Viennese operettas had an even greater influence on Broadway productions in the early twentieth century. The Viennese influence declined only as anti-German sentiments were stirred during the World War I years.
Nonetheless, more and more Broadway productions were infused with a distinctly native spirit. Important were such shows as A Trip to Chinatown (1892), from which the popular song "The Bowery" emerged; Wang (1892), with De Wolf Hopper heading the cast; Robin Hood (1890) and Rob Roy (1894), both with music by Reginald De Koven; and El Capitan (1896), with a score by John Philip Sousa. In the late 1890s, Victor Herbert and George M. Cohan began making important contributions to American musical theater, and shortly after the turn of the century each of the two composed several universally loved songs.
Listed are ten songs that were hits after being in Broadway productions (some of the shows opened elsewhere), most being written specially for the shows, a few others being interpolated. Each became widely available on sheet music and records shortly after audiences expressed their approval.
1) "O Promise Me" from Robin Hood (1890), words by Clement Scott, music by Reginald De Koven. Written in 1889 and introduced on stage in 1890 in an American operetta, this had staying power, remaining popular for decades. In 1898 Jessie Bartlett Davis, who introduced it on stage, cut it for a seven-inch Berliner disc, which has been reissued on Music From the New York Stage, 1890 - 1920, Volume 1 (Pearl 9050). In the early twentieth century, it was recorded many times. Rob Roy, which opened in 1894, may have been De Koven's most popular operetta in that it was the show to have the longest run, but no song in Rob Roy appealed to the public for long, in contrast to "O Promise Me" from Robin Hood.
2) "The Bully" from The Widow Jones (1895). May Irvin, known as a "coon-shouter," was a leading performer of the 1890s. She introduced "The Bully" to stage audiences. The song is credited to sports writer Charles E. Trevathan though he acknowledged that he gave it shape after hearing the melody in St. Louis (Trevathan could not use the original lyrics since they were too bawdy). On May 20, 1907, Irwin recorded it (Victor 31642), which is reissued on Music From the New York Stage, 1890 - 1920, Volume 1 (Pearl 9050).
3) "Gypsy Love Song" from The Fortune Teller (1898), words by Harry B. Smith, music by Victor Herbert. Prominent bass Eugene Cowles (1860 - 1948) starred in Herbert's show and introduced this classic. On October 20, 1898, he cut it for Berliner disc 1909. He recorded it again on May 4, 1906, for Victor, and this is reissued on Music From the New York Stage, 1890 - 1920, Volume 1 (Pearl 9050). An impressive version by baritone Reinald Werrenrath is reissued on A Victor Herbert Showcase (Pearl 9798). Later, Nelson Eddy and even Bing Crosby covered it. "Romany Life" was another popular song from the show.
4) "My Wild Irish Rose" (1898), interpolated into the 1899 show A Romance of Athlone. Various artists perform this on compilations of Irish standards, but unlike such classics as "Wearing of the Green" and "Bard of Armagh," this song is more American than Irish. The composer himself, Chauncey Olcott (born Chancellor John Olcott), popularized it in the Broadway show and recorded it for Columbia in 1913. This important creator record is reissued on Music From the New York Stage, 1890 - 1920, Volume 1 (Pearl 9050). Olcott co-wrote other American-Irish classics, including "Mother Machree" (lyrics by Rida Johnson Young); "I Love the Name of Mary" (lyrics by George Graff, Jr.); and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (music by Ernest R. Ball, words by Olcott and Graff). In 1914, tenor John McCormack recorded a superb version of "My Wild Irish Rose," reissued on a compact disc of that name (RCA 68668).
5) "Come Down, Ma Evenin' Star" from Twirly-Whirly (1902). This show produced by Weber and Fields featured the last score by John Stromberg, who committed suicide months before the show opened (lyrics are by Robert B. Smith). Lillian Russell sang this number in the show and was thereafter associated with it. She recorded it on March 21, 1912. She was past her prime--one of several stars of the stage who recorded too little, too late--and the record company did not issue it. A dubbing of a test pressing surfaced in the 1940s on the Collectors Record Shop label, and this has been reissued on the three-cd set Music From the New York Stage, 1890 - 1920, Volume 1 (Pearl 9050). I also recommend Joan Morris's performance on the excellent twenty-cut After The Ball (Elektra/Nonesuch 79148).
6) "Under the Bamboo Tree," interpolated into Nancy Brown (1902). It is unclear who deserves songwriting credit for this gem. The cover of sheet music gives credit to Bob Cole and the Johnson brothers; the first page of music states only "by Bob Cole"; some music reference books credit Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, suggesting that brother James Weldon Johnson did not help. A century ago, African Americans made splendid contributions to musical shows, this song being among the most popular. It was originally written for Toloso but that show was never produced. It was interpolated by Marie Cahill into Nancy Brown, later into Sally in Our Alley. In 1917, she recorded it for Victor, and this is reissued on Music From the New York Stage, 1890 - 1920, Volume 1 (Pearl 9050). Joan Morris sings it on After The Ball (Elektra/Nonesuch 79148).
7) "Yankee Doodle Boy" from Little Johnny Jones (1904), words and music by George M. Cohan. This famous entertainer cut ten titles for Victor on May 4, 1911, his only session during his prime years. The titles selected were minor Cohan compositions instead of genuine hits from his musicals, which partly accounts for poor sales, which in turn helps explain why he did not make more records. Record company executives may have insisted that Cohan not cover titles that had already sold well, especially ones recorded by popular tenor Billy Murray. By mid-1905 Victor advertised that Murray's disc of "Yankee Doodle Boy" (cut for that company on December 2, 1904) was the top-selling record in its history. In the summer of 1906, Victor promotional literature identified the tenor's version of Cohan's "The Grand Old Rag" as the company's best-selling disc up to that point. A fine modern interpretation is on I Wants to Be a Actor Lady (New World 80221).
8) "Kiss Me Again" from Victor Herbert's Mlle Modiste (1905). This was first sung on stage by Fritzi Scheff, one of those stage stars who never made commercial recordings. Others include Fay Templeton (a great favorite of the vaudeville and legitimate stages), Anna Held (whose theme song was "I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave"), Hazel Dawn (who introduced "My Beautiful Lady" in Ivan Caryll's The Pink Lady), Lina Abarbanell (star of Madame Sherry and other musical comedies), and Kitty Gordon (star of The Enchantress and other productions). The best-selling version on records during the industry's acoustic era was by opera diva Amelita Galli-Curci (Victor 959). A fine stereo version is sung by Beverly Sills on Music of Victor Herbert (Angel 37160).
9) "Nobody" from Abyssinia (1905), music by Bert A. Williams, words by Alexander Rogers. This became Bert Williams' signature song. It was first recorded by Arthur Collins on Edison 9084, issued in September 1905. The August 1905 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "The song fits Mr. Collins like a glove. The story is of a coon for whom nobody does nothing, therefore he does nothing for nobody." For Columbia, Williams recorded "Nobody" in mid-1906. He wrote in the January 1918 issue of American Magazine, "Before I got through with 'Nobody,' I could have wished that both the author of the words and the assembler of the tune had been strangled or drowned or talked to death. For seven whole years I had to sing it. Month after month I tried to drop it and sing something new, but I could get nothing to replace it, and the audiences seemed to want nothing else. Every comedian at some time in his life learns to curse the particular stunt of his that was most popular." Williams tried to repeat the success of "Nobody" with other songs that intoned one- or two- word catchphrases. These include "Unexpectedly," "Somebody," "Constantly," and "Not Lately." Other singers have covered "Nobody" but the Williams version on various compilations, such as This Is Art Deco (Columbia CK-57111), is best.
10) "You're a Grand Old Rag" from George M. Cohan's George Washington, Jr. (1906). Tenor Billy Murray cut this for Victor on February 6, 1906, six days before Cohan's show opened in New York City, and cut it for other record companies shortly afterwards. Nearly all of his versions have the original words: "You're a grand old rag, you're a high-flying flag..." Soon after his show opened at Herald Square Theater, Cohan was stung by criticism that "rag" was in a song about the American flag. Cohan should have held his ground since the chorus expresses only respect, and in the show a war veteran does carry a flag that is tattered and worn--a rag. However, he revised the chorus, with some printed versions of the song merely changing "rag" to "flag," thereby weakening the chorus with repetition, others having the words, "You're a grand old flag tho' you're torn to a rag..." Murray's Victor record has been reissued on American Pop: An Audio History (Silva 1017).
Ragtime began as a folk music developed by African Americans. Exactly where or how it developed is unknown. If music historians could travel back in time, some might pick a Mid-West city such as St. Louis in the 1880s or early 1890s so they could learn something about ragtime's true origins. The music had been around for years before rags were finally published in the late 1890s. Itinerant pianists at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 played a music that was subsequently known as ragtime.
This image is a page from a mid-1898 catalog
issued by the Kansas City Talking Machine Company.
May C. Hyers was the first African-American female
to make recordings. Her records were issued as brown
wax cylinders, but none are known to have survived.
She covered a variety of genres from sentimental
favorites, such as "Ben Bolt," to hits of the day,
including "Pumpkin Colored Coon" (KCTM cylinder #203).
The image of Hyers was made in the months that
record companies began to take notice of a new
American musical form, namely ragtime. The words
"rag" and "ragtime" were first added to
record titles and record catalogs in thesummer of 1898.
Ragtime scholars cannot be certain why the music was called "rag time" (it was spelled as two words until 1898 or so). Scott Joplin (1868 - 1917), who was ragtime's greatest composer, explained to a reporter in 1907 that the music took its name "because it has such a ragged movement." But the genre had already been established when Joplin published his first rags in 1899, and he may only been only speculating on how the music was named.
Ragtime is a heavily syncopated music, usually combining an even rhythm with a syncopated (that is, off the beat) melodic strain. When piano players perform it, the left hand generally provides a marchlike rhythm (often with octave chord patterns giving an "oom-pah" effect), while the right hand plays a melody in contrasting rhythm. Ragtime was usually written for solo pianists but was often performed by ensembles, especially military bands, as well as banjoists. Syncopated music was not new when ragtime evolved, but heavily syncopated compositions were a novelty in popular music when rags caught on.
The first known use of "rag" as a musical term is on sheet music from 1896 for the song "All Coons Look Alike To Me," composed by black performer Ernest Hogan. The sheet music has an appendix headed with these words: "Choice Chorus, with Negro 'Rag' Accompaniment, Arr. by MAX HOFFMANN." In this appendix, which is page 5 of the sheet music, the lyrics of the chorus are again given but the written music has heavier syncopation. This song was incredibly popular in the late 1890s and influential since it inspired many simliar songs (the "coon" song had already been established as a genre but its heyday followed the success of Hogan's song). Recorded versions have not been reissued by major companies since the song is offensive--Arthur Collins cut it for a few companies, and these brown wax cylinders sold well.
The song tells of a black woman named Lucy Janey Stubbles who, attracted to a new black barber in town, casts off a boyfriend, telling him that she has no eyes for any other man. She is attracted only to the new man. In other words, all other men "look alike" to her, with all men looking essentially the same insofar as the woman is not interested in them. She has eyes only for her new boyfriend. It is important to note that, in the song, a black person is saying the words to another black person, not a white person speaking the offensive words. Moreover, a black songwriter wrote this for black singers to introduce to audiences (white singers sang it after the song caught on). I have had several requests for the song's lyrics by readers curious about this once-popular but now-taboo song. Here are those lyrics:
[Verse]Talk about a coon a having trouble
I think I have enough of ma own
It's all about ma Lucy Janey Stubbles
And she has caused my heart to mourn
Thar's another coon barber from Virginia
In soci'ty he's the leader of the day
And now ma honey gal is gwine to quit me
Yes, she's gone and drove this coon [i.e., me] away
She's no excuse
To turn me loose
I've been abused
I'm all confused
'Cause these words she did say:
All coons look alike to me
I've got another beau, you see,
And he's just as good to me as you, nig! ever tried to be
He spends his money free,
I know we can't agree
So I don't like you no how
All coons look alike to me
Later I will return to the topic of the "coon song" as a genre. I say so much about "All Coons Look Alike to Me" here because it was genuinely important as the first song whose sheet music included the word "Rag" as a musical term.
The baritone Arthur Collins recorded more
"coon" songs than any other singer. He cut
"All Coons Look Alike to Me" in 1898 for Edison brown
wax cylinders, with banjo accompaniment. A few years
later he became closely associated with the most
popular "coon" song ever recorded: "The Preacher
and the Bear."
In 1897 the term "rag time" appeared on sheet music. It ceased to be a folk music, instead entering the mainstream of entertainment. "Mississippi Rag," by white composer William H. Krell is usually cited as the first published rag (January 1897) though it is better characterized as a march patrol. Later that year the first instrumental rag by an African-American composer was published, Tom Turpin's "Harlem Rag."
The music's heyday spanned Joplin's career as a ragtime composer, from 1899 until his death in 1917, though many superb rags were written after 1917. With the exception of "Maple Leaf Rag," Joplin's rags were forgotten until a ragtime revival in the 1940s, which was brought about by jazz enthusiasts who were curious about the origins of their favorite music--they rediscovered ragtime! Joplin's works enjoyed even greater popularity after the success of the 1973 movie The Sting, which used ragtime in its soundtrack despite the film's story taking place in the 1920s. The most popular rag in the first half of the twentieth century was "12th Street Rag," composed by Euday L. Bowman (he was white) and published in 1914. Several jazz artists enjoyed success with records of "12th Street Rag," notably Louis Armstrong in 1927 and Pee Wee Hunt in 1948. "Tiger Rag" was even more popular but this number, composed and introduced by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, is not regarded by many purists as a true rag.
Ragtime is still enjoyed. New recordings of ragtime classics are issued regularly, with prominent performers including Scott Kirby, Richard Zimmerman, Morten Gunnar Larsen, Trebor (and daughter Virginia) Tichenor, Matthew Davidson, and Mimi Blais. Worth acknowledging here are some musicians and researchers who helped reintroduce ragtime to the general public. To name everyone important to ragtime's revival is not possible here, but they include Rudi Blesh, "Ragtime Bob" Darch, Bob Wright, Richard Zimmerman, Ed Berlin, Max Morath, David Jasen, Trebor Tichenor, and Terry Waldo.
Ragtime has not been exhausted as a musical form. Modern composers whose rags have been recorded more than once include Frank French, David Thomas Roberts, Max Morath, Hal Isbitz, Donald Ashwander, William Albright, and William Bolcom. Unfortunately, newly composed rags--called New Ragtime works as opposed to Classic Ragtime--do not reach wide audiences. They are usually heard by only a small number of ragtime enthusiasts, most of whom attend ragtime festivals or belong to ragtime societies.
Ice cream trucks in towns throughout America play a version of "The Entertainer" through loudspeakers. What better evidence can be cited that ragtime remains an important part of American culture?
On the other hand, "coon songs" have become obscure, virtually no recordings being available today. That is not surprising. The term itself is offensive. Lyrics of songs with stereotypes about African Americans as chicken-stealing, razor-toting "darkies" are offensive. There were comic songs about virtually every ethnic group. For example, a record cut by Dan W. Quinn on June 30, 1900, for Victor is "The Mick Who Threw the Brick."
The "coon song" was an important genre a century ago, and no discussion of popular music of that time can be complete without acknowledging as much. Sheet music of such songs, generally with cover illustrations that demean Africa-Americans, sold well. Approximately one in fifteen new records released each month by such companies as Victor, Edison, and Columbia was a "coon" song. Characterizing any comic number as a "coon song" helped sales. When Thomas A. Edison's National Phonograph Company issued comic numbers in 1903 sung by a young Billy Murray, promotional literature characterized "Bedelia" (on cylinder #8550) as an "Irish coon serenade" (sheet music states, "Irish Coon Song Serenade") and "Mary Ellen" (#8597) was called an "Irish coon serenade with orchestra accompaniment."
Len Spencer was the singer who recorded songs with
"rag" and "ragtime" in titles on a regular
basis in the late 1890s. In the early 1900s, Arthur
Collins succeeded Spencer as the recording artist who
recorded the newest "ragtime" songs.
The "coon song" as a genre predates ragtime, with Sam Devere's "Whistling Coon" being especially popular in the 1880s, but the two genres became related a century ago, even synonymous to the general public. In a record catalog issued by the Eastern Talking Machine Company catalog in 1898, the phrase "rag time" is placed after these two "coon" numbers: "You'll Have To Choose Another Baby Now (rag time)" and "My Coal Black Lady (a new hit in rag time)." The singer on the two records, #7363 and #7420 respectively, is Len Spencer. A third selection sung by Spencer has "rag time" in its actual title: "The Wench With The Rag Time Walk" (#7422). A Kansas City Talking Machine Company catalog of this period adds the phrase "popular rag time" to the title "You've Been A Good Ole Wagon, But You're Done Broke Down" (#7309), sung by Spencer. One other Spencer selection, "I Love My Little Honey" (#7311), is characterized as a "rag time melody." Spencer was the first singer to record on a regular basis songs with "rag" and "ragtime" in the title. Soon afterwards, baritone Arthur Collins became best known for recordings of "coon songs" and songs with "rag" or "ragtime" in the title.
Popular "coon songs" with ragtime-influenced melodies include Hughie Cannon's "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?" (1902); Bob Cole's "Under the Bamboo Tree" (1902); Joe Howard's "Good Bye, My Lady Love" (1904). Scott Joplin himself wrote these "coon" lyrics for a production of A Ragtime Dance, a show presented one time in 1899 at Wood's Opera House in Sedalia, Missouri: "I attended a ball last Thursday night/Given by the dark town swells/Every coon came out in full dress alright...So many colored folks there without a razor fight/twas a great surprise to me."
George Johnson was the most prominent
African-American recording artist of the 1890s,
his "Laughing Song" being especially popular
on cylinders and on early discs.
At the turn of the century, the best known "coon song" was "All Coons Look Alike to Me" by Ernest Hogan, but "The Preacher and the Bear" would become the most popular "coon song" of the twentieth century. Normally credited to Joe Arzonia, the song was actually written by George Fairman (1881 - 1962) of Front Royal, Virginia. After composing it, Fairman sold for $250 all rights to the song to Arzonia, owner of a cafe in which Fairman played piano. The baritone Arthur Collins, who had helped popularize "All Coons Look Alike to Me" in the late 1890s by cutting the song for record companies, first cut "The Preacher and the Bear" in early 1905, Zon-o-phone 120 being issued in April 1905. Collins was thereafter closely associated with the song. By 1920, he had recorded it for virtually every American record company. In 1947 Phil Harris enjoyed a hit with the song on RCA Victor 20-2143, but lyrics were changed slightly, with substitutions found for the word "coon."
For the general public in 1900, ragtime meant not piano works but "coon songs"--that is, songs with comic lyrics about blacks--and cakewalks. By 1910, ragtime usually meant a lively orchestral dance music favored by young people. Composers routinely added "rag" to song titles whether the music was ragtime- influenced or not. This stopped around 1918 when the word "blues" became more fashionable than "rag" in song titles.
Today when musicologists speak of ragtime, they usually mean a classic ragtime composition as played by a solo pianist. Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" is the best known. No solo piano version of this was recorded during Joplin's lifetime. Instead, bands recorded it (Joplin himself was not invited to make records though he did cut piano rolls). During its heyday, ragtime as performed by solo pianists was almost never recorded since little of the instrument's rich sound could be captured by the acoustic recording technology. The medium was kinder to banjos and brass bands, so companies turned to banjoists such as Vess L. Ossman and to bands such as Sousa's to record ragtime. C. H. H. Booth, a house pianist for the Victor Talking Machine Company, made the earliest known recording of piano ragtime. On November 1, 1901, he cut J. Bodewalt Lampe's "Creole Belles," a work published in 1900 and generally characterized as a cakewalk (sheet music calls it a "rag-time march"). The record did not sell well.
This August 1907 Columbia cylinder catalog supplement describes Joplin's best-known work this way: "
The catchiest of banjo melodies by the author of 'Sunflower,' Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime Writers--dedicated to the famous 'Maple Leaf Club;' played in most resonant ragtime style by the King of Banjoists, Vess L. Ossman. A particularly fine number. Positively the best banjo record on the market."
It implies that Joplin's "Sun Flower Slow Drag" (co-composer was Scott Hayden) was popular, yet it was never recorded.
Here is a sampling of important rags published between 1897 and 1909:
1) "Mississippi Rag" (1897), by William H. Krell. Covers of original sheet music state, "The First Rag-Time Two-Step Ever Written and First Played by Krell's Orchestra of Chicago." It is fitting that the first published instrumental rag came from the Mid-West, as opposed to New York City. After all, the music seems to have originated in the Mid-West, with St. Louis being one early center for the new music. It may be less fitting that the first published rag bore the name of a white bandleader. The music had been developed by untutored African-American pianists who moved from town to town--folks musicians, essentially. A modern orchestral version is played by the St. Louis Ragtimers on the two-cd set A Century of Ragtime (Vanguard 167-68).
2) "Harlem Rag" (1897) by Tom Turpin. Thomas M. J. Turpin (1873 - 1922) was an innovator who attracted crowds to his section of St. Louis--he owned the Rosebud Bar at 2220-22 Market Street--with his piano skills, earning the nickname "Father of St. Louis Ragtime." This was copyrighted in December 1897, the first rag by an African American to be published. Trebor Tichenor plays it on A Century of Ragtime (Vanguard 167- 68).
3) "At A Georgia Campmeeting" (1897) by Kerry Mills. Sheet music covers called this "A Characteristic March which can be used effectively as a Two-Step, Polka or Cake Walk." The first page of music gives this subtitle: "A Song in Black." Mills also supplied lyrics, but this was more popular as an instrumental than a song. Sousa's Band cut it three times between 1899 and 1908 (John Terrell was the only vocalist to record it, on Berliner 1903). Lightly syncopated, it is more of a cakewalk number than a rag, but this is the type of material that general audiences in 1900 viewed as ragtime (a dozen years later, general audiences associated Irving Berlin with ragtime though he never wrote rags). If it seems wrong that "At A Georgia Campmeeting" is on this list instead of gems by such ragtime giants as Artie Matthews, Jelly Roll Morton, and Eubie Blake, my defense is that this was genuinely popular one century ago whereas the others published their best work after 1912 or so--past the era under discussion. Richard Zimmerman plays a solo piano version on A Ragtime Primer (PianoMania 123).
4) "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) by Scott Joplin. This classic was supposedly written in 1897 but not copyrighted until September 1899. It was recorded eight times before Joplin died in 1917, just one indication that it was genuinely popular. On the other hand, no recordings of "Maple Leaf Rag" sold well. We must not overestimate the appeal of Joplin's masterpiece during Joplin's own lifetime. By 1906, perhaps one in every fifteen homes had a talking machine that played either discs or cylinders, and most of these homes had some version of "Silver Threads Among the Gold, "The Holy City," "Hiawatha," and "You're A Grand Old Flag"--truly popular songs! But maybe only one home in a thousand had some version of "Maple Leaf Rag," perhaps the Victor disc featuring Sousa's Band. If you owned an Edison cylinder machine at the time, you were out of luck--you could buy "Maple Leaf Forever" or "Maple Leaf, Our Emblem Dear," but no "Maple Leaf Rag." If you had asked Americans around 1905 to whistle any bars of "Maple Leaf Rag," I doubt if one in five would know the tune. In other words, it was popular enough to earn Joplin, for several years, an income from royalties but was not known to all Americans as were some compositions of the era. Joshua Rifkin plays it elegantly on the influential Scott Joplin Piano Rags (Elektra 79159). A remarkable compact disc titled "They All Played the Maple Leaf Rag" (Archive Productions 1600) reissues 27 vintage recordings of this rag.
5) "Frog Legs Rag" (1906) by James Scott. This African-American composer is often ranked second only to Joplin as a composer of rags. In 1906 James Slyvester Scott (1885 - 1938) and Joplin met in Saint Louis, and Joplin's own publisher, Stark Music Company, became James Scott's main publisher (no Joplin works were published in this year). "Frog Legs Rag," an early effort, was popular on sheet music and piano rolls. Scott's other notable rags were written later, such as "Hilarity Rag" (1910), "Grace and Beauty" (1910) and "Climax Rag" (1914).
6) "Gladiolus Rag" (1907) by Scott Joplin. Recorded by the Pathe Dance Orchestra in late 1914, this was issued on a 12 inch disc and 14 inch disc. This number is a puzzling choice since other Joplin works were more deserving, such as "The Cascades" (1904), "The Ragtime Dance" (1906), "Pine Apple Rag" (1908), and "Fig Leaf Rag" (1908). Perhaps it was picked for recording because it resembles "Maple Leaf Rag" more than any other Joplin rag. I recommend Scott Kirby's version on Scott Joplin's Ragtime (Greener Pastures GP-01) though a slow version by Morten Gunnar Larsen on Hot Jazz, Pop Jazz and Ragtime (PianoMania 104) is also moving.
7) "Dusty Rag" (1908) by May Aufderheide (1888 - 1972). This was her first rag, and it was successful enough to convince her father to start a music publishing company in Indianapolis, the J. H. Aufderheide Publishing Co. Virginia Eskin plays this and other Aufderheide rags on Fluffy Ruffle Girls: Women in Ragtime (Northeastern NR-9003).
8) "Sensation Rag" (1908) by Joseph F. Lamb (1887 - 1960). His first published rag, "Sensation Rag" is not to be confused with an Edward Edwards composition of that name that became a jazz standard (often simplified to the one-word title "Sensation") after being introduced in 1918 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Among white composers of ragtime, Lamb was the most impressive though his works earned him more respect than money. He fell into obscurity, then was rediscovered. Other gems by Lamb include "American Beauty Rag" (1913), "Top Liner Rag" (1916), and "Cottontail Rag" (1964--an example of a Lamp masterpiece written early in his life but published posthumously). Guitarist Craig Ventresco plays an interesting version on the soundtrack to the movie Crumb (Rykodisc RCD 10322). I also recommend Guido Nielsen's solo piano version on Joseph F. Lamb: 1898 - 1919, The Complete Stark Rags (Basta 30-9087-2).
9) "Black and White Rag" (1908) by George L. Botsford (1874 - 1949). This was one of the few rags to be widely recorded shortly after it was published. A version by Prince's Orchestra on Columbia disc A711 sold well, as did one by the Victor Orchestra on Victor 16350 (it was even recorded in 1909 by a soloist pianist, Albert Benzler, for cylinder release). A lively modern version is played by Richard Zimmerman on Ragtime Favorites (American Ragtime Company 102). The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra performs it on A Century of Ragtime (Vanguard 167-68). It was Botsford's first success. Hits that followed include "Grizzly Bear Rag" and "Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay." A white composer from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Botsford became part of the Tin Pan Alley establishment, even arranging most of the material recorded by the American Quartet, once an influential singing group. Page 142 of the September 1923 issue of Metronome states that Botsford is "in charge of the harmony and quartet department of the Remick [publishing] company."
10) "Wall Street Rag" (1909) by Scott Joplin. Joplin was so influential that it seems fitting to list yet another item by him. Though recognized today as ragtime's greatest composer, Joplin must have been viewed by some fellow composers as a one-hit wonder. None of his other works approached "Maple Leaf Rag" in popularity. What was Joplin's second most popular work? It is difficult to say but candidates are "Wall Street Rag" and "Gladiolus Rag" since they were the only compositions aside from "Maple Leaf Rag" to be recorded by ensembles during Joplin's lifetime. "Wall Street Rag" was recorded by the Zonophone Orchestra around 1910. This is the rag played movingly by Colehouse Walker in E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime.
Vess L Ossman recorded more ragtime during the
music's heyday than any other musician, carefully
transcribing for his own instrument (banjo) music
that had been written originally for piano.
Want a solid introduction to ragtime? Begin by finding recordings of key compositions, such as ones cited above. Also, marvelous ragtime folios are available, which will help any who play piano. Though not exactly easy to play, rags that were published during Joplin's lifetime are not beyond the skills of the average pianist, or at least of average pianists of a century ago (at that time, many Americans took piano lessons and became skilled at sight reading). The music became more sophisticated later. Harmonies became increasingly complex. Cross rhythms presented even greater challenges. For example, Zez Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys," published in 1921, will tax the skills of even accomplished pianists. Joplin rags are easier to play.
If you can buy only one compact disc to serve as an introduction to the music, the best may be A Ragtime Primer (PianoMania 123), which features ten different pianists. It covers the key composition styles (twenty-two tracks, taking the listener from Folk Ragtime to New Ragtime) and includes notes by authority Richard Zimmerman. Ragtime was usually published as solo piano works yet rags was often played by ensembles, so I also recommend the two-cd set A Century of Ragtime (Vanguard 167-68). One compact disc in the set features piano ragtime; the other features orchestral ragtime.
The march as a musical form was long ago associated mostly with military movements, but that was not true a century ago. In America, dancers favored the march over the waltz as a musical form since the regular rhythm in 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8 meter was perfect for the relatively new and wildly popular two-step (eventually, "fox-trot" replaced "march" as a term on sheet music). Countless solo piano works were identified as "marches" when published. Sousa marches, which were the most popular of all marches in America, were transcribed for nearly every instrument--for mandolin, for example--and played by solo musicians of every kind. But marches were especially loved when performed by America's many bands.
Brass bands were once pervasive in America, heard almost everywhere--parading on Main Street, providing background music for roller and ice skating, providing dance music wedding receptions. By the 1890s most towns supported some type of civic band though by this time most included woodwind--the all- brass band became more common in England than America. Few cities had symphonies but all had bands. In an article for Harper's Weekly in 1889, writer Leon Mead stated, "At present there are over ten thousand military bands in the United States. In the smaller cities they average twenty-five men each. In small county towns they number twelve to eighteen members." Thousands of musicians earned a living as bandsmen, leading amateur musicians in bands that generated great enthusiasm among locals.
Several famous bands toured widely by the 1890s, drawing crowds to parks and concert halls. They were professional concert bands featuring accomplished civilian musicians--not military bands (they were unaffiliated with military institutions), not marching or parade bands (they typically performed under a bandshell or seated in the open air). A century ago, concerts typically included marches (including quadrilles, lancers, and two-steps), operatic excerpts, overtures, popular songs, ragtime, and medleys. Works by European composers were often included in an afternoon's program. A trombonist, cornetist, or piccolo player might show off by playing variations on a well-known melody, such as "The Carnival of Venice" or "Yankee Doodle." Two or three Sousa marches were almost always included.
Among the most famous bandleaders with bands in the late nineteenth century were Patrick Gilmore (his was the only touring band before the 1890s), John Philip Sousa (this "March King" composed 136 marches), Alessandro Liberati, Frederick N. Innes, Thomas P. Brooke, and Giuseppe Creatore. Important bands formed in the early twentieth century include those led by Arthur Pryor, Patrick Conway, and Edwin Franko Goldman.
Dazzling instrumentalists were as famous as the bandmasters. They include London-born Jules Levy, the reigning cornet player of his day (he also played flute and piccolo); Herbert L. Clarke, cornet soloist of the Sousa Band (the most celebrated cornet player of his generation); Emil Keneke, a German-born cornetist who played with Sousa and then Pryor; Bohumir Kryl, a cornetist from Bohemia; and Walter B. Rogers, an influential trombonist who later was music director for the fledgling Victor Talking Machine Company. Alice Raymond was billed as the "World's Greatest Lady Cornetist."
From Victor's January 1909 record catalog.
Notice that #4911 is Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf
Rag"--one of the few records of Joplin's classic
rag cut during Joplin's own lifetime. The record would
soon be deleted from the catalog.
The fledgling recording industry was helped considerably by the U. S. Marine Band, Gilmore's Band, and Sousa's Band. These were arguably the first recording "stars." Each brought much-needed profits to the industry, beginning with the U. S. Marine Band, which made records as early as 1890, when John Philip Sousa was director. It was not the full band on wax cylinders since recording technology at the time could accommodate little more than a dozen players. Incidentally, in no sense did records made in the 1890s help establish the U. S. Marine Band or Gilmore's Band as popular bands. Their popularity was independent of record sales. After all, few homes in the 1890s owned equipment for playing records (commercial records made before 1895 were brown wax cylinders intended for coin-operated machines in public spaces, not for shops where ordinary folks could buy them).
Sousa left the U. S. Marine Band in 1892 to form Sousa's New Marine Band, soon renamed Sousa's Grand Concert Band. A century ago, this band--always identified on records simply as Sousa's Band--was the nation's most popular concert ensemble and also the most popular recording ensemble. Over a thousand recordings were credited to Sousa's Band.
Sousa was not present at sessions. He openly expressed disdain for the recording medium. "The Menace of Mechanical Music" is the title of an article he wrote for the September 1906 issue of Appleton's Magazine, and it contained this line: "Canned music is as incongruous by a campfire as canned salmon by a trout stream." He was worried that mechanical music--records and player pianos--threatened the livelihood of musicians, which was a genuine problem, but that he openly criticized recorded music after taking money from various record companies is remarkable. No other famous artist had been so closely linked to the industry for so many years, and Sousa continued his association with companies, the name Sousa's Band being put on many records even after he had coined the phrase "canned music"!
An ensemble bearing Gilmore's famous name made cylinders in the early years of commercial recording, including "Volunteers' March (1892) and "The Star-Spangled Banner" (1892). Whether Gilmore personally attended recording sessions is unknown. He died in St. Louis on September 24, 1892. Gilmore's Band continued to perform under various directors. Cylinders featuring Gilmore's Band were in Columbia catalogs for years after his death, with a wide variety of music covered--marches, patriotic and religious selections, waltzes, and gavottes.
A dozen band leaders were nearly as famous as Sousa. Patrick Conway was widely admired. In August 1903 Patrick Conway's Ithaca Band played the first of many Willow Grove Park concerts in the Chelten Hills part of Philadelphia, where prominent bands and symphonies played each summer from May 1896 onwards. Renamed Conway's Band, it returned to Willow Grove Park many times, as late as 1925. It played season after season at Young's Million Dollar Steel Pier in Atlantic City. In 1915 it played for ten weeks at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Records by Conway's Band sold well until 1917, when new musical trends, especially jazz (usually spelled "jass" at that time), made Conway's music seem dated--his Victor records stopped selling well.
Such a wide range of material was performed by concert bands that a list of compositions typically played by them might include Tin Pan Alley numbers and works by European composers. I list here ten compositions that one was likely to hear at a band concert but not likely to hear elsewhere, certainly not on the vaudeville or Broadway stage. The list naturally starts off with a handful of Sousa marches.
1) "The Washington Post" (1889). One of Sousa's earliest compositions to enjoy status as a classic, this was written for an awards ceremony that followed an essay contest sponsored by the newspaper of that name. In its early years it was loved as dance music for the two-step. Eventually musicians throughout America played it while marching. Timothy Foley conducts it superbly on A Grand Sousa Concert (Angel 54130), featuring the Nonpareil Wind Band.
2) "The Liberty Bell" (1893). Many people who know nothing of Sousa will recognize this as the opening theme for the British television comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus. I recommend the performance on Fennell Conducts Sousa Marches (Mercury 434 300-2), on which the legendary Frederick Fennell conducts the Eastman Wind Ensemble.
3) "El Capitan" (1896). This march combines two tunes from Sousa's successful operetta of that name. El Capitan was Broadway's most popular show in 1896. Sousa wrote the music and collaborated with Tom Frost on lyrics. The show gave its star and producer, De Wolf Hopper, the greatest success of his career though Hopper may be better remembered today as a reciter of "Casey At The Bat." A tight modern performance is on A Grand Sousa Concert (Angel 54130), featuring the Nonpareil Wind Band.
4) "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (1897). Sousa completed a piano score of this, the most famous American march, in late 1896; the manuscript of his full score is dated April 26, 1897; the march's official premiere was in Philadelphia on May 14, 1897. Over a hundred interpretations are available on compact discs. For a spirited yet idiosyncratic interpretation, try Eubie Blake's piano version on Tricky Fingers (Quicksilver 9003). The march's title served in 1952 as the title for a Sousa biographical motion picture starring Clifton Webb.
5) "Hands Across the Sea" (1899). This Sousa march was at its peak of popularity exactly a century ago, with several artists cutting it in 1900, including banjoist Vess L. Ossman, Sousa's Band, the Edison Grand Concert Band, and the Columbia Band. A good modern interpretation is on I Love A Parade (Sony 46747), featuring John Williams and the Boston Pops.
6) "The Whistler and His Dog" (1905), by Arthur Pryor. He was famous as a trombonist, conductor, and bandmaster, but Pryor also composed some genuinely popular numbers, not all of them marches. This one became his most famous. Paul Wehage plays an interesting saxophone version on Saxofolies (EPM 1131).
7) "Coon Band Contest" (1900) by Pryor. This ragtime-influenced number was first recorded by Sousa's Band on October 2, 1900. Pryor was one of Sousa's famous trombonists at this time. Pryor usually conducted during recording sessions, never Sousa himself. A version credited to Pryor's Band is reissued on Ragtime, Volume 1: 1897 - 1919 (EPMJA 159052). In the early 1900s, banjoist Vess Ossman also cut versions, one of which is reissued on the nine-cd set American Pop: An Audio History (Silva 1017). The song's title suggests that listeners will hear an actual contest, with melodies competing. Whether listeners hear the contest is a matter of interpretation.
8) "American Patrol" (1891) by F. W. Meacham. This "patrol" creates the illusion of a passing band. It begins softly, as if the patrol is in the distance, and grows louder; the sound becomes distant at the end, as if the band had passed by. A century ago, Sousa's Band cut it for Victor, xylophonist Charles P. Lowe performed it with a studio orchestra for Columbia, and the Edison company issued different versions on cylinders. In 1942, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra revived it (arranged by Jerry Gray) on RCA Victor 27873, which is now on various Miller compilations, such as Best of Glenn Miller, Volume Two (RCA AYK 1-3809). Meacham, who eventually worked as an arranger for music publisher Leo. Feist, composed no other hits.
9) "Anchors Aweigh" (1906) by Charles A. Zimmermann, musical director of the United States Naval Academy. It originally had lyrics by Alfred H. Miles and Royal Lovell, but it caught on as an instrumental. Glenn Miller and His Orchestra cut a popular version, reissued on The Glenn Miller Story, Volume One (RCA 900524).
10) "The Pride of America" (1911) by Edwin Franko Goldman. This conductor, cornetist, and teacher formed the popular New York Military Band, eventually known as the Goldman Band. He composed many other marches, the most famous being "On the Mall" (1923), named after the Mall in Manhattan's Central Park. He founded the American Bandmasters Association in 1929. "The Pride of America" is included on Golden Age of the American March (New World 80266).
"Jolly Coppersmith" was also popular, at least on records--I am not so certain it was played often at concerts, so I did not add it to the list of ten. The composition had been cut by various military bands for the major companies in the early years of the century, including Sousa's Band for Columbia brown wax cylinders around 1896. As Jim Walsh reports in the March 1978 issue of Hobbies, Fred Hager once recalled that "Jolly Coppersmith" was covered often in the early years of the record industry because the ringing of the anvil always rises above the surface noise of a record!
We know what songs, marches, and rags produced a century ago by the music industry were genuinely popular thanks to surviving sheet music, promotional material and catalogs issued by record companies, and trade journals such as the Phonoscope, the New York Clipper, Talking Machine World, and Variety.
The historian of popular music is especially lucky in that surviving wax cylinders and one-sided discs from the era allow us to hear how hit songs were interpreted when new. The recording industry was thriving by the late 1890s, with hits of the day being recorded regularly--far more than classical music, hymns, or ethnic music. Consider "Hello, Central! Give Me Heaven," a song by Charles K. Harris about a child who uses a phone to contact a deceased mother--we can hear how the song was interpreted when new. Around 1902- 03 one could find this tearjerker on Victor discs (#861, #1069, and #4067), a Columbia disc (#230), a Columbia wax cylinder (#31628), and an Edison wax cylinder (#7852). An especially moving version is sung by Steve Porter and John Bieling on Lambert cylinder #518.
To get a rough idea of a song's popularity, count how many versions were available on early discs and wax cylinders. Also take into account how long the recordings remained in catalogs. Of course, to rank best-sellers of this era is impossible. Primary sources provide no basis for assigning chart numbers. The trade journal Billboard began charting records--what was number one, number two, number three, and so on--long after this era had ended.
Historians of folk music have no similar sources. They cannot hear how the music sounded long ago. How was a cowboy song like "Home on the Range" interpreted a century ago? The classical music scholar is likewise frustrated because opera and symphonic works were rarely recorded in the 1890s since the crude recording technology did not do justice to the richness of music characterized at the time as "serious." When great opera singers finally consented to make records for the Columbia and Victor companies around 1903- 1904, they were accompanied only by piano, not the orchestral accompaniment that composers had originally provided. How was Wagner's music interpreted by great conductors and singers in the 1890s? We cannot know for certain.
Even the historian of popular music must take into account the limits of the technology. For example, in the 1890s female singers were as important as male in popularizing songs, but one would not know this from old records. Few female singers made records because technology at the time could not do justice to female voices. Contraltos and mezzo-sopranos were better served than sopranos, whose high notes were sometimes shrieks on early playback technology.
Because recordings of a century ago are primitive by today's standards, few recorded performances of a century ago have been reissued on compact discs. That is unfortunate. Many of the prolific recording artists of long ago--singers such as Billy Murray, S. H. Dudley, Edward M. Favor, Silas Leachman, Will F. Denny--were splendid and should be better known today. The good news is that with each passing year, more of the old material is reissued. Listening to records made a century ago, whether in original or reissued format, may be the best way to become acquainted with the wonderful hits of a century ago.