The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
The Rise of Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley
In order to preserve the Union, Abraham Lincoln said, he might have freed some of the slaves, or none of them; he ended by freeing them all. While the Russians had freed their serfs first, Americans were much quicker at killing their emancipator, their greatest president, whom they now needed more than ever. As with a later assassination of a lesser president, the nation was a very long time in recovering from it. The worst legacy of the war was the institutionalization of racism in its hopelessly unsuccessful aftermath.
The slave-owners had not argued that some people are born to serve others; that would have been too obvious a contradiction of the American idea. There had been abolitionists in the South as well as in the North, but very suddenly, after the invention of the cotton gin had helped cotton to become a vital crop in the 1830s, the South had taken the position that blacks were subhuman, capable only of being owned, and opposition to slavery became dangerous in the South. David Herbert Donald, in his biography of Abraham Lincoln, wrote that Lincoln and his law paertner were studying the situation in the about 1855:
Where earlier Southern statesmen like Thomas Jefferson had hoped for the gradual extinction of the peculiar institution, a new breed of fire-eaters favored its perpetuation and, indeed, its extension. Lincoln & Herndon subscribed to the Charleston Mercury and the Richmond Enquirer, both rabidly proslavery, and sadly noted that an institution once lamented as a necessary evil was now promoted as a positive good. Herndon bought a copy of Sociology for the South, by George Fitzhugh, the able and extreme polemicist, who argued that slave labor was preferable to free labor, because under slavery workers had security and greater real freedom.In memoranda to himself, Lincoln pointed out the obvious logical flaws in this. If slavery is a such a good thing, why has no man ever volunteered to become a slave? If dark skin or a lack of intelligence made a slave, any man should become the slave of another man with fairer skin or a superior intellect. During the reconstruction period following the Civil War much of this naked racism might have been attenuated -- at first there were black congressmen from southern states -- but a corrupt Congress soon sold the South to carpetbaggers, crooked politicians whose allegiance was so portable that it would fit into a holdall made of a piece of carpet, and later to the South's self-interested factions, whose cynicism became typical of the rest of the country. Poor whites were pitted against poor blacks, so that a new aristocracy of dishonesty could stay in control. And the result of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was a de facto slavery of 'free' citizens who had no rights, while Washington became the centre of an orgy of corruption which has not been exceeded since.
Many of the popular tavern ditties of the period could not be printed in Douglas Gilbert's Lost Chords: The Diverting Story of American Popular Music in 1942, yet, as Gilbert pointed out, none of them approaches the scurrility of the political songs. During the presidential race of 1868 a campaign song for Horatio Seymour, who was running against General Ulysses S. Grant, contained the paean 'Here's to the man that pulled the trigger/ That killed the old cuss that freed the nigger.'
Singer Pauline Markham, a burlesque queen, took a more direct role in the profligacy of the period. She was hired by people with financial and political interests to sleep with the Hon. Robert K. Scott of Ohio, who signed a great many spurious convertible bonds, his reward being (apart from Markham) the carpetbag governorship of South Carolina.
Among the era's larger-than-life citizens was Jim Fisk, a sort of Robin Hood who supplied coal, food and rent money to the needy, and who sent a trainload of supplies when the Chicago fire of 1871 made thousands homeless. He was also a famous crook: with Jay Gould he created a gold panic which ruined a lot of people in 1869. For a time he led President Grant by the nose (Grant was not a crook, but not a good businessman either). Fisk was murdered by a pimp who had tried and failed to blackmail him, with the cooperation of Fisk's brassy mistress, Josie Mansfield, using letters Fisk had written to her. Fisk left the courtroom in tears at the sound of Mansfield's perjury, he so loved the faithless hussy. Ed Stokes shot him a few hours later, and the letters, it turned out, were so innocent they could have been read to a child. Fisk was buried in Brattleboro, Vermont, whose citizens gave $25,000 for a monument of Italian marble.
Henry Ward Beecher was the most famous preacher and pseudomoralist of the age, yet he also had an eye for the ladies. In 1875 he was sued by a parishioner, Theodore Tilton, accused of adultery with Tilton's wife. The jury could not agree, but Beecher was probably guilty, and none of it would have come to light except for the hypocrisy of the principals. Beecher and his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, condemned leading feminists of the period as 'flaming harlots'. One of them, Victoria Woodhull, took no nonsense from anyone; she began by hinting in the New York Times that she knew of prominent people who preached against free love, but practised it in private. When they did not ameliorate their attacks on her, Woodhull blew the whistle on the lot of them, and Tilton had to bring suit.
Songs were sung about all these people, such as 'Jim Fisk, or He Never Went Back on the Poor'. Beecher never lived down the comedy; a song of thirty-two lines took a swipe at Woodhull ('sour grapes') and ended:
The public scandals and relaxed moral atmosphere that followed the Civil War led to a new frankness, along with the cynicism. Large taverns with music and prostitutes, called 'free-and-easies', often appeared on the outskirts of market towns to catch the farmers on their way home with money in their pockets. Among drinking songs, 'Little Brown Jug' was popular in the 1860s:
Story songs were sung, many of them salacious. The mother-in-law became fair game, and was combined with a political gibe in the chorus 'I'd rather be sent off to jail or to Congress / Than live all my life with my mother-in-law'. 'Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines' was written in 1868 by William Horace Lingard (words by T. Maclagan) for the British Lingard Comedy Company at a theatre in New York; it was sung by a chorus of girls in military costume (and generations later by children in primary schools, who adored it). Another song was a parody of it, describing what the marine's wife got up to when he was not at home. Still another song sent up 'Home, Sweet Home':
The 1860s and 1870s were marked by the attitude of the free-and-easies: the crooks and the politicians were getting theirs, so everybody else might as well have a good time, too. No major songwriting talent of Stephen Foster's stature emerged until the 1890s, but the American music business went from strength to strength as trends developed which would become the business we know in more modern times.
The post-war music business was confused, to say the least. The industry believed that the enormous amount of sheet music sold during the war in both North and South had been a patriotic fluke, and that sheet music was for 'the rich and aristocratic', as in Europe, where it was twice as expensive. (This argument, incidentally, was used against any proposal to improve copyright law.) Cheap paperback songbooks were sold, like dime novels, which contained the words to songs but not the music; it was widely believed that the best vernacular music was borrowed from older and 'better' composers. In fact, music teachers all over the USA were doing a good job, and standards were going up. More and more pianos were being bought, and in 1872-3 Steinway paid the great Russian virtuoso Anton Rubinstein $40,000 to do a nationwide tour, not only promoting Steinway pianos, but showing Americans what piano music could sound like. Educated songwriters were emerging to write vernacular songs, the very individuals who, the musical snobs thought, would write high-class art songs. 'When You and I Were Young, Maggie' was written in 1866 by James Austin Butterfield, setting a poem by George W. Johnson, a teacher, for his sweetheart (who died the year they were married). It was just one of the many songs that sold in the same sort of numbers as the wartime hits (and good enough to be revived in a musical film in 1944). The mainstream music publishers failed to take advantage of songs that struck a common chord in millions of people, leaving them to new independent firms.
While 'Home, Sweet Home' and other songs of the earlier nineteenth century may sound old-fashioned to our ears, after the Civil War more songs began to be written which survive today. The American popular song (as opposed to story songs or novelties) had developed a formula. By the 1870s a piece of sheet music usually had a piano introduction of four or eight bars; this was followed by two to four verses, sung to a melody of sixteen bars, which was divided into four phrases of four bars each and conformed to a pattern such as AABC, ABAC or AABA. The chorus or refrain was most often arranged for four voices and was derived from parts of the verse, acting as a commentary or emphasis on it. In its simplicity and directness it will be seen that this form is directly descended from the repeated strophes of the English songs of the eighteenth century.
Septimus Winner was one of the most successful of the era and three of his songs (each very different) are still familiar: 'Listen to the Mockingbird', 'Whispering Hope' and 'Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone', the last foreshadowing a flood of songs in 3/4 time at the turn of the century. He had also been one of the first to arrange traditional black melodies, such as 'Heaven's a Long Way Off'.
'I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen' was written in 1875 by Thomas Paine Westendorf, who worked as a teacher in schools for juvenile offenders. It was purchased outright by the John Church Company, and at first printed in their house journal. It made its own great reputation at a time when the marketing of songs was not highly developed, and the company paid Westendorf a mere $50 a month for years. Thomas Edison loved it so much that he requested it be sung at his funeral and sent Westendorf a cheque for $250 in appreciation. Westendorf wrote more songs, but 'Kathleen' was the only one on which the copyright was worth renewing when the time came.
Perhaps the only song from the period that was nearly as successful was 'Silver Threads Among the Gold' (1872) by Hart Pease Danks, who, unlike Westendorf, made a living from his songs; the words were by Eben Rexford, who had published them in a farm magazine. Danks's other songs included 'Roses Underneath the Snow' and 'Don't Be Angry with Me, Darling'. 'Darling' was his wife, who left him; and Danks died a lonely and angry man. But 'Silver Threads Among the Gold' had sold two million copies by 1900, and another million in 1907, when it was revived. There were several hit recordings of it, among them one in 1904 by Richard Jose, who had first made it popular by singing it in minstrel shows, and another in 1912 by John McCormack.
Alongside all the scurrility and sentimentality of the years after the Civil War white gospel music grew in strength, and had an importance which is almost forgotten today. The respectable Protestant churches -- for example, the Methodist and Congregationalist -- printed their own hymnals (with words but without music, for most of the nineteenth century), and the churches had tried to control music publishing, especially religious music, since early colonial times, excluding popular 'trash'. But from earliest times singing masters had also combined secular and religious values, knowing that ordinary people loved to sing.
Shape-note music, also called fa-sol-la, was a simplified method of notation which made it possible to teach part-singing to large groups of people: each part was on a single line, and notes of various shapes were used to denote pitch, rather than a five-line stave. It was also called brush arbour music, from the practice of clearing a small area and building an arbour for an outdoor religious meeting, or 'Sacred Harp' music, from the most famous songbook in the style, compiled in 1844. Another book, Harmonia Sacra (1851), had been inspired by a similar simplified notation, and was called 'Hominy Soaker' by the less reverent.
The evangelical movement had got under way near a settlement on the Green River in Logan County, Kentucky, called Rogues Harbor, a haven for runaway slaves, thieves and border settlers. A self-educated minister named James McGready won over souls with his fervent brand of Calvinist Presbyterianism, urging a 'new birth' to escape the wrath of Jehovah. By 1800 McGready's followers were so numerous that they held huge outdoor meetings that went on for days, and 'camp meeting' was an accurate description. Fundamentalist evangelism became a growing phenomenon, and whenever there was an economic recession, the evangelists' business improved: before the days of the welfare state and the Social Security Act, the helpless working class would turn to religion in despair. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, more than $800 million was added to the nation's wealth, leading to rampant speculation and the inevitable failure of nearly thirteen thousand businesses in 1857-8: the twelfth business depression since 1790 started yet another religious revival.
Lowell Mason was musically precocious as a child, and compiled a book of psalm tunes which he reharmonized himself: The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music (1822) was the beginning of a family publishing empire which eventually became part of Oliver Ditson in Boston. Mason had a particular interest in teaching music to children, instinctively understanding that it is easier to learn in childhood, which was then a revolutionary notion. Among Mason's over eighty collections were more than a thousand original tunes and nearly five hundred reharmonizations and arrangements, including 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains', 'Nearer, My God, to Thee', 'Joy to the World', 'Blest Be the Tie That Binds' and 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross'.
Dwight Moody came from poverty to be a great evangelist and a good businessman. Working in a shoe store in Chicago, he saved $7,000 in five years, partly by lending money out at interest rates of up to 17 per cent a day; he also earned a handsome income by collecting overdue accounts after the depression of 1857. He was never ordained and was known as 'Crazy' Moody because of his gospel fervour, but he dressed and behaved like a businessman, which made it easier to save souls as well as bodies. He formed a non-denominational fundamentalist church for slum dwellers and a Sunday school for their children, which might have been the only school some of them ever saw; he was also president of the YMCA, and when the Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed it all, he raised the money to rebuild it. Moody had also erected prayer tents and nursed the wounded behind the lines during the Civil War; later he toured and preached in England. He returned to the USA in 1875, when the corruption at the highest levels of President Grant's administration had become public knowledge. Businessmen like J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt in New York, John Wanamaker in Philadelphia and Cyrus McCormick and George Armour in Chicago were only too happy to help save souls, to demonstrate the Christian side of American business.
Moody had taken vocalist Ira David Sankey with him to England, and their partnership lasted until Moody retired in 1892. Sankey also trained enormous choirs for Moody's huge new tabernacles. Moody had written: 'If you have singing that will reach the heart, it will fill the church every time.' In Brooklyn, New York, extra trolley-car tracks had to be laid to transport all the people who wanted to hear Sankey sing songs like 'Sweet Bye and Bye', 'Go Tell It to Jesus', 'Hold the Fort' and 'Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight?' He was a genuinely popular vocalist, and those who came to hear him stayed to hear Moody preach.
Fanny Crosby, who was called the Queen of Gospel Music, wrote 'Saved By Grace' and many others. Adam Geibel, like Crosby, had been blinded in childhood; he wrote 'Gathering Sea Shells from the Sea Shore' in ten minutes, and it became widely popular. (Geibel also wrote pop hits, such as the coon song 'Kentucky Babe'.) Will Lamartine also wrote both pop and gospel; Moody told W. L. Thompson that he would rather have written 'Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling' than have done all the good works in his life. Some of these songs were as popular in the 1890s as any secular hit.
William Ashley Sunday played baseball for the Chicago Whitestockings, later known as the White Sox. As Billy Sunday he became the most famous evangelist of all, named in 1914 as one of America's top ten favourite great men. His musical associate for twenty years was Homer Alvan 'Rody' Rodeheaver, a trombone-playing choir-leader, composer and publisher. Sunday and many others, such as Sam Jones (who was a leading figure in the Lake Chautauqua evangelist movement in western New York state, and whose favourite song was the comic plantation song 'De Brewer's Big Hosses Cain't Run Over Me'), were leaders of the temperance movement, which led to the Prohibition amendment to the Constitution in 1919, one of the biggest disasters Americans ever perpetrated on themselves: it promoted alcohol abuse rather than preventing it, and created a second government of organised crime.
Rodeheaver was the first gospel artist to go into the recording studio, and formed Rainbow Records, the first label of its kind. He lived until 1955; his privately owned publishing empire was estimated to have sold more than a million copies of gospel sheet music and hymnals that year. But about seventy years earlier, when costs were lower and profits higher, Biglow and Main had sold eighteen million copies in one year. Popular-style gospel music had influenced the more mainstream churches, and all this had given birth to a thriving publishing industry that made many fortunes, and also had a deep effect on American music: its joyous, optimistic songs in the vernacular style had been the most important musical experience of many Americans. In the twentieth century, vaudeville, records and radio have made music of all kinds accessible to everyone; white gospel music is still a thriving genre, but despite fine songs such as Stuart Hamblen's 'It is No Secret', and singers such as the popular bass-baritone George Beverley Shea, it has long since ceased to have musical influence.
Black gospel, however, is another story. For the purposes of this chapter it is only necessary to mention the black college students at Fisk University in Nashville (just one of whom had not been a slave), who were trained by the school's treasurer, a young white man named George White. Fisk had been founded by the American Missionary Association in 1866. A collection of black spirituals, Slave Songs of The United States, was first published in 1867, but it remained obscure and was not recognized as a landmark until 1929; White was probably unaware of it. The school was in financial trouble, so White took his students on the road. Younger students replaced older ones as they left the group; they sang pop songs, such as those by Foster, and also spirituals which they remembered from their own experience. Their name was changed to the Jubilee Singers, and they performed at Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in New York City (where the press, which hated Beecher, called them 'Beecher's Nigger Minstrels').
The public didn't know what to make of them at first. For one thing, many northerners outside big cities were used to black-face entertainers, and had hardly seen real black people. (Minstrelsy had had a similar problem: sheet music was often published with pictures of composers and performers without the burnt cork, so that the public would know that they were not really black.) Enter bandleader and cornettist Patrick Gilmore, who had started a series of International Peace Festivals in Boston after the Civil War; in a new venue that could hold fifty thousand people he directed an orchestra of a thousand and a chorus of ten thousand. In 1872 the eighteen-day festival had to be underwritten by the publisher Oliver Ditson; the support of President Grant led to visits from some of the best military bands in the world, and Johann Strauss came to conduct his 'Blue Danube' waltz. The Jubilee Singers were a tremendous hit, and Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers was published by Biglow and Main. Over a hundred of the songs, among them 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', 'Go Down, Moses' and 'Steal Away to Jesus', were transcribed and arranged by T. F. Seward, who also became the group's music director. On European tours they earned $175,000 for their school in six years, and the 'slave songs' entered the world's musical vocabulary for good. In the next century the passionate style of the black pentecostal churches would have an even greater impact.
In the secular world of the 1880s the post-war binge of permissiveness turned into a hangover. The decade was anything but dull. The West was being won, native Americans effectively exterminated and the railways built, while settlers still found cheap homestead land; the Brooklyn Bridge was opened and the building of the Statue of Liberty began. New immigrants were mostly Scandinavians and Germans, who did not immediately contribute to popular song, and Jews, who would make their spectacular mark in the second generation. Perhaps the Civil War was far enough in the past for regret to have crept into the lingering hatred between North and South; whatever the reason, there was a rebirth of nostalgia, which spilled over into the maudlin. Songs like 'The Old Slave's Dream' -- evidence of nostalgia for slavery -- were sung in white parlours.
At a time when childbirth was far more risky than it is today, many unbearably sentimental songs created a genre that W.S. Gilbert called 'shabby genteel'. One Harry Kennedy published 'A Flower from My Angel Mother's Grave', 'A Little Faded Rosebud in Our Bible' and 'Cradle's Empty, Baby's Gone', among others. Temperance songs were common: 'Father, Come Home' was written in 1864 by Henry Clay Work, but became popular much later. Work's Civil War songs had included 'Kingdom's Coming', an anti-slavery song, and 'Marching Through Georgia'; his other best-known song is 'Grandfather's Clock' (1875), in which the music in the accompaniment pauses on an abrupt note as the clock stops at the moment of the old man's death.
'Ten Nights in a Barroom', by Timothy Arthur, is a tear-jerker about a little girl who is sent to the tavern to bring Father home to see his dying little boy, whose last words are 'I want to kiss Papa goodnight'. Kennedy's 'Cradle's Empty, Baby's Gone' was parodied as 'Bottle's Empty, Daddy's Tight'. It is to be wondered if temperance people knew a parody when they heard one; some of these songs might be amusing in retrospect, except that they eventually encouraged the disaster of Prohibition. 'The Old Man's Drunk Again' began 'You've no doubt heard the song / Called Father dear come home', and included the lines 'How the old man used to smile / And cause his family pain'. (To 'smile' was a period euphemism for having a taste.)
Not all the songs were dreary. 'Fizz, Fizz, Glorious Fizz' was intended to be funny, and there were many 'girly' songs celebrating permissiveness, which after all could never recede entirely: 'My Gal in Kalamazoo', 'Up at Jones' Wood', 'The Dance at Battery Park' were about the good times boys and girls could have. 'Flirting on Our Block' made great use of the word 'it', as in 'all the girls will "do it", when flirting on our block'. 'It' soon became one of the most suggestive words in the language. And some songs celebrated America's polyglot population: 'Finnegan's Wake' was already popular, and there were numerous Irish songs, others in German dialect, still others about the Jews. Harry Thompson's 'Let Us Go to the Sheeny Wedding', far from casting a slur, admired the Jews' ability to have a good time. Frank Bush was a Yiddish comedian who sang his own songs, such as 'Sheenies in the Sand', a parody of Harrigan and Hart's 'Babies on Our Block', about Jews relaxing on Coney Island.
A traditional English tune called 'Willikens and His Dinah', well known in New England in the 1840s, had become 'Sweet Betsy from Pike' when it was sung by miners in the California gold rush, and was first published in 1853. (Stephen Foster used the tune for 'The Great Baby Show, or The Abolition Show' during the 1856 presidential campaign; and the miners also sang a parody of 'Camptown Racetrack' called 'Sacramento'.) One of the biggest hits of the 1880s, as the decade started to recover from its binge of self-pity, was '(Oh My Darling) Clementine', by Percy Montrose, with which America began to celebrate its own past: 'Clementine', a humorous song about a 'miner 49-er' and his daughter, became a huge hit, and in future years it was forgotten that the song had been written thirty years after the gold rush.
In the decades preceding the 'gay nineties', among the most popular acts in the country was Harrigan and Hart in New York City. Edward 'Ned' Harrigan was born in a neighbourhood which included, census records showed, nearly 1,500 people, of whom only 10 were native-born Americans. He wandered, worked on the West Coast waterfront and made his way east on the stage: in 1870 he played an Irishman to Sam Rickey's coon in a comedy duo that was a success in Chicago. Rickey's swelled head took him off on his own, but Harrigan had met Tony Hart (Anthony J. Cannon, born in an Irish slum in Massachusetts) while singing in a minstrel show in Chicago, and they later dominated the New York stage. Harrigan wrote the material, and the music director of the Theatre Comique variety house, David Braham (born in London), wrote the music. The sketches, with songs and ethnic characters, eventually stretched to an evening's entertainment: The Mulligan Guard's Ball in 1879 ran for one hundred performances. The sketches were about urban life; the ethnic identities were stereotyped, but affectionate, about basically good people. A collection of nearly a hundred of their songs was published in 1883. Harrigan and Braham wrote together for a decade after Hart left in 1885, though their work always had less appeal outside New York.
Minstrel troupes were still going strong, most of them touring, but minstrelsy as a genre was running out of steam in the 1880s, becoming a black-face variety show. With the taverns and local 'opera houses' available as venues for touring talent, and with the railways making it possible for the talent to go anywhere, a variety show circuit began to develop all over the USA. Chanson de vau de Vire originated in a valley in Calvados, France, which was famous for its satirical songs in the fifteenth century, and the corruption 'vau de ville' was used of any light entertainment; the American music hall tradition came to be called vaudeville. There was a Vaudeville Theatre in San Antonio, Texas, in 1882; John W. Ransone, whose speciality was the Dutch comic in dialect, is thought to have been the first to use the word generically.
Tony Pastor (born Antonio Pastore) preferred the term 'variety'. He had worked in minstrelsy, and became one of the fathers of vaudeville, opening his Opera House in the Bowery in 1865. He hired the country's most popular entertainers, but also kept an eye out for talented newcomers (not only the stars of the future, but cheaper). At first he offered prizes -- a half-barrel of flour, half a ton of coal, dress patterns -- to get respectable women to come to the variety theatre, which then had something of the reputation of the free-and-easies; he insisted that his acts keep their material wholesome, so that families could come without fear of being offended. Pastor opened his second theatre in 1875, as variety was replacing minstrelsy as the most important American format for entertainment. A former free-and-easy was converted by women's haberdashers Koster and Bial into a glorified concert salon, and suddenly after 1887 New York was full of variety theatres. In early 1893 F. F. Proctor put on continuous vaudeville (that is, without intervals or starting times) in a converted church, using the slogan 'After breakfast go to Proctor's; after Proctor's go to bed'. Pastor resisted all-day programming for years, but they were all overtaken by a pair of New Englanders.
B.F. (Benjamin Franklin) Keith, like Pastor, was a censor, keeping the acts suitable for families with the help of his wife. Performers were not allowed to use such phrases as 'by heck' or 'son of a gun'. He began in the circus, but during the seasonal lull one year he operated a dime-show featuring freaks, and business was so good he never went back to the tents. He opened a theatre in Boston and hired a seventeen-year-old circus animal keeper as a boy of all work. E.F. (Edward Franklin) Albee soon proposed a pirated production of The Mikado; a huge success, it went on the road and paid for Boston's Bijou Theatre, a 'Temple of the Arts' and first of about seven hundred Keith-Albee theatres. In 1885 they were the first to offer continuous vaudeville from ten in the morning until almost midnight. Keith died in 1914, several years after handing over operations to Albee, who had begun by stealing Gilbert and Sullivan and never stopped stealing. The restrictive practices and blacklisting he perfected included a covert agreement with Martin Beck's Orpheum circuit, from Chicago to the Pacific, and made him the most hated man in show business. Beck had moved his Orpheum headquarters to New York in 1905; he built the Palace Theatre there, with Albee's permission, and it became the one place every vaudevillian wanted to play. But Albee secretly bought up 51 per cent of the Orpheum circuit and forced Beck to hand over the Palace, whereupon Albee made it a 'cut house': anyone working in the one place where everybody wanted to perform had to take a 25 per cent cut. During a recession there would be several times as many vaudevillians out of work as there were treading the boards, but Albee would not give up his stranglehold on national variety. The only time he was ever investigated by the federal government he lied his head off and got away with it. The pride and joy of this greedy hypocrite, who was worth $25 million when he died, was the traditional $1,000 death benefit paid by the National Vaudeville Artists union. The corpse had usually paid in twice what it got out.
The established theatrical traditional of burlesque came to accommodate the more racy fare, and eventually included strippers. A town's burlesque house might be in a seedier neighbourhood, but while the vaudeville palace put on a more respectable face, it was still regarded with a jaundiced eye by respectable citizens, and the local law kept an eye on it all.
Despite the success of all-black musical shows on Broadway, black artists were restricted to the bottom of the vaudeville hierarchy. The Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), in the South and the Midwest, was formed in 1920 with an investment of $300 from each theatre operator (black or white). The circuit of 30 to 45 theatres paid $1,200 a week for a black vaudeville troupe, so that after deductions an average weekly pay was about $20 a person. TOBA was also known as Tough On Black Asses.
The most dazzling vaudeville shows were produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. After making a start at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, he realized that his French-born showgirl wife, Anna Held, and in particular her legs, were an instant public attraction. She was famous for bathing in milk, and sometimes receiving the press while doing so; her songs, such as 'Won't You Come and Play Wiz Me?', were meant to suggest Continental naughtiness. By 1906 Ziegfeld was 'glorifying the American girl', using costumes and lighting to give the impression of lots of flesh. The quality of it all was high, though, and from 1907 the annual Ziegfeld Follies set the standard and broke box office records. It comprised a succession of skits, dancing and songs, often topical; in 1907 Salome's 'Dance of the Seven Veils' was parodied, when singer Mary Garden was titillating audiences with it in Richard Strauss's version at the Metropolitan Opera House.
The New York run of each edition of the Follies was followed by a tour; then, after a summer vacation in Paris, Ziegfeld and Held returned to New York with new songs and skits. Ziegfeld deserves to be remembered for the stars and songs he presented: Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Marilyn Miller and many more of the best of the era. Ziegfeld was paid the compliment of having quality imitators, such as George White's Scandals and Earl Carroll's Vanities. He also produced other shows, among them Jerome Kern's Show Boat. After his death the Shubert brothers bought the name and produced some more Follies, the last in 1940, but the era was over. (The three-hour-long film The Great Ziegfeld, of 1936, was described by Graham Greene as 'This huge inflated gas-blown object . . .')
For decades vaudeville presented everything from singing and dancing to juggling and trained dogs. In each town touring performers had their favourite boarding houses that took in theatrical folk; many a child working in a family hotel eventually trod the boards, having first learned a few turns from the show business fraternity. Sophie Tucker's autobiography Some of These Days (1945) is excellent on the tribulations of the artist. She was responsible for her own transport, lodging, costumes, songs, arrangements and so forth; she collected her wages from the theatre manager, who decided where on the bill she would appear, and she paid a commission to her booking agent. (Under certain circumstances Albee could require an extra stagehand to travel with the star, who had to pay his wages.) It was sheer talent rather than hype or television exposure that got a performer to the top. The ultimate goal was the 'legitimate' theatre, on Broadway, where there were few jugglers to be seen.
The biggest stars of vaudeville included Norah Bayes, whose real name was Dora Goldberg. With the second of five husbands she wrote 'Shine On Harvest Moon', which they performed together in Ziegfeld's Follies of 1908 and later that year in a Ziegfeld show called Miss Innocence. A plump and not very pretty black-face singer was stealing the show every night with 'Moving Day in Jungle Town', so Bayes had her fired, and that was the end of Sophie Tucker's first Broadway appearance (though she outlasted them all). Eva Tanguay, known as the 'I Don't Care' girl after her hit song of 1905, was a top performer for many years. But the first and greatest female singing star of vaudeville was Lillian Russell, discovered and named by Pastor (her real name was Helen Louise Leonard). She began singing concert ballads and became a comic opera star; according to the New York Mirror, she looked like 'Venus after her bath'. During her long career she played the dairymaid in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, and wore the snug-fitting clothes of young boys or sailors on stage; her speciality was spectacular hats. In later years, as her weight increased, she won a court case versus a producer when she refused to appear in tights.
The lingering prejudice against British performers was finally overcome, partly by the excellent music hall songs they brought with them. Felix McGlennon's hits included 'And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back' (which he had written, but Monroe Rosenfeld copyrighted in the USA), as well as 'Tell Me, Pretty Maiden' and the rest of the score of the long-running show Florodora. Vesta Tilley made an international hit of McGlennon's 'Daughters'. A male impersonator, Tilley was also famous for 'Birmingham Bertie' and others; in the USA her cross-dressing was considered daring. The legendary Marie Lloyd and her sister Alice Lloyd did well in the USA, but Alice was hampered by the risqué nature of some of her material. Albert Chevalier, a singing Cockney comedian in pearly costume, wrote his own songs, including 'The Old Kent Road' and 'My Old Dutch', about his wife. Chevalier was one of the highest-paid Britons to work in the USA, but Harry Lauder, the Scottish dialect singer, was among the biggest vaudeville stars of all, making $4,000 a week.
The most popular radio and screen comedy acts of the twentieth century, such as the Three Stooges, Jack Benny, W.C. Fields (who began as a juggler), Abbott and Costello, George Burns and Gracie Allen, served their time on the vaudeville stage; Phil Silvers (TV's Sergeant Bilko), Ed Wynne and many more came from the burlesque end of the spectrum. In the late 1920s vaudeville began to succumb to the competition of radio and films, and was finished off by the Depression; it was said to have died at the Palace in 1932 (though the Keith circuit was briefly revived in the early 1950s for nostalgia buffs). In 1928 there were just four theatres in the country that still presented live variety only (no films). The avaricious Albee did not even see the end coming, and was bamboozled out of his empire by a coalition, one of whose members was Joseph P. Kennedy, a financial genius, father of a future president and just as greedy as Albee. Kennedy made several million dollars out of the deal, which included RCA Photophone -- an acknowledgement that talking pictures were coming and swallowed the original Keith Albee circuit into a merger that became RKO Pictures. Variety survived, of course, on television: Ed Sullivan's show, presented on Sunday evenings in the 1950s and 1960s by a Broadway columnist, was nothing more than weekly vaudeville, complete with the occasional dog act.
Songwriters and music publishers kept an eye on up-and-coming talent in vaudeville. It soon became apparent that the best way to make a song a hit was to get someone good to sing it. The apotheosis of this was Al Jolson, the greatest star of vaudeville's golden age, neither the first nor the last artist to be offered a songwriting credit (and hence part of the royalties) if he would sing the song. He was listed as co-writer of 'The Anniversary Song', 'Avalon', 'Back in Your Own Back Yard', 'Me and My Shadow', 'There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder' and many more, but may not have written anything at all.
New York has been described as the capital of a country that does not exist. Certainly if you are not from New York, you might be from Kenosha, from Oz or from Mars, but to a New Yorker you are from out of town. During its golden age New York was the melting-pot, bubbling with all the energy and emerging talent that that implies. Music publishing was centred in New York from the 1890s; songwriting had become almost a factory process, and soon the factory had a home: the songwriting of our century began in Tin Pan Alley.
Frank Harding was one of the first song publishers to commercialize the industry. He inherited a small printing firm in the theatre district from his father, who had worked in minstrelsy; he played poker with songwriters, from whom he bought songs, sometimes getting six for $25. In the 1880s, instead of paying performers to sing his songs, he charged them for the privilege of having their pictures printed on the sheet music, and gave them free copies that they could hand out; the back covers were filled with advertising by tradesmen. One of the songs was 'December and May', with words by E. B. Marks, a travelling salesman who learned the business from Harding and sold the sheet music as a sideline on his travels. Marks became a giant of Tin Pan Alley, eventually buying out Harding.
In 1881 the music publishing company of T. B. Harms opened in New York, and in 1906 it was taken over by employees Max Dreyfus and the young composer Jerome Kern when Harms died. Kern had begun with Harms as a song plugger, and Dreyfus had one of the best noses for talent ever seen: he published Paul Dresser's 'On the Banks of the Wabash', Lawlor and Blake's 'The Sidewalks of New York', George Evans's 'In the Good Old Summer Time' and Hughie Cannon's 'Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home', and over the years he discovered Rudolf Friml, George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans and Richard Rodgers.
Willis Woodward began in 1884, soon luring Dresser from Harms. M. Witmark and Sons opened in 1886: teenaged Julius Witmark, a performer in minstrelsy, had accepted credit for a song called 'Always Take Mother's Advice' from Woodward, on condition that he perform it regularly, but then never collected much in the way of royalties. With his brothers, using their father's name because they were all under age, he started a music publishing company that eventually put Woodward out of business. The Witmarks became the most powerful publishers of all, and turned out to be no different from the others: Charles K. Harris formed his own company in 1892 because he had received a royalty cheque for 85 cents from the Witmarks. Julius offered Harris $10,000 for outright ownership of another Harris song, but Harris turned publisher himself, and was soon making $25,000 a month from 'After the Ball'. Leo Feist was provided with his first hit in 1884 by Monroe Rosenfeld, when he lifted the English hit 'And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back'. Feist was one of the industry's best self-publicists: 'You can't go wrong with any Leo Feist song.' He was among the first to go over to full-colour covers on popular songs, and was later particularly good at choosing songs to sell in chain stores, such as Woolworth's.
Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Philadelphia had been centres of music publishing. Oliver Ditson in Boston, for example, had long been a highly respected house, formed in 1835, and had one of the biggest catalogues. But Ditson published all kinds of music, as well as thousands of popular songs, and did not risk any money on anything untried. The new New York firms (like the eighteenth-century publishers in London) published nothing but popular songs, and were willing to gamble on hunches at a time when the only place most Americans heard new songs was on the vaudeville stage.
Furthermore, in the 1890s a more modern American national consciousness was being created: the nation threw its weight about, taking over the former Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines. There was a serious economic recession and there was labour strife, but in 1901 the government decreed an eight-hour working day for federal employees. Most Americans felt that everything was all right, and were optimistic about the future. Songs, along with other cultural phenomena, were becoming of national rather than regional interest. The nation had been knit together by railways and the telegraph, and the national postal service was so good that anybody could buy any song: indeed, Gottschalk's piano pieces, mentioned in the next chapter, had sold all over the country for 25 cents plus a penny postage in the 1850s. Baseball's annual World Series began in 1903, and the first American cinema was opened in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1905, when two entrepreneurs remodelled a disused shop to resemble a theatre and showed a continuous twenty-minute programme all day long; they called it a Nickelodeon because it cost a nickel (five cents) to get in. In two years there were five thousand of them all over the country.
Music publishers (and, later, record companies) have always been good at shooting themselves in the foot, but in the 1890s even they had to acknowledge that there was big money to be made in the songs of the 'common people'. Between 1890 and 1909 the wholesale value of sheet music printed in the USA (and reported to the government) more than tripled. By 1900 New York was the centre of vaudeville, with the most famous theatres and the most powerful booking agents; soon it was almost impossible for a song to become a hit unless it was published in New York first. Harris's 'After the Ball', one of the era's earliest and greatest successes, was also one of the last to be first published outside New York, and when Harris formed his own publishing company, he moved it to the Big Apple.
The publishers were located mainly in the heart of the theatre district, around Union Square on 14th Street, and then they followed the theatres uptown. Witmark led the move to 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, which soon became a warren of small rooms, each with a piano. During the summer the windows were open, cacophony spilling out, and by 1900 the street was allegedly dubbed Tin Pan Alley by Rosenfeld.
Monroe Rosenfeld was a colourful hack with taste, a magpie when it came to tunes, a gambler, womanizer, columnist and editor; he published an article praising Scott Joplin's music in 1903. He had worked for the New York Herald in the 1880s, when it published pop songs as a circulation gimmick. His forte was sentimental ballads, such as 'With All Her Faults I Love Her Still' (1888). An example of what Marks called Rosenfeld's 'melodic kleptomania' was his hit 'Johnny Get Your Gun' (1886), itself later quoted by George M. Cohan in 'Over There'. One story is that after hearing Harry Von Tilzer's prepared piano (with paper strips woven through the wires), Rosenfeld titled the article on which he was working 'Tin Pan Alley'.
Charles K. Harris was more successful as a publisher than a songwriter, though his 'After the Ball' was so popular that it inaugurated the era. Nobody liked it at first, but he bribed a variety artist in Milwaukee to sing it and published it there. Most of his songs were based on events he overheard or read about: 'After the Ball' tells of a man at a dance who sees his sweetheart kissing another man; he walks out, but never gets over it, and finds out years later that the other man was her brother. His other biggest hit, 'Hello Central, Give Me Heaven' (1901), began with a news item about a child whose mother had died and who tried to phone her.
Among the other successes of the era were Albert Von Tilzer (born Albert Gumm), who wrote 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game', 'Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey' and 'I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time', and his brother Harry, who wrote 'Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie', 'A Bird in a Gilded Cage', 'I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad'. (They took their mother's maiden name of Tilzer and added the 'Von'.) Kerry Mills wrote 'At a Georgia Camp Meeting', 'Red Wing (an Indian Fantasy)', 'Meet Me in St Louis, Louis'. Paul Dresser had begun as a black-face end-man; his many songs included 'My Gal Sal' and 'On the Banks of the Wabash', for which his brother, novelist Theodore Dreiser, wrote the words to the chorus.
It will be immediately obvious that we have entered a new era of popular songwriting. Plenty of sentiment and nostalgia is distributed among these titles, but the craft of writing a song with staying power had reached a new peak. We will look at the effect of the invention of sound recording in a later chapter, but meanwhile it is worth noting that there were no fewer than thirty-nine hit recordings between 1893 and 1943 of the twelve Tin Pan Alley songs mentioned above since 'After the Ball'. 'At a Georgia Camp Meeting' became a dixieland jazz favourite (at least seven recordings of it were listed in the British Music Master record catalogue in 1988); there was an instrumental Swing Era recording of 'Red Wing', a fine tune and a modern one, in the sense that it is superbly adaptable. In fact, these songs and others like them were used throughout the twentieth century, in films, cartoons, plays and so on, to evoke what we like to think of as a happier time, when everyone believed in progress and race riots and world wars had not yet happened.
The overtly maudlin song was still around: Dresser's earlier efforts had included 'The Letter That Never Came' and 'The Pardon Came Too Late', while 'My Gal Sal' and 'In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree' (by Harry H. Williams and Egbert Van Alstyne, 1905) were about graves. But most of the songs that have survived from the period are of more general appeal and usually good-time songs. 'Down By the Old Mill Stream' and 'Sweet Adeline' became the quintessential barber-shop harmony songs. Among the many songs in 3/4 time were 'In the Good Old Summer Time', 'I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now', 'The Band Played On', 'You Tell Me Your Dream' and 'When You Were Sweet Sixteen'; 'Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland' and 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart' (1909-10), both by Leo Friedman and Beth Slater Whitson, sold millions of copies of sheet music. Songs specifically about New York included Percy Gaunt's 'The Bowery', already a hit in 1892, and 'Sidewalks of New York' (1894), which commemorates a time when children could play in the side-streets of the world's biggest cities.
Harry Dacre was an English songwriter and performer who came to New York in the 1890s, bringing his bicycle. To his surprise, the customs people exacted a toll on it. 'Lucky for you it wasn't built for two,' a friend remarked. And the result was 'Daisy Bell', also known as 'Daisy, Daisy' or 'Bicycle Built for Two'. No publisher in America wanted the song, so Dacre gave it to Kate Lawrence, a British music-hall artist on her way back to London; from there it swept the world.
Another song with a similar history is 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay'. Nobody knew where it came from; it was apparently heard in Babe Conners's brothel in St Louis in the late 1880s, where Mama Lou played the piano and sang. With cleaned-up (but not very good) lyrics, it was a flop when published in New York in 1891 by Henry J. Sayers, who admitted that he had not written it. Then Lottie Collins sang it in London. In 1892 the New York Herald correspondent wrote that the refrain had become 'a hideous nightmare' and had even been blurted out by an actor on stage in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, convulsing the audience. The song shows how words, phrases and tunes from this era entered the common consciousness: sixty years later an English newspaper article about top people having to rent jewellery for Elizabeth II's coronation carried the headline 'Tiara Boom Today'.
Semi-art songs, aimed at the parlours of the genteel, included 'Oh Promise Me' (1889) by Reginald De Koven, a darling of Chicago's musical snobs; all his other attempts at high-class parlour art were failures. 'Mother Machree' (1910) and 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling' (1913) can still reduce the sort of Irish-American who has never set foot in Ireland to sentimental blubber; they were written by Ernest R. Ball, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio. This genre produced almost the only big hits of the period not published in New York: Carrie Jacobs Bond set up in Chicago when Tin Pan Alley rejected her. To support herself and her child after her husband died, she designed and hand-painted the covers of her sheet music and plugged her songs in recitals. 'Just a-Wearyin' for You' (1901), 'I Love You Truly' (1906) and 'A Perfect Day' (1910) were her best known.
Sheet music sales achieved an all-time high in 1910, led by 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart' and 'Down By the Old Mill Stream', at a time when every respectable parlour in the country had a piano. We regard these songs as corny now; we know some of the choruses, but many of them were story songs and are not complete without introductions and verses. On recent recordings of some of them, William Bolcom plays a vigorously sympathetic piano accompaniment, while the talent of his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, would have made her a worldwide star in the golden afternoon of the Edwardian era. The worth of the songs is clear: they were written for an audience that had more time to listen, an audience whose ears had not been dulled by constant Muzak. They are the peak of the songwriting that began in the English pleasure gardens, artless art songs for the English-speaking masses. That we have lost the ability to appreciate the songs our ancestors loved suggests that we may have lost even more.
But already hits of a new type were arriving. They came from the second American genre, after minstrelsy, to be created largely by black Americans and to become internationally popular: ragtime.