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Popular Music

Popular Music

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A Question of Taste. The distinction between popular and serious musica distinction that Americans take for granted todayoriginated in the late nineteenth century. While it is impossible to pinpoint an exact moment at which highbrow and lowbrow diverged, it is possible to examine the forces and personalities that drove the popular-music industry in its early years.

The Industry. Lyricists, composers, and publishers flocked to Manhattan during the 1880s and 1890s, but not until the early twentieth century did music makers consolidate around Twenty-eighth Streetprompting one critic to dub the thoroughfare Tin Pan Alley, after the tinny sound of music-room pianos. Decentralization characterized the music industry in the pre-Tin Pan Alley era. No self-respecting city of the 1880s lacked an opera house (or, by the 1890s, a vaudeville theater) for the staging of light musicals. While public performance marked one facet of popular music culture, private performance marked another. Friends and family might gather in the parlor or around the kitchen table, armed with sheet music and determined to re-create the melodies of the music hall.

The Songs. The subjects of popular songs ran the gamut from the romantic to the political to the mundane. Good-By old Stamp, Good-by (1883) celebrated the governments decision to slash the cost of a first-class letter from three cents to two; Gliding in the Rink (1884) described the new fad of roller skating; The Merry Singer (1891) listed the merits of the Singer sewing machine; and The Silver Knight of the West (1896) celebrated the Populist idol and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Many late-nineteenth-century hits relied for effect on emotional manipulation. In the words of Charles K. Harris (1865-1930), one of the most successful composers of the day,

sentiment plays a large part in our lives. The most hardened character or the most cynical individual will succumb to sentiment sometime or other. In all my ballads I have purposely injected goodly doses of sentiment, and invariably the whole country paused.

After the Ball (1892), a cautionary tale of love and jealousy, earned Harris more than $100,000 in royalties. Break the News to Mother (1897), another Harris tearjerker, enjoyed a tremendous vogue during the Spanish-American War.

The Composers. The men and women who crafted American hit songs were a motley bunch. Joseph P. Skelly (1850-1895), a plumber by trade and a drunk by habit, had a hit with Why Did They Dig Mas Grave So Deep? (1880)which includes the lines Lonely she sits by the old kitchen grate, / Sighing for mother, but now tis too late. Harris was completely self-taught; Kerry Mills (1869-1948)who wrote At a Georgia Camp meeting (1897) and Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis (1904)boasted a conservatory background. Edward B. Marks (1865-1945) and Joseph W. Stern (1870-1934), who teamed up to compose a plaintive ballad titled The Little Lost Child in 1894, worked as button salesmen on the side. Chauncey Olcott (1858-1932), author of My Wild Irish Rose (1899), got his show business start in the 1870s, singing and waiting tables at a bar operated by his mother. Paul Dresser (1857-1906), whose hits included The Outcast Unknown (1894), Just Tell Them That You Saw Me (1895), On the Banks of the Wabash (1897), and My Gal Sal#x201D; (1905), grew up in poverty. The brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser, Dresser trained for his career as a composer by singing with minstrel companies, performing stand-up comedy, and acting in popular melodramas.

SONGS OF PROTEST

The American labor movement came of age in the late nineteenth century, expressing itself in song as well as deed. Labor ballads often addressed topical issues such as the Haymarket riot of 1886, the bloody Homestead steel strike of 1892, and the ongoing struggle for an eight-hour workday. Other labor songs were simple love ditties gussied up with a working-class twist. For example, Factory Song, featuring the refrain And somebodys name is Fred, charted the reveries of a loves-truck working girl. Working-class composers frequently set protest lyrics to popular melodies. Hence Yankee Boodle, a diatribe against President Grover Cleveland, was sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle.

Throughout the nineteenth century, factory hands and shop workers regularly toiled ten or more hours a day, six days a week, year in and year out. These conditions made the crusade for an eight-hour workday the centerpiece of the labor struggle and a popular subject for labor balladeers. T. C. Walsh of New York, a member of Local 96 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, was inspired by the AFL battle for shorter hours to write the lyrics for The Eight-Hour Day (1890), which begins:

A glorious dawn oer the land is breaking,
And from the sleep of serfdom waking;
    See the sons of toil arise.
Hearken to the song theyre singing,
Through the welkin gladly winging,
Joy unto the weary bringing,
     On, still on, it flies.

Let scabs and cowards Do what they may, Eight hours, eight hours, Shall be our day.

Let scabs and cowards
Do what they may,
Eight hours, eight hours,
Shall be our day.
Aloft our banner courts the sky,
The glorious day of freedoms nigh,
    From toiling long and late;
Eight hours shall be our working day,
Eight hours to sleep fatigue away,
Eight hours to seek in wisdoms ray,
    Improvement of our state.
Let scabs and cowards
Do what they may,
Eight hours, eight hours,
Shall be our day.

Source: Philip S. Foner, American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century (Urbana, Chicago & London: University of Illinois Press, 1975).

Sources

Lester S. Levy, Grace Notes in American History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967);

Nicholas E. Tawa, The Way to Tin Pan Alley: American Popular Song, 1866-1910 (New York: Schirmer, 1990).

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Popular Music

Popular Music

BIBLIOGRAPHY

While music that the people listen to has always been present, popular music as it is known today is a recent phenomenon dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several factors are responsible for bringing about the rise of popular music. One is technological: New technologies for the reproduction of music, such as the player piano and phonograph in the late nineteenth century and radio and sound film in the 1920s, greatly facilitated access to music, and helped prompt a proliferation of different musical styles. Another factor was the rise of consumer culture, as people increasingly came to understand themselves less through their occupations, as producers, and more through the ways that they spent their leisure time, as consumers. The growth of the modern advertising industry helped push this process along; manufacturers of player pianos and phonographs spent heavily promoting these technologies early in the twentieth century.

Yet another factor was the increased industrialization of the production of music. Modern management techniques derived from Frederick Taylor (18561915) and Henry Ford (18631947) found their way into the music business, which became increasingly rationalized, more like a business that manufactured everyday commodities.

At the same time that these developments were occurring, new musical styles were entering peoples consciousness. The craze for ragtime piano music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped fuel player piano sales. Jazz, blues, and other African American musical styles helped the American recording industry market African American performers to a broader white audience under the rubric of race music.

Perhaps most significant, however, was the rise of radio. Radio in the moment of its popularization, the mid-1920s, boasted greater fidelity than phonograph records and did not have the three-minute time limitation of 78 rpm recordings. And early radio was live. Listeners around the country were in thrall to dance music, which was essentially highly arranged, sanitized jazz performed by white musicians such as Paul Whiteman (18901967). The sensitivity of electrical microphones for radio resulted in a new style of singing called crooning, in which performers sang in a much more intimate way than when they sang without amplification in auditoriums. This style produced the first mass-media popular music superstars in the United States, such as Rudy Vallée (19011986) and Bing Crosby (19031977), who helped define a mode of popular musical superstardom that paved the way for later figures such as Frank Sinatra (19151998) and Elvis Presley (19351977).

After World War II (19391945), the invention of magnetic tape made the production of recordings much less expensive, and many small record labels sprang up to capture the sounds of African Americans who had moved from the South seeking employment. Their urban blues gave rise to rock and roll, which found a consumer base in the newly developed marketing category of teenagers in the postwar era of intensified consumption practices. Rock and roll helped give some types of popular music, as well as musicians, greater influence and prestige than either had known before.

Today, popular music is a multinational, multibillion-dollar business dominated by American and European stars, as well as American, European, and Japanese record labels whose products are sold and traded digitally around the world. Hundreds of local styles globally are influenced by American and European sounds, some of which are picked up by labels with international connections and are marketed as world music.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Frith, Simon. 1992. The Industrialization of Popular Music. In Popular Music and Communication, ed. James Lull, 4974.2nd ed. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Sanjek, Russell. 1988. American Popular Music and its Business: The First Four Hundred Years. 3 vols. New York: Oxford University Press.

Timothy D. Taylor

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popular music

pop·u·lar mu·sic • n. music appealing to the popular taste, including rock and pop and also soul, country, reggae, rap, and dance music.

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popular music

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