Fragment: American Music, 1900-1917

By Michelle Railey
As it seems always to have done, music filled the days and lives of the people living in the United States during the early years of the twentieth century. Music formed a vital part of both community life— bands, churches, theatres, and events such as fairs, circuses, festivals, and touring performances– and domestic life. The majority of homes at this time owned at least one instrument. The importance of music within the home is demonstrated by the simple fact that in 1905 the Sears catalog “devoted…double the space to [musical instruments] as to kitchen stoves [1].” What truly characterizes this period for Americans, however, is how wholly popular in nature was their particular soundtrack: “popular” in this case meaning diverse, secular, and commercial. Even when produced on the amateur level or in the home, music was a shared component between Americans, helped along by the emergence of a truly popular national culture. If one thinks of the previous eras in American history, there were times when the music would have been recognizable to all, as with church music and hymns, for example, but there were also times when the music might be more appropriately characterized as regional: local ballads and folk music which were popular in regions, in the necks of woods, but not in New York as in, say, Mississippi. While the nineteenth century demonstrated an emerging national musical identity [2], it was following the Trans-Continental Railroad and the growing (and cheap) paper culture [3] which preceded the turn of the twentieth century that it coalesced into an inherent piece of a shared American experience. Songs [4] were made popular to everyone through touring musicians able to cross the country easily, the widespread sale of affordable sheet music for the ubiquitous parlor piano, the purchase of recorded cylinders, phonographs, and player piano rolls, as well as the greater mobility of Americans themselves, who were also buying these things, for the first time ever, from truly national merchants like Sears.

Sampling song titles popular during these years [5], one notices a diversity not always present in today’s world of specialized genres, popular among groups of people rather than Americans as a whole. Classical songs, operatic arias, numbers from operettas, novelty songs, ragtime tunes, and “hit” songs were simultaneously and widely fashionable. In part, this resulted from the way in which people heard music: the repertoires of a performance by a community band or traveling ensemble might include all these types in a single evening of music [6]. The melodies and rhythms of differing music styles could be filtered through a band or a piano and in this way had more in common with one another than not, and for this, could be accessible or “equally” appealing to everyone.

The same sample of popular hits of the time also highlights how closely tied were the songs to popular culture. The “up-tempo, dance-oriented, novelty focus which was a feature” [7] of hit songs lent itself well to celebrating the specifics of the United States at this time, and accordingly, the songs present a virtual scrapbook of key people, trends, events, and sentiments.

The country loved its enthusiastic, boyish President Roosevelt [8] and the teddy bear created to capitalize on his popularity also made its way into song: “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic: was as much about the country’s leader as about innocent toys lunching al fresco. Roosevelt’s equally-celebrated daughter inspired mothers to name their baby girls “Alice” and don “Alice Blue Gowns” made fashionable through the song of the same name, while bands throughout the nation invoked the feminine presidential muse by playing “Alice, Where Art Thou [9]?”

Daisy was asked to join her love on a bicycle built for two, while another love invited “Come, Josephine, In My Flying Machine;” both ladies were less the focus of the songs than the new-fangled transportation technology. The automobile could be, musically, a “Merry Oldsmobile” or, and the crankiness of the horseless carriage was indeed legendary, a cause for rueful humor: “(He’d Have to Get Under) Get Out and Get Under (To Fix Up His Automobile) [10].” In fixing his American automobile, perhaps the protagonist was giving it the old college try, singing the popular songs associated with fraternities or schools, like “On Wisconsin.” Maybe, too, he was on his way to the St. Louis International Exposition of 1904 (“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis”) “In the Good Ol’ Summertime [11].” Regardless, he and everyone else in the country had a song for every occasion and every mood.

Demonstrating the increasingly urban nature of the prosperous country, “[t]he popular song trade came more and more to be ruled by the tastes of city dwellers. [12]” This can be seen in the catalog of contemporary songs incorporating “New York” or “Chicago” within the title. The major, ongoing immigrant populations achieved musical — if not social — assimilation rapidly. There were songs for every ethnic group and culture. In America, popular music encompassed Irish ballads, Italian folk songs, and Polish mazurkas. There were songs for their carved-out communities (“Chinatown, My Chinatown”) and songs for their love affairs (“That’s Yiddishe Love”) [13]. And all of them were played on home pianos from coast to coast, sea to shining sea, American songs with international timbres, welcome to the ear, even if the populations of immigrants were initially resented by too many. The industrialism at the heart of both immigration and national prosperity in the early twentieth century was enshrined in song, as well. Marie Dressler sang hopefully that “Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl” in 1910 [14], although only one year later, the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire in New York City casts doubt on the definition of “protection.”

While many of these songs were optimistic about city life, trending towards the energetic or romanticized (contrast the lyrics of songs derived from the melting pot with Jacob Riis’ photographs showing their daily lives, or even Upton Sinclair’s depiction in 1906’s The Jungle), the inevitable homesickness and alienation also found popular musical expression in songs which captured a desire to return “home” from the big city…

Notes: (1.) Bowen, vol. I, p. 170. (2.) Ballads, sheet music sales, and band music were all nationally popular types during the 19th century. (3.) Grossman. (4.) The single “song” is itself an interesting feature of music. Popular music at this time, like in our own, became “song”-based. Individual songs were entire and complete on their own, even when they derived from operas or shows or a very lengthy classical composition. This, in itself, seems to say something. In Barzun, one of his major themes is “individualism.” Although Barzun doesn’t say so, I believe that the song-as-unit is part of a larger thread of the importance of the individual that can be seen as parts of both the American and Modern identities. (5.) Especially in Shifflett, who catalogs “hit songs” and notable songs in lists, by year. (6.) Crawford and various articles in the Grove Dictionary of Music all emphasize the variety of songs played within a single performance, most notably in connection with John Phillips Sousa and his band. The popularity of revues, follies, and vaudeville (all “variety” shows in type) also attests to the diversity associated with the performance of music on a very broad level. (7.) Middleton, paragraph 1. (8.) Bowen, vol. I, p. 60 re: Roosevelt: “the country loved him for himself, too.” (9.) Bowen, vol. I, p. 180. (10.) Song titles and popularity: Shifflett, Popular songs between 1900-1917, pp. 266-269. (11.) The catalog of songs is again from Shifflett, in particular. Bowen, vol. I, and Hillier both also use song titles to capture the era. The titles are spectacularly quotable and truly time-specific. (12.) Crawford, p. 274. (13.) Shifflett. (14.) Bowen, vol. II, p. 34.

Bibliography and Sources

Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present. 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. New York: Harper Collins. 2000.

Bowen, Ezra, editor. This Fabulous Century: Sixty Years of American Life, Volume I. 1900-1910. Time-Life Books. New York: Time, Inc. 1969.

Bowen, Ezra, editor. This Fabulous Century: Sixty Years of American Life, Volume II. 1910-1920. Time-Life Books. New York: Time, Inc. 1969.

Crawford, Richard. An Introduction to America’s Music. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 2001.

Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. New York: Mariner. 2000.

Gammond, Peter. Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1975.

Grossman, John. Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas. New York: Abrams/Stewart, Tabori, and Chang. 2008.

Grove Dictionary of Music.

Hillier (Missing Bibliography)

Middleton, Richard. Voicing the Popular: On the Subjects of Popular Music. New York: Routledge. 2006. (Most likely. Parts of the original bibliography are missing.)

Shifflett, Crandall. Victorian America: 1876-1913 (Almanacs of American Life). New York: Facts on File. 1996.

Image: (Clockwise from top left) Sears catalog #135 from 1917 (Little Wonder Records), John Philip Sousa (Wikimedia Commons), Photograph of Tin Pan Alley (Wikimedia Commons), Sheet music cover from 1910 showing Irving Berlin (songbook1), and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, painted by Francis Benjamin Johnson in 1903 (Wikimedia Commons).



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