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Collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885

Themes in Popular Songs

Two great social causes of the 1870s and 1880s were temperance and woman suffrage. The two are very unequally represented in this online collection: temperance by hundreds of pieces, woman suffrage by a mere handful. The near-complete lack of suffrage songs may not represent a lack of interest among songwriters: George Cooper and Edwin Christie, who wrote "Daughters of Freedom! The Ballot be Yours" (audio clip) were mainstream songwriters who wrote what would sell. It is more likely that during the late 1800s a researcher went through the copyright deposits and moved the suffrage songs, both pro and con, to another place. If so, they were not moved to the Music Division's current woman suffrage class.

"The Temperance Crusader; or, Mother's Out Praying"
Composer: James E. Stewart
Published: 1874
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

Temperance songs form a significant part of this collection. There is even a series, entitled "Living Waters," that recycles popular songs of the period as temperance songs. (Compare Will S. Hays's song "Dinna Forget Yer Mither, Sandie" with its temperance version, "Dinna Forget Yer Promise, Jamie.") Temperance songs tend to divide into two categories, the militant and the sentimental, with the latter type often featuring the drunkard's sad child. (The great model for these songs, Henry Clay Work's "Come Home, Father!" had appeared in 1864.) An occasional song parodies the temperance movement: in "The Temperance Crusader; or, Mother's Out Praying" the ragged child begging for a quarter to buy bread has been left destitute while his mother attends temperance meetings, while the title of David Braham's "Sons of Temperance" spells "SOT."

"Temperance Grand March"
Composer: M. C. Kennedy
Published: 1878
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

The proportion of copyright deposits devoted to the cause of temperance declines in the 1880s (though because music publishing vastly expanded in the 1880s the actual number per year remains about the same.) Songs also become more ambivalent: there is even a set of two 1885 songs, published together, that gives a pro-and-con view of temperance legislation ("Let Us Pass This Goodly Measure" and "Now Suppose You Pass This Measure"). For those not interested in the cause of temperance there were always drinking songs; one of them, Gus Williams's waltz "Moet and Chandon," was a major hit of the year 1870.

As the plight of the drunkard's child pointed up the evils of alcohol, so the woes of poverty were most often represented by the begging orphan. The fallen woman, that staple of 1890s popular song, seldom shows her face in the 1870s and '80s; occasionally in this period such songs are so unspecific that one cannot tell the sex of the fallen person. Crime is much less commented on, though the 1872 song "Increase of Crime" became a substantial hit. An occasional song concerns the topic of labor.

"The Temperance Cause is Growing"
Composer: C. W. Rishell
Published: 1877
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

Contrasting with these are songs about high society. Many of them feature the "swell," a man of good cheer who lives in high style. (One "swell song," "Lardy Dah," a major hit of the year 1880, may well be the origin of the phrase that is still used to describe the dandy.) In the mid-1880s the swell is joined by the dude. The world of poverty and the world of fashion seldom cross in songs of the 1870s and 1880s; when they do, as in Henry Clay Work's "Crying for Bread," the result can be unnerving.

Physical changes in the American scene were reflected in American popular songs and in the dances and marches that were their instrumental equivalent. The railroad, the great nineteenth-century invention that tied America together, was a popular topic; so was its urban cousin, the rapid transit system. A few songs on ballooning forecast the air travel songs of the twentieth century. More recent inventions noted by songwriters were the telephone (the telegraph did less well), electric light (with a few pieces on electricity itself), the bicycle, and the sewing machine. The rage for roller-skating rinks in the mid-1880s led to a large number of songs about roller skates. There are also songs about old-fashioned ice-skating and some songs about skating that do not differentiate.

"Sons of Temperance"
Composer: David Braham
Published: 1876
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

Of urban institutions the most frequently celebrated was the fire department, with its heroic figure of the fireman. Police departments and the postal service also received attention, though it was occasionally humorous. Newspapers were celebrated, partly in the figure of the newsboy--sometimes heroic, sometimes pathetic.

Visiting celebrities--diva Adelina Patti, actress Sarah Bernhardt, professional beauty Lily Langtry, author Oscar Wilde, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia--were sure to be referred to in song and piano pieces.

The disasters of the 1870s and 1880s are recorded, if sparsely, in this online collection. None of them, save for Garfield's assassination, called up the volume of songs that such early-twentieth-century disasters as the San Francisco earthquake and the sinking of the Titanic produced, though the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 did produce several.

Fads and fashions of the period take on life when viewed in the music of this collection. The Dolly Varden fashion; the aesthetic cult fathered in equal measure by Oscar Wilde's visit and the opening of Patience; blue glass as a cure-all; "Tom Collins" jokes; the "15" puzzle: these and a hundred other forgotten crazes become vivid when enshrined in music. Sometimes the artifact outlasts the craze: there is a brief burst of Brooklyn Bridge songs, written at the opening of the bridge; yet these give an idea of the initial excitement that greeted what is now a symbol of America.

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