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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Songs of Sports and Leisure

American popular song emerged in the same era that American leisure culture began to develop, and sports such as baseball and football began to take on their present, distinctly American forms. As transportation improved, professional entertainers and traveling shows and circuses became regular visitors throughout the country. Transportation itself also became a form of recreation.

Playlist for Sports and Leisure

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections illustrate some of the ways in which people liked to spend their time outside of work hours.

  • Hannibal Hope and the circus parade

    A jovial song performed by baritone Arthur Collins about awe-inspiring attractions under the big top.

  • Cross-word puzzle blues

    The Duncan Sisters sing a humorous song accompanied by piano about the American public's craze for crossword puzzles and the frustrations of trying to complete all the boxes.

  • On the Old Dominion line

    The Peerless Quartet sings a song about the pleasures of riding a steam ship under the stars.

  • Fascinating base-ball slide

    Elsie Janis sings a song of her own composition about an ardent baseball fan.

  • Whistle while you walk

    Billy Murray sings about the delights of taking a stroll with one's sweetheart accompanied by the sweet trill of birdsong.

In many cases, the songs themselves directed the activity. In 1915, Conway's Band recorded a medley of children's game songs, many quite old and some some still familiar nearly a hundred years later. Adults had their own musical games in the form of dances that included musical commands from callers and singers that forced them to change direction or partners.

In "Uncle Steve's Quadrille" from 1923, the popular tenor Billy Murray fronts the Victor Band, giving the calls for a familiar social and musical ritual from generation or two earlier.

P.T. Barnum's greatest show on earth, and great London circus, Sanger's Royal British menagerie & grand international allied shows. Strobridge & Co. Lith., Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-915. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

European circuses reached America shortly after the American Revolution., but were made distinctly American by P.T. Barnum in the middle and late 19th century. The annual visits of touring circuses were eagerly awaited throughout the country, and made good fodder for songs and musical sketches such as "The Passing of a Circus Parade" and "A Trip to the Circus," both by Len Spencer & Gilbert Girard; Arthur Collins' "Hannibal Hope and the Circus Parade"; and the American Quartet's "Circus in Dixie." Though it is familiar today and still strongly associated with the circus, Julius Fučík's 1897 composition "Entrance of the Gladiators" was still relatively new when Arthur Pryor recorded it in 1904.

Collins and Harlan's "At that Wooly Bully Wild West Show," possibly inspired by the touring shows of Buffalo Bill and others, recreates another travelling attraction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Roller skating was introduced to United States after the Civil War and quickly spread throughout the country. "Rosie and Rudolph at the Skating Rink," a sketch with dialogue, songs and sound effects by Ada Jones and Len Spencer, paints a scene of two very broadly caricatured German immigrants flirting with each other. Similarly, Collins and Harlan's "Come Take a Skate With Me" portrays skating as the new preferred mode of courtship for the young.

Baseball's popularity grew quickly in the second half of the 19th century as professional teams and leagues were formed. In 1908, songwriters Jack Norworth and Harry Van Tilzer responded to the ever growing craze with a song still sung today: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," a song that tells the story of a baseball mad young woman who only wants her boyfriend to take her one place. Elsie Janis' "Fascinating Base-Ball Slide" told a similar story. Arthur Collins "That Baseball Rag" from 1913 is a humorous account of a game, though the gambling references eerily foreshadow the "Black Sox" scandal of a few years later.

"Take me out to the ball game." Words by Jack Norworth, music by Albert Von Tilzer. New York: The New York Music Co., 1908

The growing popularity of movies was more grist for the songwriters' mill. The Peerless Quartet sang "Since Mother Goes to the Movie Shows," and in "Take Your Girlie to the Movies," Billy Murray offered the local movie theater as a good place for young couples to get away from prying eyes.

The sleigh ride party is a classic image of 19th century America, and was a favorite winter pastime in many areas. When the Haydn Quartet recorded "Sleigh Ride Party" in 1901 and again in 1904, the automobile was not yet a fixture of the roads, though by 1913, when the Peerless Quartet recorded "On a Good Old-Time Sleigh Ride", there seems to have already been nostalgia for car-free days.

Drinking songs and songs about drink have a long history in the United States. "The Star Spangled Banner" uses the melody of John Stafford Smith's English drinking song "To Anacreon in Heaven." Homegrown drinking songs came later, though many celebrated old world drinks, such as "With Wine on the Rhine!" and "Down Deep Within the Cellar." When Billy Murray sang "Budweiser's a Friend of Mine," however, he was probably referring to the American brew, and not the old Czech beer that it was named for.

Trains and cars brought the seaside closer to millions of Americans, as Billy Murray and the Haydn Quartet make clear in "Come Take a Swim in My Ocean." The Haydn Quartet also sang of "Sailing," while the American Quartet issued the invitation "Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay" in 1912. In Walter Van Brunt's "Subway Glide," the train ride itself provides all of the entertainment.

Though it would be decades before most Americans got to ride in a plane, the recreational possibilities were apparent by 1909, when the Haydn Quartet sang "Up in My Aeroplane." The next year, Blanche Ring sang of the lad who told his girlfriend "Come Josephine, In My Flying Machine." In 1912, The Peerless Quartet invited riders to do "That Aeroplane Glide."

"Automobiling." Words and music by Walter Coleman Parker. New York: Parker Music Co., 1905.

The automobile was a frequent subject of songs from the early 20th century on. It was not until later, though, that recreational driving and hot rodding became a frequent subject of songs. In late 1950, Arkie Shibley's "Hot Rod Race," which spawned many cover versions and imitations, told of an impromptu race between two hopped-up cars. The song reflected an emerging nationwide car culture, as did Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" in early 1951. Both are considered to be among the first true rock and roll songs.

Surfing culture emerged around the same time in California, though it would be several years before music and songs that reflected it became popular. Dick Dale, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and many others created a soundtrack for surfing that helped bring the beach a little closer to the landlocked millions.

Virtually every sport or recreation has been the subject of a song at one time or another. Like the recording pioneers who sang of roller skating and circuses, the musical chroniclers of the hot rod and surfing scenes helped push music forward at the same time that they were adding to the historical record.

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