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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Popular Songs of the Day

"Popular songs" can be broadly defined as songs that are at least intended to reach a broad audience via some form of commercial distribution, such as broadsides, sheet music, song collections, touring musicians or musical production and from the 1890s on, commercial recordings. Being made to travel, popular music is most likely to represent a broad range of influences, including ones from folk, church and other popular music sources.

Though clear distinctions between popular, classical, folk and other broad areas of music are recognized today, it was not always so. Much music of the 17th and 18th centuries now called "baroque" or "classical" was broadly popular and not enjoyed solely by the upper classes. Songs of composers such as Handel and Haydn were not only widely heard in their day, but also were performed in private homes and public settings by amateurs for their families and friends. Melodies were sometimes appropriated from such sources, and repurposed as dance tunes or melodies for ballads and hymns. Hymns were often sung recreationally as well.

Detail from page 133 of The New-England psalm-singer, or, American chorister by William Billings.

Although it was not until the mid-19th century that distinctly American popular song styles emerged, they did not emerge from a vacuum. Political differences notwithstanding, Americans living before and after the Revolution were willing consumers of British music, theater and literature. Many people of the day, including America's first notable composers, were fortunate enough to be exposed to a broad mixture of art music, folk music, hymnody, and a wide range of songs that were disseminated though popular "ballad operas" of the days such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera from 1728, as well as in song collections from England such as Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy, published in several editions between 1698 and 1720, and George Bickham's The Musical Entertainer (1736-1739)

Well into the 19th Century, the popular music of the United States was largely that of Great Britain. From the early 18th century on though, popular songs were being written and published as broadsides, single sheets of paper containing lyrics for a song and indicating a well-known melody to which they should be sung, usually a British one. Some of the most memorable lyrics start to appear in the 1760s, when disgruntled colonists found a voice for their complaints against authority in "Liberty songs," humorous and bitter attacks on the Crown, the British Army, and colonial power figures that made ironic use of patriotic British melodies. This practice continued through the Revolution and beyond, and it is one of the ironies of our musical history that both "The Star Spangled Banner" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" use appropriated British melodies.

In this period, America's first composers also emerged. In 1759, Francis Hopkinson and James Lyon, each from Philadelphia, both set words to their own original music; Irish poet Thomas Parnell's "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free ," in Hopkinson's case, and an ode for a graduation ceremony in Lyon's. Though neither work had great impact at the time, both men soon contributed important early American music publications. In 1761, Lyon published Urania, a collection of sacred music melodies. In 1763, Hopkinson published his own collection of religious melodies, Collection of Plain Tunes with a Few from Anthems and Hymns. Lyons remained primarily a hymnist, but Hopkinson branched out, writing patriotic works during the American Revolution, including what he held to be the first American opera, The Temple of Minerva, staged in Philadelphia in early 1781. Although this seems to have been the first publicly performed opera written by an American, a writer using the pseudonym of "Andrew Barton" earlier had written Dissapointment, or the Force of Credulity, a ballad opera that mocked George III, as well as prominent citizens of Philadelphia. Its premiere performance in 1767 was cancelled, and it was not performed publicly until 1976, at the Library of Congress. Nevertheless, the libretto was published in 1767 and sold well, with a revised edition published in 1796. It is likely that some of the songs in it were popularly sung into at least the early 18th century.

William Billings of Boston, though primarily a religious writer and composer, occasionally worked in what could be regarded as the popular realm. Several of his hymns are more topical than they are liturgical, such as "Chester," which invokes God's name as it rails against tyranny, and was a favorite of Continental soldiers throughout the Revolution. "Lamentation Over Boston," based on "By the Rivers of Babylon," bewails the city's fate under British occupation. His "Modern Music" is not religious at all, but a humorous account of an audience at a concert.

Native topics became the subject of songs as well. Tobias Hume, a British soldier and composer, celebrated one of the New World's most important cash crops in his 1605 song "Tobacco Is Like Love." British poet Anne Hunter, impressed with a travelers' account of an air he said was sung by Indians facing death wrote "The Death Song of the Cherokee Indian" in 1784. It was soon set to music and became enormously popular in the United States, and is sung by a character in Royall Tyler's "The Contrast External," a 1787 satire of former colonists following British fashion too closely that was the first comedy by an American ever staged.

British influence on American music continued to be strong in the early 18th Century. Companies of British actors, as singers and musicians toured the former colonies staging old favorites such as Gay's The Beggar's Opera, Thomas Arne's Love in a Village, and Samuel Arnold's The Children in the Wood. New productions were mounted. One that deserves mention is Clari, The Maid of Milan an opera by English composer Henry Bishop with a libretto by an American, John Howard Payne. It premiered in London in 1823, and reached the United States the same year. One song caught on almost immediately, and might be regarded as America's first truly national hit song: "Home, Sweet Home," which was sung throughout the 19th century and recorded many times by early recording artists.

Popular music flourished in the home in this period. Music publishers supplied a steady stream of love songs and other sentimental material to eager consumers. Among the most enduring songs of this period was "The Old Oaken Bucket," an American poem by Samuel Wordsworth set to an English melody by George Kiallmark. The song expressed nostalgia for old American ways of life of only a generation or two earlier, and was still being sung in that spirit in the early 20th century, when a group known as the Old Homestead Double Quartet recorded it.

Detail from Morris Brothers minstrels from Boston, organized Dec. 14th, 1857--The model troupe. Ledger Job Printing Office (Philadelphia, Pa.) Reproduction Number LC-USZC4-4438. Prints and Photographs Division.

Charles Dibdin's The Padlock, a popular British comic opera of 1768, featured a singing character named Mungo, ostensibly a West Indian slave. He was a comic character played by white actor in blackface, a practice that became widespread beginning in the 1840s, with the emergence of minstrel groups. These were bands of white performers masquerading as southern black slaves, playing a mixture of music that they appropriated or attributed to slaves, as well as comic versions of popular and classical pieces. Minstrel shows were enormously popular, and continued well into the 20th century. Black performers took up the practice, even to the point of donning blackface themselves, especially after the Civil War. Many minstrel troupes toured abroad, and were the first exposure many Europeans had to American popular music.

The minstrel shows promoted and reinforced many of the worst stereotypes of African-Americans, but their importance to the development of American popular music is inescapable. At their best, they presented a uniquely American blend of absurdity and pathos, and freed musicians and actors from the restrictions of old world performance styles. In 1843, " Old Dan Tucker" was the first minstrel song to be a hit, and celebrated the antics of an irrepressible, rough hewn character who made mischief and spread cheer wherever he went. Audiences of the time found in the song both an American character and a truly American musical style. Its origins are uncertain, but it was popularized and published by the white minstrel performer Daniel Emmett, who later composed " Dixie."

Also in the 1840s, a singing group from New England known as the Hutchinson Family toured the country to great acclaim, performing concerts that mixed nostalgic celebrations of the not so distant past with topical songs on the abolition of slavery, temperance, women's rights, and labor issues. One of their most popular songs was called "Get Off the Track," an anti-slavery piece set to the tune of "Old Dan Tucker." The Hutchinsons firmly established topical song in the mainstream of American popular music, and the compositions and songs associated with them remained popular throughout the 19th century.

Detail from Stephen Collins Foster. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-56944. Prints and Photographs Division.

It was in this era that America's first great popular songwriter achieved prominence. Stephen Foster was proficient in both the sentimental styles of the mid-19th century and the lively new minstrel styles. In his best work, he expressed a new emotional depth. One of his early successes, "Old Folks at Home," is sung in the voice of an aging African-American of the day, one who is pining for his home on the old plantation. It is not clear why the singer is so far from home. He may have been sold to and transported elsewhere. He may have gained his freedom, and then traveled afar. Foster does not say. The song is written in the stereotypical dialect of the minstrel show, and includes a slur, and many of the sentiments are those of earlier American songs that celebrated home and bygone days and ways. Still, Foster's flourishes of literary eloquence made the singer a character of depth with whom a wide audience could empathize in an era of great change and little certainty:

One little hut among de bushes,
One dat I love
Still sadly to my memory rushes,
No matter where I rove.

The Civil War inspired literally thousands of songs. Northerner Daniel Emmett published "Dixie" in 1859, and the song was well known throughout the Confederate States by the beginning of the war in 1861. Some soldiers added humorous verses of their own to Emmet's original, while others toughened the lyrics to declare their readiness to die for their home. Similarly, there were two versions of "Maryland, My Maryland," one a blunt call for the state to secede, the other, an idealistic defense of the Union. One of the biggest hits of the war was "The Battle Cry of Freedom," by George F. Root, which sold some 350,000 copies in sheet music form and was still being sung and recorded more than fifty years after its publication.

Like many of the best Civil War songs, Root's composition reflected a new native musical confidence that carried over into the post-war era. American marching bands came of age during the Civil War. The greatest bandleader of the day was the Irish born Patrick Gilmore, whose band accompanied Union troops to the front, and who composed "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." After his death in 1892, Gilmore's place was taken by John Philip Sousa, who would prove to be an even greater influence on American music, contributing numerous standards to the band repertoire, and popularizing new musical styles such as cakewalk and ragtime.

In 1892, "After the Ball," a sentimental song launched in a Broadway show the year before, sold two million copies of sheet music, strong evidence that music publishing was a well established business, and songwriting a genuine and potentially lucrative profession. "Tin Pan Alley," a stretch of 28th Street in New York City was the hub for this growing industry (listen to a relevant curator talk by Nancy Groce), and drew aspiring songwriters from all over the country, and soon, the rest of the world. Popular music would soon reflect many sources and influences, and offer Americans an ever changing mix of music in the coming 20th Century.