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Something About the Popular Music of To-day.


Under this heading are included all compositions that are intended to appeal to and please the masses—pieces of a light character, of no great depth, in which the rhythm is well marked and the melody easily remembered.

The percentage of these so-called popular publications, however, that actually become popular in the strict sense of the word is extremely small when compared with the total output from the many popular publishing houses in this country. Music dealers, as a rule, in classifying their goods, denominate every piece as “popular” that does not come strictly within the realm of educational or classical music. The term “trash” is frequently used by many teachers and students when referring to compositions of a light character, and a vigorous crusade has been waged against the simple melodies that furnish amusement and diversion to thousands who, by sheer force of circumstances, have neither the time nor inclination to become artists themselves or devotees of any of the great masters.

The people must be amused and entertained, and the “popular song” will continue to be regarded in the light of a public necessity, in spite of the strictures that have been placed upon it by some of the more serious musical minds.

A popular song may be, to some extent, in or out of style, for the popular taste is capricious, and is carefully followed by those engaged in publishing light music. Thirty-five years ago the Foster ballads and others of a like character were “all the rage,” and swept over the country like a whirlwind, enriching the publishers and bringing fame to the authors. These songs were extremely simple in style, full of pathos, and arranged in the simplest manner. A large number were songs of the South, in which the negro figured prominently, reciting his joys and sorrows, and portraying scenes in the cotton-fields, at the “old cabin homes,” or on the levees. The Foster songs are so well known, even to this day, that the mere mention of such ballads as “Swanee River,” “Old Black Joe,” and “Massa’s in the Cold Ground,” will suffice to show the style that predominated when our fathers were young men.

Later came the craze for plaintive and pretty sentimental ballads, and it was during this period that the name of Will. S. Hays became almost a household word. It is a matter of record that the sales of this author’s songs ran into millions, his “Molly Darling” alone exceeding the 500,000 mark. “Driven from Home” and “The Wandering Refugee,” both by Hays, were also tremendous hits. Other famous songs on this order were “Come, Birdie, Come,” “Put Me in My Little Bed,” by C. A. White, and “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” by H. P. Danks, all of which were universally popular and will be readily recalled by many.

It was about this time that “Ben Bolt” had its first run, hundreds of thousands of copies being put in circulation. This song furnishes us, perhaps, with the only instance of a genuine resurrection to popular favor of a ballad that had been added to the “dead ones.” The manner in which this was brought about is familiar to all, and it is safe to say that the second sale of “Ben Bolt” was not far behind that of the book “Trilby” in point of copies printed and distributed.

What are known as “mother” songs were also in great demand for a time, of which “A Flower from Mother’s Grave” may be mentioned as a fair type. This was written by the late Harry Kennedy, a ventriloquist of note, for several seasons with the old “San Francisco Minstrels.” Kennedy subsequently made other pronounced hits, “Empty is the Cradle, Baby’s Gone” and “Say Au Revoir, but not Good-bye” being, perhaps, the best known. “Mother” songs have been more or less acceptable to the public at all times, and even to the present day they occasionally make their appearance, but the subject seems to have been worn threadbare, and the later productions are, for the most part, repetitions of ideas that have long since been “threshed out.” The same is true of “grandmother” and “grandfather” songs. We can all recall the days of “Grandfather’s Clock,” which, it is said, ran through editions aggregating a half-million copies; but no author would think of springing a “grandfather” song on the public to-day.

Most everyone at the present time remembers the era of waltz songs, and the immense popularity attained by such ballads as “White Wings,” “Only a Pansy Blossom,” “Sweet Violets,” “When the Robins Nest Again,” “When the Leaves Begin to Fall,” and “Only a Blue Bell.” These songs were more pretentious than many of their predecessors. Several movements, all in waltz time, usually preceded by a short introduction and followed by a showy finale or coda, was the form adopted in almost every instance. While the craze lasted it was exceedingly “lurid,” and for a while nearly every school-urchin tried to keep step to a three-four movement whistled most vigorously; but the monotony came to be varied in time by the appearance of a series of popular successes on the “Marguerite” order, for which the late C. A. White was very largely responsible. This author also contributed “Madeline,” “Evelina,” and “My Marguerite of Long Ago,” all of which were hits. But the public thirst for the “catchy” three-four swing could not be entirely quenched, and while the lengthy waltz song seemed to go entirely out of favor, the “song with waltz refrain” came in to take its place. This style of song consisted of two or more verses, either in common time or six-eight movement, followed by a refrain of sixteen measures in waltz tempo. Songs of this character are still in vogue, and, frequently become popular hits. “Dear Robin, I’ll be True” and “I’ll Await My Love” were among the very first of the shorter form of waltz songs that became popular, since which time dozens of others on as many different subjects have been published successfully.

The craze for “coon” songs, as they are familiarly known, began about three years ago, and shows little sign of abatement at the present time. Not content with “rag-time” songs, marches, two-steps, and even waltzes have also been subjected to this syncopated style of treatment by composers, in order to appease the seemingly insatiable thirst for that peculiar rhythmic effect produced by successive irregular accent. That the production of coon songs and two-steps has been carried to an extreme no one can question, but out of the many thousands of publications of this character, but a very few, by comparison, have enjoyed really large sales. ‘Tis true that some of the “rag-time” compositions have exceeded the 300,000 mark, but in each case where such immense popularity was obtained it was due to some distinctive merit—an irresistible swing, perhaps, like that of the “Georgia Camp-meeting,” by Kerry Mills. And who will venture to say that the author of this widely- known piece is not a genius in his line? It was this same composer who also created “‘Rastus on Parade,” “Happy Days in Dixie,” and “Whistling Rufus”—four consecutive “rag-time” hits, the combined sales of which have netted Mr. Mills a comfortable fortune. Mills has a style peculiarly his own, with distinguishing characteristics, such as are found in Sousa’s marches or Waldteufel’s waltzes. And each has his imitators.

In the “coon” song, as a rule, we find much that is coarse and unrefined, but many of them, nevertheless, are enjoyed by the cultured as well as the uncultured, when rendered by an artist like May Irwin, whose personality is often captivating.

But in spite of the “rag-time” epidemic, the popular taste is not necessarily deteriorating. Refined love ballads are more sought after than formerly, which is a healthy sign. Due appreciation is shown such songs as “Because,” “Always,” “Oh, Promise Me,” “Answer,” and “The Sweetest Story Ever Told,” which last I may be pardoned for mentioning.

Single word-titles are particularly in vogue just now, and no doubt the immediate result of the immense popularity attained by Horwitz and Bower’s ballad “Because.” Some of the latest are “If,” “Why,” “Wait,” “Perhaps,” and “Forever.” The authors of “Because,” however, were not the originators (as claimed) of this style of ballad, for Mr. Alfred G. Robyn antedates them by several years with his exquisite little songs “Answer” and “You,” which have become standard and will always be in demand. Eugene Cowles’s “Forgotten” was also among the first of the “single word” successes.

The music publishers recognize the fact that an era of love-songs of the better class is upon them, and are preparing for the demand accordingly. The market will be flooded and only the “fittest” will “survive.” In the meantime the demand for what is known as the “geographical” song continues to some extent. Mr. Paul Dresser started this ball rolling two years ago when he brought out “On the Banks of the Wabash, far Away.” It was just what the masses longed for, and its success was phenomenal. Since then many other “State” songs have been very successful,—notably, “My Old New Hampshire Home,” “‘Mid the Green Fields of Virginia,” “Dear Old Tennessee,” “The Girl I Loved in Sunny Tennessee,” “My Little Georgia Rose,” “The Old Home in Vermont,” “She was Bred in Old Kentucky,” and “Among the Hills of Maryland.” These songs are all on the pathetic order, with easy, flowing melodies, and deal with scenes and things that appeal to the heart—viz.: old homesteads, former sweethearts, and childhood’s happy hours.

Without deprecating the “high art” in music and with naught but praise for those who love art for art’s sake, we are forced to admit that the popular music of the day has its legitimate field and mission. In the so-called “trash” we have the good, bad, and indifferent, as in everything else. So let us pick out the good, and acknowledge merit wherever we find it, remembering that whatever in this world tends to add to the pleasure of a vast majority of the population is not to be despised.

As a rule, the public has not the very highest estimate of the musical profession. This is partly owing to the fact that the masses lack as yet a correct understanding of the high powers and value of music, and, again, it is owing to the fact that our profession is not so well educated as it should be. As musicians we yield too much to our emotional, and not enough to our thinking, powers. Our characters are not balanced and well rounded.

Those who devise methods usually claim that theirs are the only correct ones. There is more than one good method in teaching, and why should teachers become so wrathy when others differ from them in the way of doing things? The one-method idea does not serve in all cases. Neither human minds nor hearts can be pressed into one mold. There is great diversity in hearing and seeing, and also in appreciating. This world is full of diversity. No two trees, though of the same species, look alike. Different plants and animals require different treatment. Why should we deny this advantage to our pupils? Some teachers hang the coat of a method on all pupils’ shoulders, whether it fits or not. Adapt the method to the child, do not endeavor to adapt the child to the method.

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You are reading Something About the Popular Music of To-day. from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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