Archive | February 2014

Entertaining Business: The Development of the First Big Three Record Companies

            Although sentimental ballads sold millions of copies of sheet music during the 1890s for play on a home piano, consumers for over a century since have had access to pop songs through musical recordings.  While the technology has changed dramatically regarding a consumer’s access to commercial song, including radio, talking movies, television, and media like vinyl record, cassette, CD and mp3 files, what has not changed is the business of selling these various formats to consumers.  This commercial venture of selling music technology bridges the business of selling both technology and music; consumers experience the latter so they will purchase the former.  In the twenty-first century, Apple is in the business of selling songs via its iTunes Store, and also its lucrative playback methods on many of its devices like its iPod or iPhone.  In the nineteenth century, when the talking machine[1] became the first format of reproducing music on a mass scale, it was the manufacturers of the machines and the materials on which music was recorded that had control of the business of recorded pop music. 

            The development of the record company during this time takes a basic understanding of the evolving technology, who controlled the patents for its recording and playback, and the ruthless business tactics common during of Gilded Age America.  Initially, the business of talking machines had nothing to do with selling music; talking machines companies had little interest in selling recorded music at all believing that their machines would be used in business.  Music eventually did become the greatest marketing tool for selling machines, after which numerous manufacturers became the record labels on which music was recorded.  But throughout second half of the 1890s, patent lawsuits on components and company consolidation eventually simplified the market for record companies, leaving behind a landscape of the first big three music companies in America dealing in music:  Columbia, Edison and Victor Gramophone.  It was not the music business that created commercialized recordings at all, but rather control over patents and technology that companies could sell.  The evolution of the first big three record companies had a profound effect on the history of pop song in America, and it began a model which dominates the music market in the twenty-first century, in 2014, three big record companies still control a substantially large portion of the pop market:  Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Group.

            In order for modern pop songs to have playability, there must exist a machine to play them, and in the late nineteenth century, it was the talking machine.  While the idea of a machine reproducing sound was not new when Thomas Edison invented his Phonograph in 1877, Frenchman Charles Cros thought of a machine before he did,[2] Edison would be the first to patent it.  The Phonograph used a needle whose vertical movements were dictated by the vibrations of a person’s voice through a mouthpiece, resulting in stamped out indentations on a tinfoil film over a cylinder of cardboard as the cylinder spun, with the sound emitting from a horn.  It worked much like a typewriter for sound and it worked the very first time Edison experimented with it.  Edison himself was “never so taken aback in all my life…I was always afraid of anything that worked for the first time.”[3]  Although he formed the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878 and started a vigorous campaign of promotional scientific articles for the “wonderful invention,”[4] Edison had never perfected the medium.  He eventually set the Phonograph project aside to work on another invention, indoor lighting, to alleviate the problem of gas burners and kerosene lamps setting increasingly paper-packed offices ablaze.[5]  The Phonograph had created substantial buzz in America, some of which was created by Edison himself, but the project got no further than the machine and resulted in some small sales based on curiosity for it.

            To make an actual sound recording, there must be a reliable medium onto which sounds could be produced.  This achievement was not perfected at Edison’s Labs, but rather the laboratory of rival Alexander Graham Bell.  Edison failed to find a material or a playback mechanism which did not destroy the recording when removing it from the machine[6] and in Bell’s laboratory, there was great interest in reproducing sound.  After approaching Edison for possible collaboration in 1886, and after Edison’s outright refusal, Bell’s Volta Labs began their own successful experiments.  The resulting mechanism, the Bell-Tainter floating stylus, etched grooves onto a cylinder whose surface was coated with a layer of wax, a medium which reproduced sound better than Edison’s tinfoil cylinder.[7]  Volta Labs filed patents for both the wax cylinder and the Bell-Tainter repeater and consequently formed the North American Graphophone Company in 1886.  Bell owned the patents the method for which its playback and recording were possible, and eventually Edison issued his own wax-based “Improved Phonographs” in 1888.[8]  This situation created a business environment of two companies in immediate competition with each other in the relatively new market of the talking machine.

            For Edison and North American Graphophone, initially their talking machines had nothing to do with an entertainment marketing for music, but rather with practical purposes of an appliance for the office.  Office work was becoming more mechanized throughout the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, and if a new invention like the typewriter or the telephone could have functional and efficient business applications, then there were firms interested in purchasing them.[9]  For Edison, the motivation to invent the Phonograph came about when Western Union wanted fresh technology to record messages for its telegram lines which did not involve Bell’s telephone patents.[10]  After a hiatus from the Phonograph, and after its improvement in 1888, Edison Phonograph was then marketed as a solution to sloppy secretarial penmanship which reduced productivity.[11]  In the case of American Graphophone, their company’s proximity to Capital Hill enticed congressional reporters with the potential use of the machine for journalism; two legal reporters subsequently invested heavily in the company.[12]  Not all business ventures were as serious as communication or journalism; for example, Edison Phonograph spun off a subsidiary toy company which manufactured delicate speech functions for dolls.  In the late 1880s, talking machine companies were not in the business of selling their machines for musical purposes; instead, they marketed them for business.

            Even though there was some interest in a new expensive invention, talking machine sales lagged and companies eventually entered the entertainment market.  By recording and selling music on their own cylinders, companies like Edison or Graphophone believed that the customer would purchase one of their talking machines to play recorded music.  The first company to market in this manner was Columbia Phonograph recording exclusively for Graphophone around 1889, when Columbia hired the US Marine Band led by composer John Philip Sousa to record some of their popular military marches like “Semper Fidelis” and “The Washington Post.”  Although Sousa himself found recorded music “an impending harm to American musical art”,[13] the Marine Band’s recordings resulted in immediate success for both Graphophone and Columbia’s record sales. The band returned to Columbia’s studios several times a week to keep ahead of record demand, sometimes selling one thousand record in a week in 1890.[14]  Sousa’s Band would become one of the best-selling recording artists of the nineteenth century, including their famous 1897 recordings of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” also recorded on Columbia.[15]  Columbia also hired popular Italian tenor Enrico Caruso with great success.  However, Edison Phonograph still intended to market machines for business purposes and did not initially enter the music market until later in the 1890s and Phonograph sales slumped partly as a result of this decision.  The decision by Columbia to begin marketing recorded music had profound effects on pop song history by not only promoting celebrity musicians, but by also changing the business model by using Graphophone’s format to help sell talking machines.

            Talking machine companies were not the only kinds of businesses to use music and Americans’ increasing thirst for popular songs to boost income.  Saloons, hotels, brothels, theatres, train stations all found that they could supplement their income by adding talking machines to the environs, fitting them with coin operating systems and selling music to consumers for a nickel per play.  The trick worked tremendously well for such businesses, one drug store owner in New Orleans reported that he earned $500 in a month in 1891, enough to earn back the initial investment on the Phonograph.[16]  Whole arcades exclusively for the purpose of listening to recorded music on machine had entered the business as well; the Palais Royal Saloon in San Francisco had fifteen machines fitted for coin operation and listening stethoscope-like ear tubes in 1890.[17]  Salesmen claiming titles of “professor” or “doctor” travelled around with machines and earphones selling music plays to rural customers.[18]  The appetite and market for music was so large in the early 1890s that pirated music became problematic.  Dealers in black market music fashioned together pantograph mechanisms which would copy cylinders of pop songs for sale; although they did not have the sound quality of big name labels, pirated music was cause for alarm for record companies.[19]  Not only did music change the nature of the talking machine business, it was also changing the culture of businesses that could capitalize on Americans’ enthusiasm for recorded music.

            With the success that the Graphophone was having with recording and the famous and valuable name embossing each of Edison’s Phonograph machines, another competitor, German-born Emile Berliner, would change the nature of the medium on which music was recorded. The difficulty of recording on cylinders was that each one had to be individually recorded and there was no easy way for a company to duplicate an original recording with the same sound standards.  If a company had an order for 200 copies of a song, then the recording artist, even while recording on four machines simultaneously, would have to perform the song the same way fifty times in a row in the early years of acoustic recording.[20]  Instead of writing on a cylinder, Berliner created a system that produced music on a flat disk, and copies of recordings could be pressed into a mould and mass produced quicker than cylinder recordings.  In 1895, Berliner gained a patent for his machine, the Gramophone. Not only were records cheaper, but so were his machines, some as inexpensive as $15 in 1895.[21]  Columbia also began to manufacture its own disk player, the Zonophone, in 1900.[22]  By the turn of the twentieth century, Berliner’s Gramophone was gaining popularity as an alternative to cylinder machines, creating a new format from which consumers could get access to recorded music.  Subsequently, the disk format in its various forms would remain popular for most of the twentieth century.

            With a new invention selling well by the mid-1890s, scores of new talking machine companies like Talkophone, Vitaphone, Metaphone, and Echophone went into business,[23] but many eventually became victims of the business culture around the turn of the century.  Business were constantly consolidating either through acquisition or through organizational efforts, and larger companies frequently bought or merged with smaller ones.[24]  Berliner Gramophone and US Gramophone, for example, merged to form the Consolidated Gramophone Company in 1900.[25]  If companies were not victims of the reorganizational efforts, then they were likely sued over the patents in their machines, no matter how minute the details of a mechanism and these patent lawsuits ultimately gave way to the first three big record companies.  Considering that after the transformation in invention that had taken place during the nineteenth century, the original 1790 American Patent Law had not been amended allowing for a substantial number of such lawsuits.[26]  Large companies not only sued each other over inventions, but also sued smaller ones out of existence.  American Graphophone had aggressively been trying to litigate Edison out of business beginning in 1895 over the Bell-Tainter patent.[27]  The Chicago Talking Machine Company had been sued out of existence in 1897 by Columbia for adding a third spring in its motors. The remnants of the company were purchased by Columbia after which, Columbia began producing machines fitted with a third spring in its motor design.[28]  The Consolidated Gramophone Company was even involved in a patent lawsuit with Columbia in 1901 and when company president Eldridge Johnson was confident that he would win his case, he named his company Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901.[29]  By the end of these so-called talking machine wars, three big companies survived.

            The cathartic changes in the talking machine business had been resolved in 1903 with three companies controlling the majority of the markets for both talking machines and recorded music.  There was Edison Phonograph, which dealt with cylinders exclusively; Victor Gramophone, which used flat disks; and Columbia, which used both formats.  For nearly two decades afterwards, these three companies controlled the market for pop sings in America and, with century-old copyright laws which did not include sound recordings,[30] record companies could record any music they wished until such laws were amended in 1909.[31]  This trend in big business controlling major markets in music still exists today with the likes of Sony, Universal and Warner Music Group owning much of the pop song content audiences hear.  For pop song history, what started as talking machine companies trying to sell machines by using songs, became the first three major record companies releasing music by the end of the talking machine wars of 1903.


Baldwin, Neil.  Edison:  Inventing the Century.  New York:  Hyperion.  1995.

Beatty, Jack.  Colossus:  How the Corporation Changed America.  New York:  Broadway Books, 2001. 128.

Bruce, Robert V.  Bell:  Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude.  Boston, MA:  Little Brown and Co.  1973.

Fabrizio, Timothy C. and George F. Paul.  The Talking Machine:  An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929.  Atglen, PA:  Schiffer Publishing.  1997.

Mackay, James.  Alexander Graham Bell:  A Life.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  1997.

Morton, David.  Sound Recording:  The Life and Story of a Technology.  Baltimore, MD:  The Johns Hopkins University Press.  2004.

Schlereth, Thomas J.  Victorian America:  Transformations in Everyday Life.  New York:  HarperColins Publishers.  1991.

Sousa, John Philip.  “The Menace of Mechanical Music.”  1906.  Explore PA History.

“The Stenographer’s Friend, or What was Accomplished by an Edison Business Phonograph.” Historic Films, 7:54.

Tancs, Linda A.  Understanding Copyright Law:  A Beginner’s Guide.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  2009.

——-.  Understanding Patent Law:  A Beginner’s Guide.  New York:  Oxford University Press. 2010.

Whitburn, Joel.  Pop Memories:  1890-1954.  Menomonee Falls, WI:  Record Research Inc. 1986.

Zunz, Olivier.  Making America Corporate:  1870-1920.  Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press. 1990.

[1] For a general term for machines that acoustically recorded sound, regardless of the brand stated like Phonograph or Gramophone, the term talking machine will be used throughout the remainder of this essay.

[2] Timothy C. Fabrizio and George F. Paul, The Talking Machine:  An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929, (Atglen, PA:  Schiffer Publishing, 1997), 9.

[3] Thomas A Edison, qtd in Neil Baldwin, Edison:  Inventing the Century, (New York:  Hyperion, 1995), 83.

[4] Neil Baldwin, Edison:  Inventing the Century, (New York:  Hyperion, 1995), 81.

[5] Olivier Zunz, Making America Corporate:  1870-1920, (Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 108.

[6] Fabrizio and Paul, 10.

[7] Robert V. Bruce, Bell:  Alexander Graham Bell and the conquest of Solitude, (Boston, MA:  Little Brown and Co, 1973), 354.

[8] Baldwin, 191-192

[9] Thomas J Schlereth, Victorian America:  Transformations in Everyday Life, (New York:  HarperColins Publishers, 1991), 190.

[10] Fabrizio and Paul, 9.

[11] “The Stenographer’s Friend, or What was Accomplished by an Edison Business Phonograph” (1910), Historic Films, 7:54,

[12] James Mackay, Alexander Graham Bell:  A Life, (New York:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1997), 216.

[13] John Philip Sousa, “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” 1906, Explore PA History,

[14] Fabrizio and Paul, 17.

[15] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories:  1890-1954, (Menomonee Falls, WI:  Record Research Inc, 1986), 625.

[16] Schlereth, 192.

[17] Fabirizo and Paul, 24.

[18] ibid, 31.

[19] ibid.

[20] David Morton, Sound Recording:  The Life and Story of a Technology, (Baltimore, MD:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 176.

[21] Fabrizio and Paul, 37.

[22] ibid, 75.

[23] ibid, 36-39.

[24] Jack Beatty, Colossus:  How the Corporation Changed America, (New York:  Broadway Books, 2001), 128.

[25] Fabrizio and Paul, 76.

            [26] Linda A. Tancs, Understanding Patent Law:  A Beginner’s Guide, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010), 1.

[27] Fabrizio and Paul, 35.

[28] Fabrizio and Paul, 40.

[29] ibid, 78.

[30] See Copyright Act of 1790, contained in Linda A. Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law:  A Beginner’s Guide, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 63-65.

[31] The Copyright Act of 1909, Sect. 1(e) (1906), contained in Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law, 67-89.

1890s Pop Trend: The Sentimental Ballad

It is a fundamental fact that periods of American musical history have their own distinct en vogue pop song styles reflecting the consumers’ reception to musical taste.  While the styles of music can be quite disparate from era to era, what is common across all time periods is that dancing and rhythms play a tremendously important role on what overall trends enjoy the greatest popularity.  As well, consumers’ reception to what the songs communicate through lyrics also plays an important role in that they reflect the aesthetic lyrical tastes of the times.  This combination of dance trends and lyrical reception help to explain why certain styles of song have become popular and sell copies throughout pop song history.  During the beginning era of commercial pop song in the 1890s, the most popular genre for selling sheet music was the Romantic ballad, a waltz tempo parlour dance with sentimental lyrics.  Such sentimental waltz ballads sold millions of copies of music during this era.

            While composers of the waltz accompaniments of these songs became huge stars in their field, the lyricists had the task of creating the verses and refrains of the Romantic style to make songs emotional, memorable and therefore profitable.  Literary trends during the mid-nineteenth century had become Romantic, filled with emotion and grandiose language.  Although a less decorative Realist style replaced it in the late nineteenth century, in pop songs Romantic sentiment remained.  On examining the lyrics of pop songs of the Romantic ballad, there are two basic tactics of using sentimentality by lyricists by creating either heart warming or heart wrenching feeling.  The first elicits schmaltzy feeling with the listener by describing situations of love or nostalgic memories, creating happy sentiment with an audience or listener.  The other, more commonly known as the tear jerker, provokes sadness with the audience and uses tales of lost love, loneliness, and death.  Both kinds of song were almost always waltzes and both were popular methods of selling sheet music.

            It is important to give literary context connecting the lyricism of pop song to the Romantic works of literature Americans were reading during this time and how this style relates to the popular aesthetic of sentimentality during the nineteenth century.  Romantic lyricism relied on lengthy somewhat baroque story telling with sweeping vistas of nature and character emotion.  Popular authors employing this style of narration included the likes of Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe and Nathanial Hawthorn, just to name a few.  There are various opinions about the impact that Romanticism had on the American audience and on its emotional connection with them.  According to Cleanth Brooks, Romanticism is not just about the environment in which a plot takes place, but also the emotion which such materials invoke.[1]  For Victor Brombert, there is a psychology behind the popularity of Romantic poetry and songs, that the idea of the archetypal “happy prison” of sentimentality relates the personal lives of its audience.[2]   Romantic sentimentality in the arts also extends to audiences of pop songs during the 1890s.  After all, when such ballads debuted, popularized or advertised in places like theatres or vaudeville shows, audiences were entranced with these songs and they became popular.

            The historical context of the ballad combining waltz and sentimentality in America connects European music with an American thirst for pop culture in the second half of the nineteenth century.  The waltz and its music had been popular in Europe for over a century; its recognizable triple-time tempo and its classical orchestration were the quintessential ballroom dance music of Europe.  Throughout the nineteenth century, waltzing had enjoyed increasing popularity, albeit with a fair amount of cultural scepticism, in the United States.[3]  But waltzes were not commercial ventures for publishers in the United States and neither was the pop song; instead, music publishers were more intent on producing profitable instructions methods rather than recreational waltzes or songs.[4]  Consequently, neither genre had much market share for American consumers, who by the 1880s, had an appetite for pop culture and eventually pop songs.[5]  It was not until Charles K Harris’s massive hit “After the Ball,” a sentimental story waltz ballad about a single man’s loneliness, that made the sentimental ballad popular and profitable in 1892.  Thereafter the ballad in waltz tempo remained the most popular genre for selling sheet music for the remainder of the decade.

            Of course, a waltz tempo alone does not make a song into a hit; a sentimental ballad required lyrics in tune with what people wanted to hear in order to sell the song.  Lyricists noting an audience’s reaction to ballads at public performances, of course, took full advantage of the public’s taste and continued to sell sentimentality to consumers willing to pay for the music.  Creating Romantic tales was the method used by lyricists to cause sensation during this time and with analysis of the lyrics, there were two different kinds of storytelling and two very different kinds of sentiment within them.  The first is the more cheery and heart warming of the two, which describes a general situation of love or of nostalgic scenes of years past.  The second tells morbid tales of death or of love lost and lyricists had the intention of causing sadness with an audience.  Either way, the aesthetics of such songs struck a chord with an American audience.

The body of the Romantic ballad tells a story within its verses and summarizes the situation in the refrain, however, the two kinds of ballads have very different strategies of storytelling.  The stories of heart warming ballads generally sketch a situation rather than delving into specific details about plot, oftentimes involving love or reminiscence.  For example, Harry Dacre’s 1892 hit “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)” has short, compact, verses professing the speaker’s love for Daisy, the object of his desire, and offers her a marriage proposal despite the couple’s potentially limited financial future:

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

I can’t afford a carriage.

But you’ll look sweet upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.[6]

One other, James Blake and Charles Lawlor’s 1894 hit “The Sidewalks of New York” describes a rather charming scene of childhood friends playing where “Boys and girls together we would sing and waltz.”[7] G.O. Lang and Hattie Lummis’s 1900 hit “In the Shadow of the Pines” describes a break up following an angry argument, “Hasty words were spoken and then almost unawares/Hasty answers of unthinking anger led.”[8]  Such stories are relatable and attract a listener’s attention with the simplicity of the situations they describe in love, love lost or childhood.

But the other kind of sentimental ballad, the tear jerker, has much more complicated plotline delivered by long, verbose verses, and engages the audience in a simpler, more maudlin, emotional reaction of outright sadness.  Lyricists writing these songs made the scenes complicated, presumably to keep the audience’s attention; for example, the storyline of the 1893 Gussie L. Davis song “The Fatal Wedding” can read like a melodramatic soap opera.   In the song, a woman brings a sick child to her husband’s wedding to protest his marrying another woman.  The child dies, and eventually the groom commits suicide.[9]   Another tear jerker, the 1900 Harry von Tilzer and Arthur Lamb song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage,” describes the emotional state and appearance of a gold-digger who married for money and pretends to be happy, although she is truly miserable.  The chorus suggests that the audience feel pity for the character by saying, “’Tis sad when you think of her wasted life” and that “Her beauty was sold” when she had wed.[10]   The lyricist gives a storyline to an audience to follow the stories of these waltz ballads, just as a modern soap opera does, but the story lines are always sad in a tear jerker ballad.

            The kinds of sentimentality offered by both types of ballad are also different, the more heart warming ballad often produces happy feeling while the tear jerker aims to make an audience cry.  In the songs depicting heart warming scenes, moments of the song whether a line, couplet or refrain, spark emotion rather than the construction and direction of a plot line.  For example, “The Sidewalks of New York” in the final verse, the gang described throughout the song are all adults, and the subject thinks about how mice it would be to go back in time, to that exact place and relive childhood again, “They’d part with all they got, could they once more walk / With their best girl and have a twirl on the sidewalks of New York.”[11]  In the 1895 John Palmer and Charles Ward song “The Band Played On,” the chorus tell how Matt Casey, the subject of the song, fell in love with a strawberry blond while waltzing endlessly on the dance floor.  Later in the song, the audience finds out that she is “Happy Misses Casey now for life”[12] and what is sentimental is the lyricism of marriage of a sweetheart.  In “In the Shadow of the Pines,” sentimentality comes in the final verse where he “Admit[s he] was to blame” for the altercation and pleas for a fresh start, “And I’d give the whole world gladly once again to meet you there/Reunited in the shadow of the pines.”[13]  For these heart warming ballads, sentimentality lies in moments throughout a song rather than a total emotion of the storyline. 

Sentimentality of the tear jerker, on the other hand create sadness in its tales of heartache and death and the goal for the lyricist is to make the audience shed tears. Lyricists knew that sad songs sold well; Harry von Tilzer knew “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” would be a successful song when he debuted it at a brothel and it made the prostitutes cry,[14] later, it sold 2 million copies.[15]  The sentimentality delivered to an audience by these waltz ballads can be relentless and usually involves a character dying.  In one other Gussie L Davis hit, 1896’s “In The Baggage Coach Ahead” a father and a baby, whose crying annoys fellow passengers, are traveling with their mother’s body in the baggage coach:

When the train rolled onward, a husband sat in tears,

Thinking of the happiness of just a few short years,

For baby’s face brings pictures of a cherished hope that’s dead,

But baby’s cries can’t waken her in the baggage coach ahead.[16]

Death is also a theme in the 1898 Harry von Tilzer song “My Old New Hampshire Home.”  The subject of the song leaves home and his sweetheart, after which she dies and he dreams of the old days where “My heart lies buried with her ‘neath the willow.”[17]  Death is not always a key point to a tear jerker, after a “loving lassie”[18] runs away from home in the 1892 Charles Graham song “The Picture that is Turned Toward the Wall,” her father shuns her by doing what the title says.  The point of the tear jerker is to provoke sad sentimentality with the consumer with great reception from consumers in the number of sheets that sold during the 1890s.

            But the sentimental had had a relatively short span of popularity with sheet music consumers.  By 1899, more people had access to pre-recorded phonograph records and more varieties of music, including the syncopated rhythms of ragtime.  As well, Romanticism of ballad lyrics gave way to more colloquial lyrical style, which is, according to Everett Carte, a “rejection against sentimentality”[19] known as Realism.  Well-known examples of these songs include 1899’s “Hello Ma Baby,” 1902’s “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” and “1905’s “Give My Regards to Broadway.”  None of these songs tell stories or have waltz tempos and the Romantic ballad had fallen out of favour.  While Harry von Tilzer’s 1906 hit “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie” does tell a story of a couple’s ruined plans for an outdoor picnic due to rain,[20] it had a two-step tempo and some syncopation of ragtime.  As well, the 1908 hit “Take Me Out To The Ball Game is in waltz tempo, although is not generally considered a sentimental ballad.  The Realism of ragtime era replaced and rejected the drippy maudlin sentimentality of the waltz ballad and it remained a solidly popular style for two decades.  

            I argue that as song’s success lies, not with the commonplace waltz rhythms that were popular during the 1890s, but with the sentimental lyrics to them.  Audiences reacted to lyrics at initial promotional performances much more than the music, as evidence from the Harry von Tilzer’s debut of “A Bird in A Gilded Cage.”  Words sold music, as did their soap opera stories of tearjerkers or with the heart warming sentiment provoked by more positive song lyrics.  Whether audiences could relate to the story lines or whether they were for pure entertainment is equally important because they set the trends for the whole decade.  The sentimental ballad, and the words supplied by the lyricist, were, consequently, the most popular sellers of sheet music for the decade.


Brombert, Victor.  “The Happy Prison:  A Recurring Romantic Metaphor.” Contained in  Romanticism:  Vistas, Instances, Continuity.  Edited by David Thorburn and Geoffrey Hartman.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press.  1973.  62-79.

Cleanth Brooks, “Romantic Poetry and the Tradition.”  Contained in Romanticism:  Points of View.  Edited by Robert F. Gleckner and Gerald E. Ensore.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall.  1970.  136-148.

Carter, Everett.  “Realism Rejected Sentimental Culture.  Contained in American Realism. Edited by Christopher Smith.  San Diego, CA:  Greenwood Press.  2000.  47-55.

Hischak, Thomas S.  The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press.  2002.

Knowles, Mark.  The Wicked Waltz and other Scandalous Dances:  Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company Inc.  2009.

Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi.  America:  A Narrative History, Vol 2.  New York:  W.W. Norton.  2010.

Music Cited

Blake, James and Charles Lawlor.  The Sidewalks of New York.  New York:  Pioneer Music Co.  1894.

Dacre, Harry.  Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two).  New York:  J. Albert & Son.  1892.

Davis, Gussie L. and William H. Windom.  The Fatal Wedding.  New York:  Spalding & Gray.  1893.

Davis, Gussie L.  In the Baggage Coach Ahead.  New York:  Howley, Haviland & Co.  1896.

Graham, Charles.  The Picture that Is Turned Toward the Wall.  New York:  T.B. Harms & Co.  1892.

Lang, G.O. and Hattie Lummis.  In The Shadow of the Pines.  Kansas City, MO:  Legg Brothers.  1900.

Von Tilzer, Harry and Arthur Lamb.  A Bird In a Gilded Cage.  New York:  Shapiro, Bernstein & Co.  1900.

Von Tilzer, Harry and Andrew Sterling.  My Old New Hampshire Home.  New York:  Shapiro, Bernstein & Von Tilzer.  1898.

——-.  Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.  New York:  Harry von Tilzer Music Publishing.  1905.

Ward, Charles and John Palmer.  The Band Played On.  New York:  New York Music Co.  1895.

[1] Cleanth Brooks, “Romantic Poetry and the Tradition,” contained in Romanticism:  Points of View, ed. Robert F Gleckner and Gerald R Ensore, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, 1970), 139.

[2] Victor Brombert, “The Happy Prison:  A Recurring Romantic Metaphor,” contained in Romanticism:  Vistas, Instances Continuities, ed. David Thorburn and Geoffrey Hartman, (Ithaca, NY:  Cornall University Press, 1973), 63-64.

[3] Mark Knowles, The Wicked Waltz and other Scandalous Dances:  Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co, 2009), 36.

[4] Craig H. Roell, The Piano in America:  1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 8.

[5] For insights into the rise of American popular culture during that second half of the nineteenth century, see George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America:  A Narrative History, Vol 2, (New York:  W.W. Norton, 2010), 837-844.

[6] Harry Dacre, Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two), (New York:  J. Albert & Son, 1892).

[7] James Blake and Charles Lawlor, The Sidewalks of New York, (New York:  Pioneer Music Co, 1894).

[8] G.O. Lang and Hattie Lummis, In the Shadow of the Pines, (Kansas City, MO:  Legg Brothers, 1900).

[9] Gussie L Davis and William H Windom, The Fatal Wedding, (New York:  Spalding & Gray, 1893).

[10] Harry von Tilzer and Arthur Lamb, A Bird in a Gilded Cage, (New York:  Shapiro, Bernstein & Co, 1900).

[11] Blake and Lawlor, The Sidewalks of New York.

[12] John Palmer and Charles Ward, The Band Played On, (New York:  New York Music Co, 1895).

[13] Lang and Lummis, In the Shadow of the Pines.

[14] Thomas S. Hischak, The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia, (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2002), s.v. “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Gussie L Davis, In the Baggage Coach Ahead, (New York:  Howley, Haviland & Co, 1896).

[17] Harry von Tilzer and Andrew Sterling, My Old New Hampshire Home, (New York:  Shapiro, Bernstein & Von Tilzer, 1898).

[18] Charles Graham, The Picture that is Turned Toward the Wall, (New York:  T.B. Harms & Co, 1892).

[19] “Everett Carter, “Realism Rejected Sentimental Culture,” contained in American Realism, ed. Christopher Smith, (San Diego, CA:  Greenhaven Press, 2000), 48.

[20] Harry von Tilzer and Andrew Sterling, Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, (New York:  Harry Von Tilzer Music Publishing, 1905).

American One Hit Wonder: Charles K. Harris

          Creating hits is the backbone of the song writing industry; indeed hits earn money, set musical trends and create the inspiration for others to perpetuate the trade and make more music.  During the era when song writers had higher billing than recording artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, song writers like Harry von Tilzer, George M. Cohan, Paul Dresser and Irving Berlin composed numerous hits each.  Hit making then transitioned from the domain of the composer to performer during the 1920s, particularly when radio became popular entertainment, after which recording stars became the public image of a song.  Recording acts like Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller and The Mills Brother and countless others over the decades have recorded numerous hits as well and this pattern continues into the twenty-first century with hit-makers like Rhianna, Eminem, and Katy Perry among others.  But for some writers and performers, their careers would be defined by a sole big hit.  In more affectionate, modern jargon, these are commonly known as one hit wonders.

          Such was the case for Charles K. Harris, whose ballad “After the Ball” not only was the first song to sell one million copies and become a mass produced hit but it also set the musical trends in style and promotion for a whole decade.  The song’s success, and Harris’s financial windfall from it, inspired other Tin Pan Alley songwriters into a hyperactivity of publishing and promotion with lyricists and composers clamouring to create their own big hits.  Harris’s contribution to the revolution in the song writing trade and Tin Pan Alley’s commercial ambition is enormous.  Yet, despite “After the Ball’s” commercial success, Harris’s later songs did not achieve the level of popularity of his big hit and eventually ragtime replaced the popularity of the sentimental ballad genre and left him without a market for his style of song writing.  Harris however, found success collaborating for musical theatre and advocating for copy write laws for music as a the inaugural secretary of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, where he served for a decade.  The man who wrote the song that commercialized Tin Pan Alley and became an advocate for intellectual property for the music business was the first one hit wonder.

The anatomy of “After the Ball” helps to explain why it became such a success.  One reason why it became a big hit was that the verses sparked emotion.  “After the Ball” is an example of one of the most popular genres of the 1890s:  the sentimental ballad, a sad song which told a story intended to excite emotion in the audience and consequently the potential consumer.  In the song, an old man recounts the story of how his heart was broken and why he had never married.  The central character describes the situation thusly,

“I had a sweetheart, years, years ago

Where she is now, you will soon know.

List’ to the story, I’ll tell it all.

I believed her faithless, after the ball.”[1]

The man explains how after fetching his sweetheart a glass of water, he found her kissing another man, after which his heart breaks and he “never wed.”  In the third verse, the audience learns that “long years have passed” and his sweetheart has now died; the man kissing her evidently was her brother.  The long, heart-rending and sometimes convoluted storyline was integral in a song’s popularity, the soap opera-like lyrics kept the audience’s attention to hear what happens in the next verse.[2]  However, lyrically, Harris notes that the song is not perfect and that there are some odd choices including odd word inversions to fit the meter like “I wish some water” and “List’ to the story, I’ll tell it all.”  However, according to Harris, in the final product, “defects are not so apparent.”[3]  The sentimental ballad was what audiences wanted to hear in 1892, despite the sometimes awkward wordings, and consequently, struck a chord with consumers willing to pay for sheet music.

            But beyond the storyline within the verses, Harris used the chorus to popularize the song.  A reason for the song’s success was that the title was used throughout the song in convenient ways so that the audience could remember it.  The song is a simple ABABAB structure, three consecutive verses, each one its own chapter of the story, each one followed by the same refrain summarizing the song.  It is this refrain which accomplishes the technique of popularization; it repeats a simply lyric that an audience would remember and strengthens the title of the song.  The chorus goes:

After the ball is over, after the break of dawn

After the dancers’ leaving, after the stars are gone

Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all

Many the hope that have vanished, after the ball.[4]

Not only does the title begin and end the refrain, it also ends each of the three verses which precede it.  It is an easily memorable title, which customers could see on the cover of the song in a music section of a shop and purchase later on.  Such techniques are even touted in modern methods of popular song writing in the twenty-first century, and according to one source, the objective of the chorus is to “summarize the idea of the song in a general way and to hammer home its title.”[5]  If an audience needed to remember one part of the song, it would have to be the chorus and Harris was one of the first composers to implement the refrain in popular song specifically for this purpose.   After the song’s success, the technique of making a song memorable via the refrain was standard practice throughout Tin Pan Alley in the 1890s.[6]

        Even though the song became the most popular song of the nineteenth century, it was almost a failure, but because of ruthless promotional techniques it became a tremendously popular hit.  During its debut performance in Milwaukee in 1891, the singer Sam Doctor was laughed off stage when he forgot the complicated lyrics mid-performance.  In order to get another chance for its public performance, Harris enticed the singer J. Aldrich Libby $500 and bribed an orchestra conductor with cigars to shoehorn the song into the popular musical farce A Trip to Chinatown, even though the song did not fit the plot in any way.[7]  After the performance the audience demanded an encore as soon as it ended.[8]  Marketing tactics of this merciless sort, even tampering with another’s music work by inserting one’s one song into it, would become common for pop songs of the era and for Harris, made “After the Ball” the first song to sell one million copies of sheet music.  In fact it went on to sell five million thanks to its continued inclusion in the musical; after all, A Trip to Chinatown, enjoyed 657 consecutive performances  on Broadway.[9]   The next year, John Philip Sousa performed it daily at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago[10] and Irish tenor George J Gaskin’s recordings on phonograph were best sellers of that year.[11]  What began as a bribed addition in a Milwaukee performance of a musical became a total moment of American pop hysteria in that year and set the standards of musical plugging that would overtake Tin Pan Alley later in the decade.

         The song created an instant gauge of not just how many copies a song could sell and how much money could earn a person money, but also how much fame a composer of pop songs could achieve.[12]  As the sole lyricist, composer and publisher, Harris was not obligated to share the song’s earnings, roughly $10 million, with anyone. [13] In New York’s Tin Pan Alley, the hub of American song publishing, Harris’s success must have inspired other songwriters to continue writing and to become successful composers and lyricists themselves.  After 1893, the noisy area of clanging pianos in New York City became the epicenter of a change in mentality for entertainment, from public amusement to profitable industry.  When asked where Tin Pan Alley is, Caesar Irving, writer of “Swanee” and “Tea for Two,” responded, “Closest to the nearest buck.”[14] Pop songs had gone from passive entertainment to business and industry and Charles K. Harris’s big hit is one of, if not the biggest, catalyst in this transformation.

          Harris continued to write and publish lachrymose story songs throughout the 1890s and early twentieth century without the great success of “After the Ball.”[15]  Known as The King of the Tear Jerker, Harris continued to publish ballads with such titles as “My Mama Lives Up in the Sky,” “’Tis Not Always Bullets that Kill,” “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them,” and “When Angels Weep,” among dozens of others.  However, few had the success of “After the Ball.”  Only 1897’s “Break the News to Mother,” about a dying soldier[16] and 1901’s “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven,” in which a child tries to connect with her dead mother in Heaven via the new telephone, were even close to Harris’s previous success.  But by then, a new style of syncopated composition and vernacular lyrical styling known as ragtime was changing the aesthetics of writers in Tin Pan Alley; the popularity of Harris’s composition style faded with the sentimental ballad.  Charles K. Harris, however, continued to remain active in music writing and publishing until his death in 1930.  During the first decade of the twentieth century and in the 1910s, he collaborated with famous and celebrated Broadway composers and lyricists like Reginald de Koven, Oscar Hammerstein, and Victor Herbert.  Beginning in 1914, Harris was the first secretary of the Association of Songwriters, Composers and Publishers and he was a stalwart champion of the copy rights of song writers and composers.  Harris even worked with Warner Bros in the very earliest days of talking movies composing music for film.[17]  Charles K. Harris was even inducted in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1970.

            But the song was larger than he was and it is worth mentioning that Harris continued to relish in the success of the song for the rest of his life.  All of his other published songs subsequently included the tagline “Composer of ‘After the Ball’” above his name on the cover pages to help sell them.  He wrote a screen play for film of the song’s plot in 1910, but it was rejected and was never approved by any studio.  In an early talking video recording, Harris himself sang the tune for the camera.[18]  He even titled his autobiography After the Ball.  But the song has remained a culturally defining moment of the so-called Gay Nineties and is included in the 1927 musical Show Boat, which is partly set during this time.  It also appears in period motion pictures and musicals Lillian Russell (1940), The Jolson Story (1946), and There’s A Girl in My Heart (1950).  “After the Ball” had also been recorded by numerous musicians including Guy Lombardo and Johnny Cash.[19]  Not only did the song have great success, but few other such songs can claim the distinction of being a cultural symbol of an entire era.

            “After the Ball” has the dubious distinction of being an important song in pop history in the amount of change in the industry which followed its success, but also in its composer being the first true one hit wonder.  Within one year of a performance in which its words were forgotten, it became a nation hit that nearly everybody knew.  Thanks to Harris’s tenacity for promotion and the song writing skills he used to popularize the song, it became a big hit.  Although the song changed pop history in nearly every aspect from structure to promotion, Harris did not have another big hit, going on to other arenas of the commercial music industry including the stage and the legal aspects of copyright laws.  But his song continues to have relevance, and it remains a cultural benchmark for the 1890s that people recognize in popular culture.


Blume, Jason.  6 Steps to Songwriting Success:  The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs.  New York:  Billboard Books.  1999.

“Charles K. Harris – After the Ball.”  YouTube video, 3:16.  Posted by “adamgswanson,” on 26 November 2009.

“Charles K. Harris:  Biography.”  Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Accessed on 24 January 2014.

“Charles K. Harris:  Home Exhibit.”  Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Accessed on 24 January 2014.

“Chas K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker.”  The Parlor Songs Academy.  Accessed on 1 February 2014.

Furia, Philip.  The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  1990.

Harris, Charles K.  “After the Ball.”  New York:  Chas. K. Harris & Co.  1892.

Hischak, Thomas S. The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press.  2002.

Stempel, Larry.  Showtime:  A History of the Broadway Musical Theater.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co.  2010.

Whitburn, Joel.  Pop Memories:  1890-1955.  Menomonee, WI:  Record Research Inc.  1966.

[1] Charles K Harris, “After the Ball,” (New York:  Chas. K Harris & Co, 1892).

[2] Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990), 22-23.

[3] Charles K. Harris, qtd in Furia, 23.

[4] Harris, “After the Ball.”

[5] Jason Blume, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success:  The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs, (New York:  Billboard Books, 2001), 4.

[6] Furia, 24.

[7] Larry Stempel. Showtime:  A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 152.

[8] Thomas S Hischak, The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia, (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2002), s.v. “After the Ball,.”

[9] Stempel, 69.

[10] “Charles K Harris:  Home Exhibit,” Song Writers Hall of Fame, accessed on 24 January 2014,

[11] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1955, (Menomonee, WI:  Record Research Inc, 1986), 642.

[12] Furia, 23.

[13] “Charles K Harris:  Biography,” Song Writer’s Hall of Fame, accessed on 24 January 2014,

[14] Caesar Irving, qtd in Furia,19.

[15] Furia, 25.

[16] There are accounts which indicate that “Break the News to Mother” was originally written in 1891 about a dying firefighter, not a soldier.  See “Chas. K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker,” contained on The Parlor Songs Academy, last modified February 2011,

[17] “Chas K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker,” found on The Parlor Songs Academy.

[18] “Charles K Harris – After the Ball,” YouTube video, 3:16, posted by “adamgswanson,” posted on 26 November 2009,

[19] Hischak, 4.