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).

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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

7 responses to “1890s Pop Trend: The Sentimental Ballad”

  1. MICHEAL says :

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    • morganhowland says :

      Thank you for your comment, I appreciate your readership. In regards to the length of my blog posts, I actually thought they were too long. My last post was nearly 3000 words and, in print, eleven pages in length. Even though they are essays, I do not think that lengthier pieces of writing would be pragmatic for this format. After all, isn’t it true showmanship to have the audience waiting for more?
      Thank you again for checking out my blog,
      –Morgan H.

  2. Lizette Darst says :

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  3. Lauren says :

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