Archive | April 2014

Hibernian Numbers: Irish Identity in Popular Song in the Early Twentieth Century

Immigration to America has always been an important component to American culture, but there is an era of history when making the choice of coming to America was not a matter of social preference, but one of life or death. During the summer of 1845, a disease in the Irish potato crop, which consisted of sixty percent of Irish diets, had destroyed crops and created a health calamity for three and a half million people on the island who relied on potatoes for food.[1] Immigration to the United States in total during this decade rose from 78,000 in 1844 to 428,000 in 1854; immigration statistics drop considerably beginning in 1855, when the Great Famine began to ease.[2] Trends in musical entertainment throughout the musical history of America have consequently been influenced by Celtic and Irish musical origins including bluegrass and folk music. During the Ragtime Era, specifically beginning in 1905, annual total immigration to the United States had grown to over one million people[3] and the social fabric and diversity of American had been changed forever. The Ragtime Era had a number of pop trends throughout the 1900s and 1910s like Coon songs, tech songs, Hawaiian songs and Foxtrots, but some of the most enduring and endearing songs came from the trend in Irish songs.Songs like “Danny Boy” (1908), “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (1912) and “Mother Machree” (1911) were not only some of the biggest selling sheet music and records of their relative year, but they continue to be sung and remembered fondly over a century later.

The Irish song trend of the early twentieth century was not only popular, it has the distinction of being one of the very few sub-genres of pop song in which the specific nationality of a population is the main focus of song lyrics. While Coon songs of the era focused on ethnicity, nationality plays an integral role in all aspects of Irish songs. This form of identification in Hibernian songs gives not only Irish description of people, but also geographical context of immigrants away from a land of origin; this identification of nationality is accomplished in various methods in these songs. There are some songs which tell a story of an Irish stereotype for comical effect in a similar manner that Coon songs described African Americans; the purpose of these Irish caricatures was for comical relief. When reviewing the biggest selling songs, the most popular and well-remembered songs reflect national identity in their wistfulness for the old country, express confident identity in their nationality and even share romantic memories and outright homesickness of their characters’ returning to the Emerald Isle. This identity is also articulated in the few nationalist songs in which an independent Ireland has an intellectual advantage of other powerful countries; some lyrics even express angry protest of British rule and oppression.What sets apart Irish songs from other trends of the early twentieth century is that the Irish quality of characters and their distinct point of view are the main features of the songs and that Irish identity, no matter how minute or exaggerated in scope, is always part of the song’s central point.

During the early days of Tin Pan Alley genres like Coon songs or Indian songs like “Navajo” (1904) or “Oglalla,” (1908), genres where a person’s identity is the characteristic feature of the song, often depict this identity by racial caricature. Irish people were also part of stereotyping in pop song, usually comic songs featuring anecdotal situations and stories to get a description of how “the Irish race” acts. Such a stereotype in Irish genre is that of the “Mick,” whose love of physical altercation, drink and boastful Irish pride often lead to compromising and farcical situations, usually told in comical narrative and dialect. Irish stereotyping was nothing new to entertainment by the 1890s, after Irish immigrants came to the United states in the 1840s and 1850, so-called “Paddy actors” brought Irish caricatures to the stage and even popular Irish singer John McCormack began his entertainment career bringing these caricatures to the stage.[4] In the 1889 comic song “Down Went McGinty,” the title character’s feisty personality leads to trouble again and again including falling from a stone wall, burial beneath a pile of coal, and even to his suicide by drowning; all the while “dressed in his best Sunday clothes.”[5] Another comical Mick song, written by George M. Cohan in 1896, “Hugh McCue (You Mick You)” has the title character in a furious altercation with Timmy Murphy, who taunts McCue with the refrain:

Hugh McCue, you Mick, you

You can bet your bottom dollar I can lick you;

Oh, you Mick, I’m going to kick you.

With a knife I’m going to stick you.

I can lick you, Hugh McCue, you Mick, you.[6]

The confrontation is so violent that McCue eventually beats Murphy to death. But there are some songs which are more light-hearted about the stereotypes of the Mick. In the song “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” from 1898, an attendee at a party throws a violent tantrum after finding overalls in the chowder, but after it is revealed that Mrs. Murphy left them there accidentally after washing laundry, the party subsequently breaks into celebratory refrain of the song.[7] It should be noted that the term Mick, although a racial slur today, was an easy rhyming mechanism for lyricists, note the Cohan refrain above, and that such songs were largely for comical effect to tell a humorous story; they were not intended to be taken too seriously and the caricature nationality of the people were meant for entertainment.

On the other hand, songs of a more popular topic, love, have few such caricatures of the Mick and, in fact, in some love songs, Irish nationality is merely a passing description to give lyrical context of the people in the song, not as a source of nationality stereotype of Irish identity. Unlike the comical Mick songs, which brought Irishness to caricature proportions, there is nothing remarkably Irish about love songs. The song “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” from 1896 for example, the title name is of Irish extraction, but there is, however, no inclusion of the word Irish at all in any verse or refrain.[8] Another song, one which also has an Irish love named Rose, “My Wild Irish Rose” from 1899, is more about the character’s expression of love for Rose and the memory of a flower “given to me by a girl that I know”[9] than it is about Irish identity and nationality. A mega-hit from 1903, “Bedelia,” has more detailed description of Irish identity than other love songs; its first verse contains descriptions which are based on Irish geography instead of personal Irish qualities of the object of affection Bedelia,

There’s a charming Irish lady with a roguish winning way,

Who has kept my heart a bumpin’ and a jumpin’ night and day,

She’s a flower from Killarney with a Tipperary smile,

She’s the best that ever came from Erin’s Isle.[10]

But love songs, even Irish loves songs are meant to express love and it appears as though, even when a character’s nationality is part of the environment of the lyrics, love is the central focus, not a character’s national identity. As ubiquitous as love songs are, the Irish version of them has little emphasis on the Irishness of the people in the lyrics and more focus on ideas of romance.

Romanticism included in Hibernian songs is not restricted to love, but also romanticism for the old country of Ireland, and sometimes geography and sentimentality combine to describe situations of lost loves who may still reside in the old country. Such songs are likely to attract the attention of recent Irish immigrants in the United States, some of whom were likely wistful for life in the old country. In these cases, there is more emphasis on nationality as an identity in the sentimental outlook of life in Ireland. An example of old country romanticism can be found in “Where the River Shannon Flows” from 1906, in which a character travels from the new country and returns to a girl in the old country, bridging the romanticism of Ireland and love by describing what will happen when the two separated loves eventually meet,

There’s a pretty spot in Ireland I always claim for my land

Where the fairies and the blarney will never, never die

It’s the land of the shillalah My heart goes back there daily

To the girl I left behind me when we kissed and said goodbye[11]

Romanticism for Ireland is also found in “A Little Bit of Heaven,” a rather fantastic story which narrates the creation of the island, with the land being sprinkled with stardust and then settled by angels.[12] Romanticism and nostalgia for times past in Irish songs, themes which are also found in some sentimental waltz ballads of the 1890s, also use geography as identity by reminiscing about childhood in Ireland and of being comforted by mother; Irish mothers consequently play an important part of this sentimental view of Ireland. In the 1905 hit “Mother Machree” a character shows obliged appreciation for his ageing mother and of all that her fingers “so toil-worn”[13] have done. Another mother song, 1913’s “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (An Irish Lullaby),” a character shares sentimental, comforting memories of childhood in Killarney, and the chorus of the song is composed of the melody of the lullaby that he had heard in childhood, describing it as “just a simple little ditty,” and that he’d “give the world if she could sing that song to me this day.”[14] Such romanticism is unique to songs tying personal identity to geography since it is for a foreign land by people who no longer live there, a topic which may have been popular with recent immigrants to the United States.

Related to the romanticism expressed by some Irish songs of love and of Ireland, there are others where characters feel longing homesickness for Ireland and a desire to go back to the old country. Romantic songs represent remembrances of the old country, but lyrics with homesick characters, describe themselves as physically wanting to return to Ireland since it is the place where their hearts are. In the song “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers” from 1909, an song of Jim O’Shea getting cast away on an “Indian Isle” where he enjoys a high life of luxury. After he sends for his wife Rose Magee to join him, and after her arrival, she pines for a return to the Emerald Isle despite the luxurious surroundings.[15] In “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary” from 1912, a man in the busy centre of London where “the street are paved with gold,” pines for his girl who will likely marry another if he does not go back to Tipperary. Even though there is obligation in his returning, there is genuine homesickness and the character notes that “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary/But my heart’s right there!”[16] “Where the River Shannon Flows” also expresses a character whose heart and love remain in the old country and he declares that he will go back to his homeland “where the fairies and the blarney will never, never die”[17] and in “A Little Bit of Heaven,” there are constant reminders of just how geographically distant Ireland is, presumably from the United States.[18] Homesick songs like these show that, as songs written about foreign people in new lands, they are examples where characters’ nostalgia and homesickness for Ireland, but not for unfortunate circumstances or bad experiences in a new place.

With nationality and Irish identity as the focus of Irish songs, so is the distinct pride in being Irish and while there are examples of an Irishman’s character being boastfully proud of their heritage in songs containing caricatures like in “Down Went McGinty,” in later songs, this pride is undemonstrative for the sake of admiration, not comedy. For example, the 1906 George M. Cohan song “Harrigan,” from the musical Fifty Miles from Boston, introduces the title character as genuinely nice and extremely proud of his Irish heritage; the first verse brings out these ideas, note that a chorus shouting his name according to the sheet music,

Who is the man who will spend or will ever lend?-(Harrigan!)-That’s me!

Who is your friend when you find you need a friend?-(Harrigan!)-That’s Me!

For I’m just as proud of my name, you see

As an emperor, czar or king could be

Who is the man help a man ev’ry time he can?-(Harrigan!)-That’s Me![19]

When Jim O’Shea was cast away in the song “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers,” “the natives there they liked his hair, They liked his Irish smile” so they made him “The Nabob of them all,”[20] then they lavish him with expensive gifts based solely on his Hibernian features. The very basic characteristic of Irish laughter and appearance can melt the whole world away according to the 1902 waltz “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” in which all things Irish are beautiful and awe-inspiring, describing Ireland as a land from which one would be proud and that Irish features and identity equate beauty.[21] However, one dissenting example in which it does not matter what nationality you are or how much pride you have, came from George M. Cohan, writer of “Harrigan.” In his 1907 best-selling march “Under Any Old Flag At All,” the refrain explains that nationality does not matter in the financial scheme of modern America.  

Makes no different if you’re Yankee, English, Irish, Scotch or Dutch,

If your bank checks there and it’s on the square,

You needn’t care if you’re here or there;[22]

Along with songs about a people from a geographically different place feeling sentimentality, there are also Irish songs in which people within their lyrics are proud of their nationality and their Irish extraction.

However the fact remained, no matter the romanticism or pride in Hibernian songs, in the early twentieth century, up until 1922 after the Ragtime Era had ended, Ireland was not an independent nation, it was a part of the United Kingdom ruled from London, and within a genre specifically about Irish identity come stentorian, yet infrequent, protests for Irish nationalism, particularly when calls for Irish independence escalated into violence during the later 1910s. Waltzes and marches were beautiful, sentimental and nostalgic, but nationalist songs made a statement to audiences about the reality of the political status of the Irish in Ireland. In these songs, there is also a collective treatment of Irish people in pop songs, instead of individual feelings of romanticism and memory. There is a slight reach beyond individual pride toward a more collective form of nationalism in the song “A Little Bit of Heaven” with the line “No wonder that we’re proud of that dear land across the sea,”[23] note the collective use of the subject pronoun we and the location of Ireland across the sea from the United States. But there are other examples in which pride goes beyond feelings of being Irish and toward a nationalism of Ireland. One such song, “It Takes the Irish to Beat the Dutch” from 1903, discusses the relative military might of powers Germany and Great Britain, yet the tenacity and whit of Irishmen will always beat both at their own game according to the song.[24] A scathing song of later origin in 1917 from composer Victor Herbert, “The Irish Have a Great Day To-Night” from the musical The Heart of Erin, openly discussed topic of oppression of Irish and the status of Ireland as independent from Great Britain,[25] part of a growing support of Irish Home Rule, with American Irish during World War I supporting Ireland becoming an independent republic.[26] While there are few instances of pop songs of the era expressing political views on the status of Ireland as a nation and the Irish as a collective people of collective origins, by World War I, nationality was turning into Irish nationalism.

During the middle of the Ragtime Era, a popular trend in Irish songs became one of the biggest-selling sheet music and recordings of the times. Recordings of “Harrigan,” “I’ve Got Rings on My Finger,” “Mother Machree,” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” became number on hits on the early Billboard charts.[27] Irish songs like these are different from other pop songs of the era in that they are specifically about being Irish, and their lyrics give social context to Irish identity and nationality in the United States including emotions ranging from longing and homesickness for the old country to enthusiastic pride in characters’ Irish heritage. The range of Irishness in songs is also quite wide from love songs in which Irish nationality is inconsequential to Mick song in which Irish personality traits are enlarged to caricature status, both of which are very different extremes for the genre. But what all of these songs say is that Irish nationality and identity for the characters in the songs is not only a particularly special topic, it is the feature which sets apart Hibernian songs from other genres of the times. Certainly some songs of this era have become standards in Irish song, still popular with audiences over a century after their publication.


Barrett, James R. The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City. New York: Penguin Publishers. 2012.

Coogan, Tim Pat. Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora. New York: Plagrave. 2002.

Quinn, Peter. “The Triumph of Bridget Such-a-One.” Contained in Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press. 2007. 211-230.

Joel Whitburn. Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music. Menomonee Falls, WI. 1986.

The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1911. New York: The Press Publishing (New York World). 1910.

Song List

Ball, Ernest R (music) and Chauncey Olcott and George Graff Jr (lyrics). When Irish Eyes are Smiling. New York: M Witmark & Sons. 1902.

Ball, Ernest R. (music) and J. Kiern Brennan (lyrics). A Little Bit of Heaven (Shure They Call It Ireland). New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1914.

Cohan, George M. Harrigan. Contained in Fifty Miles from Boston. New York: F.A. Mills. 1906.

——-. Hugh McCue (You Mick You). New York: Spaulding & Grey. 1896.

——-. Under Any Old Flag At All. New York: F.A. Mills. 1907.

Flynn, Joseph. Down Went McGinty (Dressed in his Best Suit of Clothes). Brooklyn, NY: Spaulding & Kornder. 1889.

Geifer, George L. Who Threw the Overall’s in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder. Chicago, IL: Calumet Music Co. 1898.

Herbert, Victor (music) and Henry Blossom (lyrics). The Irish Have a Great Day To-Night. Contained in The Hearts of Erin. New York: M Witmark & Sons. 1917.

Judge, Jack and Harry Williams. It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary (The Song They Sing as they March Along). New York: Chappell & Co. 1912.

Morse, Theodore (music) and Edward Madden (lyrics). It Takes the Irish to Beat the Dutch. New York: Howley, Haviland and Dresser. 1903.

Nugent, Maude. Sweet Rosie O’Grady. New York: Jos. W. Stern & Co. 1896.

Olcott, Chauncey. My Wild Irish Rose. New York: M. Witmark & Son. 1899.

Olcott, Chauncey and Ernest R Ball (music) and Rida Johnson Young (lyrics). Mother Machree. New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1905.

Russell, James I. Where the River Shannon Flows. New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1906.

Schwartz, Jean (music) and William Jerome (lyrics). Bedelia. New York: Shapiro, Remick and Company. 1903.

Scott, Maurice (music) and Weston & Barnes (lyrics). I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers (Mumbo Jumbo Jijjiboo J. O’Shay). New York: T.B. Harms & Francis, Day & Hunter. 1909.

Shannon, J.R. Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s An Irish Lullaby). New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1913.


[1] Peter Quinn, “The Triumph of Bridget Such-a-One,” contained in Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America, (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2007), 214.

[2] Immigration into the United States, 1822-1910, contained in The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1911, (New York: The Press Publishing (the New York World), 1910), 184.

[3] Immigration by countries in fiscal years 1909 and 1910, contained in The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1911, (New York: The Press Publishing (the New York World), 1910), 184.

[4] Tim Pat Coogan, Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora, (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 355.

[5] Joseph Flynn, Down Went McGinty (Dressed in his Best Suit of Clothes), (Brooklyn, NY: Spaulding & Kornder, 1889).

[6] George M. Cohan, Hugh McCue (You Mick You), (New York: Spaulding & Grey, 1896).

[7] George L. Geifer, Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder, (Chicago, IL: Calumet Music Co, 1898).

[8] Maude Nugent, Sweet Rosie O’Grady, (New York: Jos. W. Stern & Co, 1896).

[9] Chauncey Olcott, My Wild Irish Rose, (New York: M. Witmark & Son, 1899).

[10] Jean Schwartz (music) and William Jerome (lyrics), Bedelia, (New York: Shapiro, Remick and Company, 1903).

[11] James I. Russell, Where the River Shannon Flows, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1906).

[12] Ernest R. Ball (music) and J. Kiern Brennan (lyrics), A Little Bit of Heaven (Shure They Call It Ireland), (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1914).

[13] Chauncey Olcott and Ernest R Ball (music) and Rida Johnson Young (lyrics), Mother Machree, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1905).

[14] J.R. Shannon, Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s An Irish Lullaby), (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1913).

[15] Maurice Scott (music) and Weston & Barnes (lyrics), I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers (Mumbo Jumbo Jijjiboo J O’shay), (New York: T.B. Harms & Francis, Day & Hunter, 1909).

[16] Jack Judge and Harry Williams, It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary (The Song They Sing as They March Along), (New York: Chappell & Co, 1912).

[17] Russell, Where the River Shannon Flows.

[18] Ball and Brennan, A Little Bit of Heaven.

[19] George M. Cohan, Harrigan, Contained in Fifty Miles from Boston, (New York: F.A. Mills, 1906).

[20] Scott, Weston & Barnes, I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers.

[21] Ernest R. Ball (music) and Chauncey Olcott and George Graff Jr (lyrics), When Irish Eyes are Smiling. (New York: M Witmark & Sons, 1902).

[22] George M. Cohan, Under Any Old Flag At All, (New York: F.A. Mills, 1907).

[23] Ball and Brennan, A Little Bit of Heaven.

[24] Theodore Morse (music) and Edward Madden (lyrics), It Takes the Irish to Beat the Dutch, (New York: Howley, Haviland and Dresser, 1903).

[25] Victor Herbert (music) and Henry Blossom (lyrics), The Irish Have a Great Day To-Night, Contained in The Hearts of Erin, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1917).

[26] James R. Barrett, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, (New York: Penguin Publishers, 2012), 253-254.

[27] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music, (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc, 1986), 642-646.

1900s Pop Trend: Technological Songs

Technology has played a tremendously important role in American popular culture throughout its history, after all, the success of mass entertainment like television, movies, video games and social media depends on audience access to technology. Oftentimes pop culture reflects American fascination with new technology, a notable example of which occurred during the 1950s and 1960s when The Cold War and the Space Race with the Soviet Union helped to create an appetite for Space Age visual art and design. Car models like the Ford Galaxie and the futuristically designed, but poorly selling Edsel featured space age design and architecture featured modern design such as the campus of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.[1] This enthusiasm was also prevalent in entertainment with a plethora of science fiction movies including The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Science fiction also graced network television schedules with programs like Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Star Trek, and The Jetsons. Music also reflected these themes as well, including two of the best-known space songs, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (1972) and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (1969). The Ragtime Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also saw a number of technological innovations and the music industry embraced this trend with songs about telephones, airplanes, and automobiles, songs which catered to Americans’ fascination with these new technologies.

While technology changed many aspects of American society during this era, from the way people worked to the way they travelled, Americans were also enjoying more leisure time, and technology consequently influenced this aspect of life as well.   Urban Americans were introduced to new inventions in working life with elevators, street cars, industrial sewing machines and typewriters. Leisure activity was undergoing technological changes as well; talking machines were becoming common in social spaces and in homes and telephones became a domestic appliance connecting people of long distances. Eventually, automobiles and airplanes changed methods of transport and moving pictures became an entertainment technology that outpaced vaudeville shows in popularity during the 1910s. These changes in leisure and social life are present in numerous technology songs of the era; song lyrics not only focus on characters enjoying their leisure time, but illustrate their active use of new inventions for this entertaining purpose, including bicycles and movies. As well, telephone songs contained lyrics written as dialogue between people talking on the telephone and songs about transportation mention going places, but also the limitless Air Age possibilities unleashed by transport. However, not all songs were celebratory about amusement or technology, some mention the difficulties in interacting with new things and the disruption in social order that entertainments bring. Tech songs of the era show the changing nature of technological American life during the early twentieth century.

During the later half of the nineteenth century, America was undergoing both an Industrial Revolution in the methods which goods were mass produced in factories, but also in technology that was bound to permanently transform the social lives of Americans. Cities themselves had taken steps towards modern function with new sewer and water systems, building codes, subway systems and utilities offering electricity to homes.[2] Automation also changed diets with the coin-operated Automat and the first developments of fast food, available for customers with the drop of a coin from vending machines.[3] Inventors of new technology like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and George Eastman were not only financially successful businessmen, they were also admired, enjoying a high level of celebrity. Urban Americans were also experiencing a upsurge in leisure time away from work after efficient automation in the workplace reduced the time employees spent at work and mass entertainment subsequently developed with the growing popularity of vaudeville stage shows, musicals, outdoor exercise and baseball games. Later on, technology caught up with this trend in leisure and by 1890, public arcades of phonographs made entertainment available for a nickel per play; Edison’s Kinetoscopes, the first moving pictures, also debuted in this manner in 1894.[4] During the Gilded Age, technology was not only changing American industrial society, but also the ways in which Americans were spending their leisure time.

Popular recordings had already begun to reflect the changes in American mass popular culture as early as 1893 when the Phonograph was still a relatively new curiosity with the public. The comic narrative recordings Cal Stewart were particularly fashionable; his main character Uncle Josh Weatherby engaged in various forms of entertainment popular during the Gilded Age. Uncle Josh did everything that was en vogue in American culture of the times; he played baseball, ate at public cafeterias, participated in the census, drove automobiles, went to department stores, went to Coney Island, an engaged in many, many more activities.   His monologues and dialogues helped to reflect what the new urban, modern audience was experiencing in daily life and achieved success exclusively on record, since the Uncle Josh skits were not music, and could not be sold in sheet music format for play at home on the piano. Such “Yankee Stories” of Stewart’s gained the public’s attention and became so tremendously successful that Victor and Columbia Records battled in 1906 for his contract and the eventual profits from the sale of his popular records.[5] Likewise, the pioneering recordings of Russell Hunting, original performer of the famous baseball poem “Casey at the Bat” in 1893, made many sensational records about the popular culture adventures and often lewd dialogues of the character Michael Casey. By 1900, Americans who were experiencing new forms of leisure and technology had an entertaining outlet with such recordings; Americans could hear on record that characters like Uncle Josh or Michael Casey were experiencing similar cultural moments, which were presumably relatable to the audience.

The basic content of songs about leisure and technology illustrate characters in their lyrics having fun and enjoying themselves; showing the audience what characters in songs do with their own free time. The 1902 Harry von Tilzer song “On a Sunday Afternoon” details a relaxing, yet hectic Sunday afternoon of leisure which includes everything from a train ride to Rockaway to a trip to Coney Island before returning to “working hard on Monday.”[6] The Kerry Mills hit “Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis” earned topical popularity in 1904 with lyrics which tell a story of a woman packing up her belongings, leaving her boring life and seeing the excitements of the St Louis World’s Fair of that year, leaving a note that reads, “Louis dear, it’s too slow for me here, So I think I will go for a ride” and suggests that Louis meet her at the Fair.[7] Other than telling stories of characters enjoying leisure time, there are also songs which had been influential in creating trends of pop culture of technology for leisure and entertainment. For example, the 1892 Harry Dacre song “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)” helped to inspire a national craze for leisurely bicycle riding between 1893 and 1896,[8] even though the lyrics of the song are about a marriage proposal, not about bicycles as the subtitle of the song suggests. In these songs, leisure time is exposed in lyrics, and there are even songs whose popularity created fascination with entertainment technology.

Other than leisure and technology meeting in song lyrics, transportation songs involving automobiles and airplanes gave the setting of the song’s action and literally house the plot of the song. New transportation like automobiles and the recent success of the first airplane flight by William and Orville Wright in 1903 captivated the nation with the possibilities of the pace of technological invention in the “Air Age” of the “century of progress.”[9] Songwriters and lyricists do not simply capture the song’s plot within their environs, they also give the impression that travel anywhere is possible in flying machines and automobiles. The 1904 hit “Come Take a Trip in My Air-Ship” published the year following the Wright Brother’s successful first flight, details a sailor’s invitation to fly in the air, but also to “Come, have a ride around Venus/Come have a spin around Mars”[10] which is an obvious overstatement of the machine’s capabilities. A lyric from the 1910 Fred Fischer waltz “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine (Up She Goes)” also uses an intergalactic description, by warning of hitting the moon while a couple has fun flying.[11] The 1905 song “In My Merry Oldsmobile” has a chorus in which a couple gets away in the new Oldsmobile, in which case the possibilities of life and their relationship are endless in the vehicle:

Come away with me, Lucille, In my merry Oldsmobile

Down the road of life we’ll fly Automobubbling you and I

To the church we’ll swiftly steal, Then our wedding bells will peel

You can go as far as you like with me, In my merry Oldsmobile.[12]

The 1909 Gus Edwards song “Up in My Aeroplane,” the central character ponders his failure to woo a girl despite his impressive collection of the latest vehicles, whether avian, aquatic or terrestrial:

You’ve taken a spin in my auto, You’ve sailed in my big steam yacht,

You’ve oft been afloat in my motor boat, And still do you love me not?

If you envy the flight of the seagull, A far better bird I will find.

It is one of those things that can fly without wings, for it carries two motors behind.[13]

In these cases, the songwriter uses the technology as not an active part of the song’s story, but rather as the setting of the action of the song and also showing the possibilities of the characters’ leisurely travels.

Another facet becomes apparent when examining technological songs, that being entertained by amusement introduced by technology is an important theme. “Meet Me in St Louis, Louis” is not just about going to the St Louis World’s Fair, but rather what happens when Louis eventually gets there and the excitement of what the amusements of the fair can offer attendees.[14] The song works at not just supplying audiences with a catchy tune, but also an advertisement for the World’s Fair. The 1914 song “He’s Working in the Movies Now” is not only about a person’s indolent father finally finding work, but it also offers a catalogue of the things that an audience may see at a picture show including a train robbery, an aerial police chase, and a bullfight.[15] When audiences saw early film star Charlie Chaplin on screen in 1915, a whole genre subsequently came into fashion about the popular actor, including songs like the “Charlie Chaplin Foxtrot,” “Those Charlie Chaplin Feet,” “The Charlie Chaplin Walk,” and “Funny Charlie Chaplin.” Many of these songs focus on what audiences were seeing in the movies, including the humorous slapstick nature of his film characters and especially his comical shoe size and gait.[16]  While there are tech songs which focus on the inherent entertainment value of the machine, in others, there is additional entertainment value in amusement provided by machine.

Telephones were also technological topics of songs, but their place and use in songs is much different from other forms of invention. Continuing the communication expansion introduced by the telegraph, telephones shrank social distances by connecting people directly by speech and many songs describe characters connecting with each other; their lyrical contents consequently composed of telephone dialogue. Unlike songs about leisure, entertainment or transportation, the lyrics of telephone songs are actually transmitted through the machine, communicating words in the ways that audiences would when using the phone. The technology of talking on the phone was so new and novel that telephone etiquette was a skill that the public had to learn, including to use the word “hello” to answer the telephone[17] and songwriters invariably included this word as either part of their lyrics or in the title. In the 1899 Ida Emerson song “Hello! Ma Baby” a man tries to connect with his “ragtime gal” on the telephone, but has technical difficulties and needs to check the connection repeatedly by saying “hello.”[18] The Charles K. Harris tearjerker waltz ballad from 1901, “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven,” tells the tale of a child trying to connect with central so he can talk to his dead mother in Heaven.[19] The ability to communicate with far off places was big news during the 1910s and songs reflected public enthusiasm for these technological developments. The song “Hello Frisco!” became a hit what the first transcontinental telephone connection had been completed in 1915 and the song “Hello Hawaii How Are You?” celebrates Hawaii’s wireless radio connection with the United States of earlier in that decade.[20] According to song lyrics, connecting with people by telephone seems to be more personal and novel than other forms of technological songs of the era.

However, no matter what technological age, there are difficulties that people find with using new inventions and their social consequences of amusement popularity. Songs sometimes comically illustrate the character’s frustrations with using new technology. The 1907 song “I Think I Oughtn’t Auto Anymore” addresses the annoyance, expense and technological complexity of the early automobile.

Last night I had a breakdown, and I almost gave up hope;

A washer came apart, That’s why it wouldn’t start.

I sent a boy for washers, but he was an awful dope;

He brought me back a scrubbing brush, a towel and some soap![21]

The song “Hello Hawaii How Are You?” while celebrating the ability of contacting Hawaii by telephone from New York, the central character constantly complains about the cost of using this technology, the character “pawn[s] everything he owns” to call Hawaii and only then has enough time to say hello.[22] Songs also illustrate the social consequences of having new things at one’s disposal as well. For example, the main character of the 1914 song “They Start the Victrola” purchases one so that no one can gaze at his wife and, since the purchase of the machine, “they never go out anymore.”[23] In some Chaplin songs, there is great concern that wives will stay at the movie theatre too long and forget to prepare their husband’s supper.[24] Irving Berlin’s “I Want to Go Back to Michigan” explores a new “urban rube” who is both fascinated by the wonders of the city, but wishes to escape the hectic urban life for the simpler times of his childhood Michigan farm.[25] While being entertained with new technologies in transportation and entertainment can be fun, there are many songs in which the technology has consequences for their users, including the difficulties of their use, the changing relationship that people have with each other and the overall changing pace of American urban life, despite the increased leisure time.

Technological change has continued throughout the course of American history and has continued to get the attention of musical audiences during that time, including a number of new and innovative ways in which people have access to music reproduction and recording. But at the turn of the century, there was something particularly special about this moment in pop song history, including the new technologies which caught people’s attention, the newly gained leisure time to enjoy such novelties and curiosities and to hear songs about being entertained. But there were also song which both celebrated the use of new machines and technologies and entertainments, but warned of their difficulty in use, expense or their social implications of having technology replace otherwise traditional means of entertainment.


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

Carter, Bill and Bill Young. The 1964-1965 New York’s World’s Fair. Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing. 2004.

De Koven, Reginal. “Music-Halls and Popular Songs.” The Cosmopolitan. September 1897.

Diehl Lorraine B. and Marianne Hardart. Automats: The History, Recipes and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers. 2002.

Krulwich, Robert. Krulwich Wonders: Robert Krulwich on Science (blog). National Public Radio.

Sutton, Allan. “Cal Stewarts Recording Contract.” Mainspring Press: Resources for Collectors of Historic Sound Recordings, American Recording Pioneers. 2009.

Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi. America: A Narrative History, vol 2. 8th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2010.

Van Riper, A. Bowdoin. Imagining Flight: Aviation and Popular Culture. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press. 2004.

Songs Cited:

Abrahams, Maurice (music) and Grant Clarke (lyrics). They Start the Victrola (And Go Dancing Around the Floor). New York: Maurice Abrahams Music Co. 1914.

Barton, Roy (music) and William A Downs (lyrics). That Charlie Chaplin Walk. Chicago, IL: Harold Rossiter Music Co. 1915.

Berlin, Irving. I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm). New York: Waterson, Berlin & Snyder. 1914.

Bryan, Vincent. I Think I Oughtn’t Auto Anymore. New York: Maurice Shapiro. 1907.

Edwards, Gus. Up In My Aeroplane. New York: Gus Edwards Music Publishing Co. 1909.

Edwards, Gus (music) and Vincent Bryan (lyrics). In My Merry Oldsmobile. New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1905.

Emerson, Ida and Joseph E. Howard. Hello! Ma Baby. New York: T.B. Harms. 1899.

Evans, Geroge (music) and Ren Shields (lyrics). Come Take a Trip in My Air Ship. New York: Chas. K Harris. 1904.

Fischer, Fred (music) and Alfred Bryan (lyrics). Come Josephine in My flying Machine. New York: Shapiro. 1910.

Gottler, Archie (music) and Edgar Leslie (lyrics). Those Charlie Chaplin Feet. New York: Maurice Abrahams Music. 1915.

Harris, Charles K. Hello Central, Give Me Heaven. New York: Chas K. Harris. 1901.

Kalmar, Bert and Edgar Leslie (music) and Jean Schwartz (lyrics). Hello, Hawaii, How Are You?. New York: Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co. 1915.

Mills, Kerry (music) and Andrew B. Sterling (lyrics). Meet Me in St Louis, Louis. New York: F.A. Mills. 1904.

Von Tilzer, Harry (music) and Andrew B Sterling (lyrics). On A Sunday Afternoon. New York: Harry Von Tilzer music Publishing. 1902.


Murray, Billy (performer). He’s Working in the Movies Now. 1914. Victor Records. 78rpm disc.


[1] For an illustrated look at the architecture of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, see Bill Carter and Bill Young, The 1964-1965 New York’s World’s Fair, (Chicago, IL: Arcadia Publishing, 2004).

[2] Tindall, George Brown and David Emory Shi, America: A Narrative History, vol 2, 8th ed., (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 826-831.

[3] Lorraine B. Diehl and Marianne Hardart, Automats: The History, Recipes and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece, (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2002), 12.

[4] Thomas A Edison, qtd in Neil Baldwin, Edison: Inventing the Century, (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 241.

[5] Sutton, Allan, “Cal Stewarts Recording Contract,” Mainspring Press: Resources for Collectors of Historic Sound Recordings, American Recording Pioneers, 2009,

[6]Harry Von Tilzer (music) and Andrew B Sterling (lyrics), On A Sunday Afternoon, (New York: Harry Von Tilzer music Publishing, 1902).

[7]Kerry Mills (music) and Andrew B. Sterling (lyrics), Meet Me in St Louis, Louis, (New York: F.A. Mills, 1904).

[8] Reginald de Koven, “Music-Halls and Popular Songs,” The Cosmopolitan, September 1897, 71-72.

[9] A. Bowdoin van Riper, Imagining Flight: Aviation and Popular Culture, (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2004), 12-13.

[10]Geroge Evans (music) and Ren Shields (lyrics), Come Take a Trip in My Air Ship, (New York: Chas. K Harris, 1904).

[11]Fred Fischer (music) and Alfred Bryan (lyrics), Come Josephine in My Flying Machine, (New York: Shapiro, 1910).

[12]Gus Edwards (music) and Vincent Bryan (lyrics), In My Merry Oldsmobile, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1905).

[13] Gus Edwards, Up In My Aeroplane, (New York: Gus Edwards Music Publishing Co, 1909).

[14]Mills and Sterling, Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis.

[15] Billy Murray (performer), “He’s Working in the Movies Now,” 1914, Victor Records, 78rpm disc.

[16]Archie Gottler (music) and Edgar Leslie (lyrics), Those Charlie Chaplin Feet, (New York: Maurice Abrahams Music,1915).

[17] Robert Krulwich, “A (Shockingly) Short History of ‘Hello,” Krulwich Wonders: Robert Krulwich on Science (blog), National Public Radio, 17 February 2011,

[18]Ida Emerson and Joseph E. Howard, Hello! Ma Baby, (New York: T.B. Harms, 1899).

[19]Charles K. Harris, Hello Central, Give Me Heaven, (New York: Chas K. Harris, 1901).

[20]Bert Kalmar and Edgar Leslie (music) and Jean Schwartz (lyrics), Hello, Hawaii, How Are You?, (New York: Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co, 1915).

[21]Vincent Bryan, I Think I Oughtn’t Auto Anymore, (New York: Maurice Shapiro, 1907).

[22]Kalmar, Leslie and Schwartz, Hello Hawaii, How Are You?

[23] Maurice Abrahams (music) and Grant Clarke (lyrics), They Start the Victrola (And Go Dancing Around the Floor), (New York: Maurice Abrahams Music Co, 1914).

[24]Roy Barton (music) and William A Downs (lyrics), That Charlie Chaplin Walk, (Chicago, IL: Harold Rossiter Music Co, 1915).

[25]Irving Berlin, I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm), (New York: Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, 1914).

Song Treatments: Marketing the Pop Song Product in Two Formats

In the twenty-first century, the availability of the pop song is higher than it has ever been and people have the potential to hear songs, past and present, whether shopping at the grocery store or watching television commercials that advertise everything from paint to cars. Thanks to technology and social media and many upcoming artists get initial mass-exposure with an upload to an online streaming video service. For example, Justin Bieber’s popularity exploded after the song “Baby” had earned great success on YouTube in 2010. Some songs become worldwide cultural memes with this method like “Gagnam Style” from Korean pop star Psy, or “The Fox” from Norwegian comic team Ylvis, both of which have hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. In the 2010s, having online exposure and getting one hundred million views of music videos are not just common, they are expected components of the media campaign of getting pop songs to market, even posted for free on video streaming sites like Vimeo or YouTube. However, during the early twentieth century, getting exposure was hard work which meant dealing with the rigours of Show Biz to get consumers to purchase sheet music and difficult work by harnessing technology in bringing such titles to the home talking machines like the Phonograph and the Victrola.

During the 1900s, popular music underwent a mechanical revolution with the growing popularity of talking machines, yet sheet music still remained a popular format. Consequently, music marketing had split between two distinct business ventures; music publishers looked to sell copies of sheet music, while record companies were interested in selling machines and recorded music to play on them. The physical products show the differences in marketing quite distinctly; sheet music was colourful in artwork and contained plenty of publicity materials, but records were nondescript, featuring the title, the name of recording artist and of course the name of the company. Major music publishing firms like M. Witmark, Whitney Warner Music or Jerome H. Remick marketed music by including songs in popular stage performances of vaudeville and Broadway musicals. Publishers also relentlessly plugged music in public to potentially gain the potential customers’ attention. However record companies like Edison, Columbia and Victor, did not need to market the individual songs of Tin Pan Alley, since, by the time such songs found their way to record, an audience was already likely to have exposure to the titles. Instead, record companies relied on marketing their machines and their format, each company sometimes releasing the same songs. Music publishers created and promoted hit songs, but record companies, who had been allowed to record whatever music they wanted thanks to antiquated copyright laws, capitalized on their popularity by recording and selling already popularized hit songs.

An antecedent to a song’s becoming a hit includes a mass audience’s exposure to it. In the twenty-first century, this is often accomplished by commercial radio or by mobile apps like Pandora or Spotify. Understanding how a published song became a hit in an era when there was no television, radio, internet and limited silent motion pictures requires some investigation of how people were introduced to a new song. During the early twentieth century, introducing a song was accomplished by bringing it to the stage, most notably vaudeville shows, the most popular form of stage entertainment of the era.[1] The vaudeville circuit and national tours of musicals, follies, extravaganzas and burlesques brought uniform stage performances to local theatres across the country, including a plethora of musical material direct from Tin Pan Alley.[2] Some musical composers earned great success with their musical shows. George M. Cohan earned three of the biggest hits of 1905, “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “You’re a Grand Old Rag” after audiences heard them in his blockbuster musical The Yankee Doodle Boy.[3] Bert Williams, one of the leading stars of vaudeville, gained widespread fame after his signature hit song “Nobody” had been included in the musical Bandanna Land in 1905[4] and later gained more exposure with its inclusion in the extravagant Ziegfeld Follies of 1910.[5] Another method of getting a wider audience was to find some way to incorporate the song into a musical already in production. For example, the song “The Glow-Worm” was originally a German operatic tune from 1902, but after its inclusion in the 1907 musical The Girl Behind the Counter, introduced by singer May Naudain, it sold over a million copies of sheet music.[6] Introducing songs on stage allowed people to hear fresh, new musical products for later purchase.

When purchasing the music at the music department of a store, customers were not acquiring a live performance, they were purchasing sheet music and besides the actual song within the pages of vocal solo and piano accompaniment, customers were purchasing a whole package of marketing materials. Oftentimes, a composer’s name on the cover was enough to sell the song’s product, the composer’s name an integral part of the cover designs and illustrations on the package. Elaborate cover art helped illustrate the content of the song to give a portrait of what the consumer was purchasing, along with the genre like “waltz,” “two step,” and, later on, “foxtrot.” A portrait of the performer who initially “introduced” the song usually “with tremendous success”[7] were also prominently featured as part of the product. But songs were released by large publishing houses who were also interested in selling even more music. Back pages of sheet music featured a catalogue of the composer’s other less successful works, many of which were advertised as “hits” when they in fact were not, the term exploited to sell more music to interested customers.[8] Music also including an introductory sample of music so that consumers could “try this on the home piano” and to challenge their skills on forthcoming titles. For music publishers, they were not only selling the music, but also producing promotional packages including advertising for other titles in their catalogues.

Like any other kind of business involved in selling products, music publishers and composers needed to advertise their songs apart from the stage, in sometimes ruthless and unrelenting ways. For example, in 1892, Charles K Harris gained the biggest hit of the nineteenth century, “After the Ball,” after he had bribed a singer and conductor to jostle it into a Milwaukee performance of another composer’s musical.[9] Another method for gaining attention for a song, was the use of a plugger or a “singing stooge.” Music publishers and composers hired singers to publicly sing refrains and verses wherever they could for the chance that the public could remember the tunes later when browsing through music sections in shops. Composer Irving Berlin got his start in the music industry by plugging songs in this manner, hired by composer Harry von Tilzer to plug his songs at Tony Pastor’s, a forerunner in vaudeville theatre.[10] Some even paid “piano girls” to work in piano sections of department stores to play their songs for customers browsing for instruments and sheet music.[11] Stealing others’ music was also common by so-called “cuff boys” attending concerts and taking the ideas from unpublished works, then publishing them for their own gains. The composer Irving Jones who was illiterate in music was victim of such cuff boys countless times, according to Morgan and Barlow.[12] During an era when the goal was to sell the product, there were few marketing tools that music publishers did not exploit to arouse publicity of the latest music and products of their firms.

But also during the mid-1900s, the musical landscape was changing with the growing popularity of talking machines like the Phonograph or the latest technological marvel, the hornless Victrola, introduced in 1906. Although sheet music and home piano sales were still enjoying success, the talking machine was becoming a useful entertainment appliance for the home simultaneously. Machines prices had fallen quickly and machines were available in their own prominently displayed sections in department stores; consumer availability consequently was approaching its zenith. Machines were also becoming more aesthetically pleasing for the home with decorative horns and cases, which enticed consumers to purchase them.[13] But for record companies, marketing music was secondary to marketing machines, after all, if a customer purchased a machine, then they were likely to purchase music to play on it. In advertisements, the novelty of the machine itself was the focus and in record catalogues, there are only brief descriptions of the new titles available for purchase without spectacle.[14] For early record companies, it seems as though they were confident that customers of their machines would buy popular music, and individual titles were not marketed as heavily as music publishing firms.

The nature of the pre-recorded disc or cylinder was fundamentally different from the published sheet music; sheet music required play at home, while the machine simply required a wind of the motor and a drop of the needle despite some playback problems. Creating the consumer product of recordings in this early era was difficult industry itself and selecting singers and musicians was key in making quality music. Recording artists were hired by record studios depending on how well they could record certain types of songs, for example, Arthur Collins and Len Spencer made recording careers by performing coon songs and rags, even though both had been classically trained opera tenors. Singers Billy Murray and Harry Macdonough recorded songs with Irish vocals and dialects, Macdonough himself, an Irish immigrant. Even though the singers were quite talented, their recordings had lower fidelity sound quality compared to live play on the home piano. Oftentimes, even new recordings had problems with basic intelligibility. For example, the narrative recordings of humorist Cal Stewart, whose Uncle Josh records commented on popular culture events of the day, are virtually unintelligible when played on a talking machine.[15] The Victorla, which had become a popular culture phenomenon during the early 1910s, had much worse sound quality than external horn machines, but the hornless marvel still sold well.[16] The records themselves were minimal in packaging and aesthetic appeal compared to the packaging of sheet music. Cylinders were sold in non-descript canisters and packaging for flat records included enveloped which extolled the benefits of the record company rather than the title in its sleeve, and on the records during this period, the recording artist’s name was featured, not the composer or lyricist.[17] Despite the marketing of machines by record companies and the success they were enjoying in sales, their products were somewhat inferior in quality than music played on the home piano.

Beyond the physical product of recorded music, record companies did not promote individual songs as actively as publishers, but they still recorded hits out of commercial necessity. This is where the genius of the talking machine lies, with the opportunity to sell best-selling songs with which the audience was already familiar. While publishers gambled on which songs would sell well, record companies could wait and see what titles consumers were purchasing, and then make recordings of them for sale on their unique machine formats. There is generally a one year lag time between a song’s copyright date in print and the appearance of the same song on early Billboard music charts of the era. But a song’s treatment in sheet form legally was different than the recorded form during this time. The copyright laws of the United States in effect during this time dated from 1790, and did not include coverage of commercial sound recordings of songs.[18] The issue troubled President Theodore Roosevelt so much that the subject appeared in his 1905 Address to Congress, saying that “[copyright laws] omit provision for many articles which, under modern reproductive processes are entitled to protection.”[19] Consequently, companies could record and profit from pop songs without reimbursing the songwriter, the publisher or whoever owns the song’s copyright.[20] Craig Roell points out, however, that publishers encouraged recording their songs to get a broader audience despite the copyright situation.[21] For a few brief years, until 1909 when new copyright laws were enacted to include provisions for publisher royalties, there was little control over the recorded music market and even after the law’s passage, outright copyright infringement of musical publication was a civil offense, not a criminal one.[22] With no copyright in existence for sound recordings, and three big record companies vying for sales of records, sometimes three different versions of the same song appear on early music charts, each on separate labels. Songs like “In the Good Old Summer Time” (1903), “Love Me and the World is Mine,” (1906) and “Bedelia” (1903) each have multiple entries from the big three record companies on early Billboard charts.[23] While music publishers had to take chances on the potential hits of their song writers, record companies had the technological advantage of a consumer waiting for the title to appear on record.

These treatments in the pop song during this era shows that, while the same song appeared in two different formats and enjoyed relative success on both, their marketing for their format was quite different. Music publishers used various kinds of methods in promoting new songs of the day, including turning the consumer product into the promotional material and even taking the chance of hiring singers to plug the music in public and the bold step of interpolating their songs in other composers’ works. Record companies did not use such tactics, instead, they relied on advertising the new technology and assumed that the most popular title would eventually enter the record market and subsequently into the consumers’ homes. The actual products are quite different as well with sheet music illustrated, packed with promotional materials and, of course, the music. But in records, there was no such flashy packaging. This era in pop song history was unique since it was the first in which two formats, print and record, existed simultaneously in pop culture.


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

Forbes, Camille F. Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Corks, Broadway and the Story of America’s First Black Star. New York: BasicBooks. 2008.

Freeland, David. Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure. New York: New York University Press. 2009.

Furia, Philip. Irving Berlin: A Life in Song. New York: Schirmer Books. 1998.

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

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

Hyland, William G. The Song is Ended: Songwriters and American Music: 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University Press. 1995.

Morgan, Thomas L and William Barlow. From Cakewalks to Concert Hals: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930. Washington, DC: Elliott & Clark Publishing. 1992.

Roell, Craig H. The Piano in America: 1890-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1989.

Roosevelt, Theodore. Fifth Annual Message to Congress. 5 December 1905. Contained in The State of the Union Message of the Presidents: 1790-1966. Vol 3, 1905-1966. Edited by Fred L Israel. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1966. 2144-2194.

Stein, Charles W. American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries. New York: Alfred A Knoff. 1984.

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

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

Whitburn, Joel. Pop Memories 1890-1955: The History of American Popular Music. Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc. 1986.


Cal Stewart (performer). “Uncle Josh Takes the Census.” 1921. Victor Record. Victor-1640. 78rpm disc.


[1] Charles W. Stein, American Vaudeville as Seen By Its Contemporaries, (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 1984), xi.

[2] Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 41.

[3] William G. Hyland, The Song is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 12.

[4] Larry Stempel, Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 92.

[5] Camille F. Forbes, Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Corks, Broadway and the Story of America’s First Black Star, (New York: BasicBooks, 2008), 179-180.

[6]Thomas S Hischak, The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopaedia, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 117.

[7] For an example of how all of these characteristics appear on sheet music, see Harry von Tilzer (music) and Andrew Sterling (lyrics), Wait ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, (New York: Harry von Tilzer, 1905).

[8] David Freeland, Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville, (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 89-90.

[9] Stempel, 152.

[10] Philip Furia, Irving Berlin: A Life in Song, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998), 16.

[11]Craig H. Roell, The Piano in America: 1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 34.

[12] Thomas L. Morgan and William Barlow, From Cakewalks to Concert Halls: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930, (Washington, DC: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1992), 48.

[13] Timothy C. Fabrizio and George F Paul, The Talking Machine, an Illustrated Compendium: 1877-1929, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997), 126.

[14] Advertisement for Edison Gold Moulded Record, May 1907, found on, accessed on 10 April 2014,

[15] Cal Stweart (performer), “Uncle Josh Take the Census,” 1921, Victor Record, Victor-1640, 78rpm disc.

[16] Fabrizio and Paul, 156.

[17] Examination of title in the author’s personal record collection contemporaneous with this era.

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

[19]Theodore Roosevelt, “Fifth Annual Message to Congress,” 5 December 1905, contained in The State of the Union Message of the Presidents: 1790-1966, vol 3, 1905-1966, edited by Fred L Israel, (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1966), 2182.

[20] Roell, 59.

[21] ibid.

[22] Copyright Law of the United States (1909), contained in Linda A. Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law: A Beginner’s Guide, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[23] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1955: The History of American Popular Music, (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc, 1986), 644-645.

Love Songs Throughout the Decades, Pt 1: The 1900s

The love song owns a particularly special place within pop song history; its popularity spans the whole history of commercial popular music and some of the most celebrated artists have capitalized on consumer demand for the sentimentality of love songs. Love songs launched the careers of Elvis Presley and the Beatles into a frenzy of pop culture superstardom; after all, hits like Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” and the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” and “Help!” all express the emotions of love; consequently becoming some of the most commercially successful songs of their relative year. Even though pop song history is currently in the Club Banger Age, which is generally lacking in romantic feelings and loving sentiment, there are still pop songs written about love and all the personal drama concerning it, including the more modern development of the celebratory break-up song like Kelly Clarkson’s 2004 hit “Since U Been Gone,” Pink’s 2012 hit “(Blow Me) One Last Kiss” or Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” from 2007. Although the Ragtime Era of the early twentieth century is generally known for more raucous piano music and happy escapism of coon songs, love songs became one of the biggest selling genres of the early twentieth century.

As the popularity of the sentimental ballad of the 1890s had begun to fade around the beginning of the Ragtime Era, a change in song writing technique was taking place in Tin Pan Alley. Instead of penning lyrics which told a story with long lines of verse like those used in ballads, songwriters and lyricists, began to sketch general situations with shorter, simpler lyrics. For example, coon songs give a general snapshot of African American culture, rather than tell a detailed story about it, and love songs accomplish this with general themes about emotion related to love. In the following example from the 1906 hit “Love Me and the World is Mine,” the lyrics have rather flowery language in an era when vernacular colloquialisms were fashionable, sketching an emotion, love, rather than containing it in a complex narrative,

My soul soars to realms above,

Thro’ mystic land it seems to go,

As if ‘twere borne on wings of love,

The love that only angels know.[1]

The ways in which such emotion in a love song is sketched is through the use of a character expressing his own feelings. The inherent characteristic of love is that one person has feelings for another and, as can be expected, love songs from this era have characters expressing emotion, however there are two very different methods used by songwriters for this purpose. Sentimental love songs, which often use lyrics of nostalgia, dreaming and pining, while song which profess one’s love actively actually address another person. The consequences of these two kinds of techniques lead to various idiosyncrasies in the format; sentimental songs never address anyone directly, and less sentimental songs sometimes portray reconciling a break-up by direct speech between characters. But perhaps the most striking feature of the love song from this period, whether sentimental or not, is that there are few conclusions to the situations of characters expressing love.

Like sentimental ballads of the 1890s, sentimental love songs of the Ragtime Era express feelings of sadness by the character in the song and provoke the same with an audience. While ballads were written about people using third person narration, love songs were largely written in first person and from a male point-of-view; the sad sentiment consequently is expressed by the central character rather than through storytelling. The main character of the 1904 song “You’re the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Adeline,” sits alone by himself, lost in his own emotion,

If it than I wonder where you are my darling,

And if you heart to me is still the same,

For the sighing wind and nightingales a-singing

Are breathing only you own sweet name.[2]

The main character in the 1898 song “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” whose “enraptur’d soul” is pining for a girl who has grown apart, dreaming of their wedding; the two never actually meeting the lyrics of the song.[3] Sentimental ballads usually narrate a story of tragedy for the sake of sadness for the audience, while sentimental love songs dwell on sad emotions of loneliness of lack of love. For example, the character in the 1909 hit “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” expresses his own sadness about thinking of who is kissing his girl, and suggests that the listener should also “feel wretched and lonely and blue.”[4]Not only are characters of sentimental songs lonely, they are alone, and their expressions of love are not directly towards anyone, instead such songs are used for sentimental effect.

The methods in which sentiment is established in love songs are quite unlike ballads, whose sentiment lie in the sad conclusion of the story. For love songs, the sentiment is in the emotion of the character relayed to the audience. This technique is exemplified by three prominent features of love songs, through the use of fantasy and dreaming, nostalgic remembrances of when he was happy and through the inactive pining over a lost love. The trend is quite apparent in title of the 1909 hit “Meet Me To-Night in Dreamland,” in which two separated lovers will be united in a dream.[5] The speaker in the 1912 song “Moonlight Bay” sits dreaming of being united, thinking about the memories of him and his lover “as in the days of yore.”[6] “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,” in its combination of second person verse and first person refrain, suggests that the audience feel sentimental nostalgia along with the central character when thinking about their own lost love.[7] In sentimental songs, not only do the central characters simply pine over their girls, they also lose themselves in worlds of fantasy like nostalgia for happiness and dreams of the couple finally finding a happy conclusion.

The use of emotion in these sentimental songs shows that they were used for purely emotional purposes since there are few cases in which the situation of pining and loneliness are resolved. While waltz ballads have a conclusion to their stories, situations in love songs are often open-ended, the character remains lost in dreaming, nostalgic for the past and the two loves never actually get together. For example in the 1898 song “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” the speaker in the song knows that “it would ease me broken heart/To hold you in my arms just once again,”[8] which does not happen at the conclusion of the song. In the 1900 song “I Can’t Tell You Why I Love You But I Do,” a boy asks a girl if he “loved in vain,” her simple replay is “No,” and she then wonders “why you love me so well.”[9] His reply, the title of the song, is ambivalent as the lack of resolution to the song. The final lines of the second verse of “You’re the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Adeline” give no resolution to the suitor’s continual pining over Adeline,

If we meet sometimes I after years my darling,

I trust that I will find your love still mine,

Tho’ my heart is sad and clouds above are hov’ring,

The sun again love for me would shine.[10]

In sentimental love songs, there is general lack of resolution to the character’s emotions of lost love, nostalgia and dreaming.

However, another type of love song was also popular, which was less dependent on sentiment and fantasy and more on action of the central character and a situation unfolding between two characters. In these kinds of love songs, there are actions and dialogue to attract the attention of a girl and to directly engage with her rather than pine over loneliness. The 1903 song “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” “two lovers wait, by the old garden gate, talking to each other.”[11]An unusual approach of direct communication comes from the show-stopping sextet “Tell Me Pretty Maiden,” the most popular Broadway show tune of the era[12] from the 1900 musical Florodora, in which male and female voices exchange lines in a he said/she said format. The point, of course, a man asking a girl out, and the resolution is rather comical with both sides, maidens and suitors, agreeing that “Yes, I must love someone, really/And it might as well be you!”[13] Concrete action is also a component of “In the Good Old Summer Time,” not necessarily a love song, per se, but rather a description of “strolling thro’ the shady lanes with you baby mine;/You hold her hand and she holds yours,”[14] and example of people actually engaging in activities. In songs where sentimentality is less featured, concrete actions of people doing things and interacting with each other are common.

In these kinds of love songs, where one character directly addresses another, there are interesting ways in which men and women interact within the songs’ lyrics. There are songs which are indeed sentimental, but their lyrical content are more about professing one’s love rather than pining over a lost one. The 1910 blockbuster hit “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” takes an assertive approach in its emotional expression, talking directly to another person, not just a vacuous profession of love as in sentimental songs. The chorus is rather simple, but it gets the point across, “Let me call you sweetheart I’m in love with you/Let me hear you whisper That you love me too.”[15] The song “Love Me and the World Is Mine,” which does have rather grandiose professions of a love for a girl, asserts that every material thing in the world is worthless compared to the love sought by the character, but he sings the lyrics to a girl.[16] A noticeable feature about direct songs is that since they address a love, cutesy baby-talk is sometimes part of the lyrics. “How’d You Like to Spoon with Me,” one of the few songs written from a female point-of-view, wants her suitor to call her “tootsy wootsy baby,”[17] a term of endearment also used in the refrains of other popular songs like “Meet Me In St Louis, Louis” and “In the Good Old Summer Time.”[18] In love songs which characters communicate with each other, language is more assertive and characters interact with each other, even in the most grandiose, drippy expressions of love.

But songs where characters directly address another person, another trend emerges, that men do things to screw up a relationship and it is their responsibility to rectify the situation. Losing love by breaking up is another method in which direct speech has great effect. Not only does the emotion of the main character come out with expressions of love, there are also concrete goals of getting the relationship back and patching things up between lovers usually with the men reconciling. In the 1900 song “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder,” the speaker takes the fault of the presumed break-up and expresses his own desire for reconciliation in the first verse,

I regret the harsh words spoken,

That I know have caused you pain,

And my heart is nearly broken,

Say you love me once again.[19]

In the 1902 song “Tessie (You Are My Only Only Only),” the main character has the same approach when Tessie and the main character have a quarrel and he must take the responsibility of resolving the conflict “as all boys do.” The results of his efforts are a proclamation of his regret for the fight,

Tessie, you make me feel so badly,

Why don’t you turn around?

Tessie, you know I love you madly,

Babe, my heart weighs about a pound;[20]

Break up songs like these not only express sentiment of love, but male characters use it to reconcile relationship after they do or say something stupid.

What is truly befuddling about the lyrical content of less sentimental songs is that a bulk of their lyrics leave as much open-ended as sentimental songs. In many songs which profess one’s love lyrics are written from a single voice, there is no stylistic way of finding an answer from a second voice, and even more direct songs are left without a resolution. While “Tell Me Pretty Maiden” does end in agreement between male and female counterparts in falling in love and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” sets the stage, literally with the lyrics written like stage direction, for a wedding at the end of the song,[21] there are examples where the resolutions of the character’ actions are left ambivalent. The audience never finds out, for example, if Tessie ever forgives her suitor or if the girl ever comes back to the character in “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder.” As well, even though the character from “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” promises happiness in the future, the audience does not find out if that actually happens, note the continued use of the future tense, “Hand in hand, down thro’ the clover, When work is over we’ll stray/Then we’ll forget all our sorrow, Watching baby play.”[22] Even though less sentimental song lyrics are more assertive in their characters, there are cases in which there is no resolution to the attainment of love or happiness.

Love songs, no matter their varieties and expressions of sentimentality, were tremendously successful; they had commercial appeal and, audiences had appetite for their sentimentality. “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” and “Love Me and the World Is Mine” sold a million copies of sheet music, “Meet Me To-Night in Dreamland” and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” each sold three million and the Peerless Quartet’s recordings of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” sold an impressive five million records.[23] The use of the word Dreamland was apparently so popular among songwriters that the original sheet music comes with a disclaimer about songs with similar titles.[24] Some of these songs were tremendously influential as well. Politician John F. Fitzgerald, grandfather to president John F. Kennedy, used “You’re the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Adeline” as a campaign song in the 1906, 1910 and 1914 Boston mayoral elections.[25] A humorous account of love song in pop culture happened during the first World’s Series in 1903 between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates, when the Boston audiences at the Huntington Avenue Grounds annoyed the Pittsburgh team with repeated lines of “Tessie (You Are My Only Only Only).”[26] Ever since, love songs remained a staple in the American commercial pop song industry.

The love song of the Ragtime Era continued the sentimental trend set by the ballad of the 1890s, but in a different way. Instead of making audiences sad with story telling, songwriters used various methods in expressing sentiment within their lyrics. With characters speaking in first person who expressed their own emotions, love songs gave a general environment for lyrics. But the sentiment is accomplished in two distinctly different ways. More sentimental songs have characters which are wrapped up in worlds of loneliness, without companionship, characters who are lost in worlds of dreaming and nostalgia, who never actually directly express their feelings with their loves. Less sentimental love songs, on the other hand, directly express their intentions and their emotion, sometimes in novel ways like break-up reconciliations by admission of their own fault and even, cutesy terms of endearment. But, this kind of song writing technique of letting characters express their own emotions, lead to songs in which the audience usually does not find out if there is a conclusion to the situations in the song lyrics.


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

Murname, T.H. “Boston Americans are the Champions of the World.” Boston Post. 14 October 1903. Contained in Glenn Stout. Impossible Dreams: A red Sox Collection. New York: Houghton-Mifflin. 2003. 18-25.

Nash, Peter J. Boston’s Royal Routers. Portsmouth, NH: Arcadia Publishing. 2005.

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

Songs Cited

Anderson, Will R. Tessie (You Are My Only Only Only). New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1902.

Armstrong, Henry W. (music) and Richard H. Gerard (lyrics). You’re the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Adeline. New York: M Witmark & Sons. 1903.

Ball, Ernest R. (music) and Dave Reed (lyrics). Love Me and the World is Mine. New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1906.

Dillea, Herbert (music) and Arthur Gillespie. Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder.   New York: M Witmark & Sons. 1900.

Edwards, Gus (music) and Will D Cobb (lyrics). I Can’t Tell You Why I Love You But I Do. New York: Howley, Haviland & Co. 1900.

Evans, George (music) and Ren Shields (lyrics). In the Good Old Summer Time. New York: Howley, Haviland & Dresser. 1902.

Friedman, Leo and Beth Slater Whitson. Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Chicago, IL: Harold Rossiter Music Company. 1910.

Freidman, Leo and Beth Slater Whitson. Meet Me To-Night in Dreamland. Chicago, IL: Will Rossiter. 1909.

Hoschna, Karl L. (music) and O.A. Hauerbach (lyrics). Cuddle Up A Little Closer, Lovey Mine. New York: M Witmark & Sons. 1908.

Hough, Will M. and Frank R Adams (music) and Joseph E Howard (lyrics). I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now. New York: Charles K Harris. 1909.

Kern, Jerome D. (music) and Edward Laska (lyrics). How’d You Like to Spoon with Me? New York: T.B. Harms Company. 1905.

Madden, Edward and Gus Edwards. By the Light of the Silvery Moon. New York: Jerome Remick & Co. 1909.

Madden Edward (music) and Percy Wenrich (lyrics). Moonlight Bay. New York: Jerome R Remick & Co. 1912.

Stuart, Leslie (music) and Owen Hall (lyrics). Tell Me Pretty Maiden. New York: T.B. Harms & Co. 1900.

Thornton, James. When You Were Sweet Sixteen. New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1898.

Von Tilzer (music) and Vincent Bryan (lyrics). In The Sweet Bye and Bye. New York: Von Tilzer Music Publishing. 1902.


[1] Ernest R Ball (music) and Dave Reed (lyrics), Love Me and the World Is Mine, (New York: M Witmark & Sons, 1906).

[2] Henry W. Armstrong (music) and Richard H. Gerard (lyrics), You’re the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Adeline, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1903).

[3] James Thornton, When You Were Sweet Sixteen, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1898).

[4] Will M Hough and Frank R. Adams (music) and Joseph E. Howard (lyrics), I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, (New York: Charles K. Harris, 1909).

[5] Leo Freidman (music) and Beth Slater Whitson (lyrics), Meet Me To-Night in Dreamland, (Chicago, IL: Will Rossiter Music Publishing, 1909).

[6] Edward Madden (music) and Percy Wenrich (lyrics), Moonlight Bay, (New York: Jerome Remick & Co, 1912).

[7] Hough, Adams and Howard, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.

[8] Thornton, When You Were Sweet Sixteen.

[9] Gus Edwards (music) and Will D. Cobb (lyrics), I Can’t Tell You Why I Love You, But I Do, (New York: Howley, Haviland & Co, 1900).

[10] Armstrong and Gerard, You Are the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Adeline.

[11] Harry von Tilzer (music) and Vincent Bryan (lyrics), In the Sweet Bye and Bye, (New York: Von Tilzer Music Publishing, 1902).

[12] Larry Stempel, Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theatre, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 35-36.

[13] Leslie Stuart (music) and Owen Hall (lyrics), Tell Me Pretty Maiden, (New York: T.B. Harms & Co, 1900).

[14] George Evans (music) and Ren Shields (lyrics), In the Good Old Summer Time, New York: Howley, Haviland & Dresser, 1902)

[15] Leo Friedman (music) and Beth Slater Whitson (lyrics), Let Me Call You Sweetheart, (Chicago, IL: Harold Rossiter Music Company, 1910).

[16] Ernest R. Ball (music) and Dave Reed (lyrics), Love Me and the World is Mine, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1906).

[17] Jerome Kern (music) and Edward Laska (lyrics), How’d You Like to Spoon with Me?, (New York: T.B. Harms Company, 1905).

[18] Evans and Shields, In the Good Old Summer Time

[19] Herbert Dillea (music) and Arthur Gillespie (lyrics), Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1900).

[20] Will R. Anderson, Tessie (You Are My Only Only Only), (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1902).

[21] Edward Madden (music) and Gus Edwards (lyrics), By the Light of the Silvery Moon, (New York: Jerome Remick & Co, 1909).

[22] Von Tilzer and Bryan, In the Sweet Bye and Bye.

[23] Thomas S. Hischak, The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002).

[24] Friedman and Slater, Meet Me To-Night in Dreamland, 3.

[25] Peter J. Nash, Boston’s Royal Rooters, (Portsmouth, NH: Arcadia Publishing, 2005).79.

[26] T.H. Murnane, “Boston Americans are the Champions of the World,” Boston Post, 14 October 1903, contained in Glenn Stout, Impossible Dreams: A Red Sox Collection, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 23.