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.


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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.

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