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.

References:

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. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/02/17/133785829/a-shockingly-short-history-of-hello.

Sutton, Allan. “Cal Stewarts Recording Contract.” Mainspring Press: Resources for Collectors of Historic Sound Recordings, American Recording Pioneers. 2009. http://www.mainspringpress.com/stewart.html.

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.

Discography:

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, http://www.mainspringpress.com/stewart.html

[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, http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/02/17/133785829/a-shockingly-short-history-of-hello.

[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).

Advertisements

Tags: , , , ,

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: