Archive | June 2014

Intellectual Products: Copyright and the Founding of ASCAP

In August 2013, a state of emergency was issued by none other than Mother Monster herself, “A pop music emergency is underway,” read Lady Gaga’s Twitter feed, “911 summon the Monster troupes.” [1] The situation involved a disruption in the traditional business model for getting pop songs to the consumer market; highly anticipated new music from Katy Perry and Lady Gaga had been leaked by hackers for public preview online, months before their new albums, Prism and ArtPop respectively, went on sale. Consequently, singles like Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Lady Gaga’s “Applause” were immediately released to the public ahead of their originally scheduled dates.[2] For Lady Gaga, the leaks all but ruined plans for a high-profile, tightly scheduled and choreographed multimedia build-up to the ArtPop album. This self-described “emergency” is only one of many difficulties affecting the commercial pop song trade throughout its history and the business of getting music to a wider audience. A century ago, songwriters, composers and publishers were dealing with their own pop music emergency: they were not getting paid royalties for some public performances of their music.

Besides the musical trends, tech changes and the celebrity associated with pop songs over the years, it is fundamentally a business intent on getting a creative product to the musical market, getting customers to pay for it, while also paying those who produce the product. However, music is not a physical product, but rather an intellectual one that requires special protection under copyright law. Musical copyright law in America has functioned as a protection against unauthorized musical reproduction since 1831, but as technology and culture have changed music in America, so have the laws which control rights to publish titles. However, copyright law does not advance as quickly as technology or culture does, leaving loopholes in protection. After composers and publishers had lobbied Congress heavily for revised laws which would keep apace with technology in 1907 and 1908, Congress passed new copyright laws in 1909, but certain aspects of the new law left their products without certain protections regarding live performance. By 1914, composers and publishers had grown impatient with constant infringement of copyright and a society formed to protect their copyrights, the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers, better known as ASCAP. The society changed the commercial music business forever by creating a system of collecting and distributing royalties while also policing musical performances. ASCAP did not change the law, but rulings from the Supreme Court allowed the society to collect royalties on performances not protected under copyright statutes. If it were not for the actions of founding ASCAP, I doubt there would be a modern business of pop music.

In 1914, the expanding music culture in America had increased the demand for all kinds of music products. American culture was awash in music; even though musicologist Charles Hamm notes that “Tin Pan Alley songs were for white, urban, literate, middle- and upper-class Americans,”[3] rural sales of home pianos and cylinder recordings were increasing. With sales of sheet music brisk and piano sales at their peak, there was not just a vibrant culture of pop music in America, but also feelings that music was a healthy form of recreation; many factories even provided a piano for their employees as a morale booster.[4] By 1910, piano production was at its zenith and instruments were readily available for purchase in the showrooms of department stores and also by catalogue, alongside the latest popular sheet music titles. The theatre provided a plethora of new musical experiences. Broadway musicals were becoming popular, the Vaudeville circuit often featured many new songs and annual revues like Ziegfeld’s Follies and the Passing Show at the Winter Garden Theatre had become spectacular forms of musical entertainment by 1914. A new ragtime dance craze brought a demand for music in urban restaurants, dancehalls, cabarets and nightclubs and the Victrola and its disc records were selling briskly for the home. Silent movies gave even more opportunities for composers to score accompaniments as well. In the early 1910s, a growth in musical products and culture allowed more people in more areas to experience new music.

While music was becoming more and more in demand, the earnings of famous composers and publishers also increased with the popularity of their songs. Having a piece of music popularized and made famous, had some tricky legal repercussions, particularly on how the parties involved get paid for the music’s use. Most composers earned a living through sales of sheet music songs which were readily introduced to the public via the stage. But music is not solely a consumer product, and it is an intellectual and artistic one and copyright law dictates the ownership of its intellectual property. Copyright law allows artists control of how their work is used and reproduced in not just musical products, but also for book publishing, film and even choreography.[5] If a theatre owner, for example, wants to include a particular song in a show, he or she must pay the copyright owner, usually the publisher, the composer or both, a fee, or royalty, to use it. If this exchange does not happen, the theatre owner is in violation of copyright infringement, a crime punishable by law. Copyright for musical composition and sheet music did not exist in America until 1831, but as musical culture and technology changed, so did copyright laws. Copyright law had been amended in 1897 to include public performances in theatres and overhauled completely in 1909, to include sound recordings provided by increasingly popular piano roles, cylinders and records on the market. It seems as though with so much music in American culture and all the legal bases covered, composers and publishers would be content with the legal status of their work and the royalties they were receiving from their songs.

Even though music was experiencing a tremendous growth in popularity and copyright owners were receiving royalties, there were loopholes which rendered the system imperfect. Copyright laws from the beginning had always been slightly behind the times in American musical culture; the 1831 law that included musical compositions did not include public performance or require royalties for composers for example. In fact, popular composer Stephen Foster, whose songs are still remembered fondly in the twenty-first century, died in destitution in 1864 after he sold off the rights for all the songs that were included in the minstrel shows for which he wrote.[6] The updated copyright law from 1897 included provisions for public performances but only for venues that charged a fee for entry such as musicals or vaudeville shows which sold tickets; the law did not include music played in public places which did not charge audiences to hear it like outdoor concerts or dance halls.[7] The system worked well for theatrical settings where copyright was regularly obeyed and royalties paid, the songs of which were well publicized to encourage sheet music sales. Even from their inception, copyright law in America for music had been imperfect to cover all instances where a musician’s work could be used.

Copyright had been behind the times again in 1907, only a decade after Congress had approved an updated law and music publishers were starting to demand a newer law. Mechanical reproduction by talking machines and player pianos was changing the musical culture in America and record companies and piano role manufactures used copyrighted music with abandon, without legal repercussions. In 1907, a lawsuit whose outcome had the potential to change copyright law reached the Supreme Court involving music publisher White-Smith, who argued that player piano company Apollo was producing unauthorized piano roles of their titles, potentially in violation of copyright law. But since copyright did not include mechanical music, the Supreme Court ruled in Apollo’s favour, the decision saying, “we cannot think that [mechanical reproductions] are copies within the meaning of the copyright act.”[8] Existing law was upheld, the music publisher lost the case and the system of copyright continued. Tin Pan Alley musicians, composers and publishing firms led by Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa actively lobbied Congress for a new updated law following the decision.[9] Composer Charles K. Harris even visited the White House to discuss the matter with president Theodore Roosevelt.[10] Meantime, piano manufacturers and the American Musical Copyright League opposed a new copyright law.[11] The issue was divisive; Senator Alfred Kittridge bitterly described record companies and the like “seize the musical child of the composer’s brain and devote it to their own selfish purposes.”[12] The resulting legislation, the Currier-Smoot Act of 1909 was a compromise; it included mechanical reproduction, but if a composer allowed mechanical reproduction of a certain title, then other companies could also reproduce the same music.[13] The issue of copyright had become so difficult by 1907 that not only was it the focus of a Supreme Court decision, but also congressional debate and a new copyright law.

By 1913 it seemed as though copyright law had still not caught up to music culture in America and the legal technicalities this time were on the intent of establishments to profit on performances of copyrighted music. The copyright law from 1897 did not include venues that did not charge an entry fee like the restaurants, dancehalls and cabarets that were increasingly using music as part of the ambience with the rising demand for social dancing in the 1910s. A theatre for example charges theatre-goes for tickets to see a show or musical and therefore, the venue profits from providing music; royalties then paid to composers dictated by the 1897 copyright law. However, if a business does not charge a fee and played a publisher’s music, copyright law does not cover this scenario since proprietors of such places were not receiving profits directly from music and therefore royalties were not owed to copyright holders. Paul Goldstein notes that such laws would be unenforceable because “to police each infringing performance and file lawsuits against them would likely cost more than any damages that might be recovered.”[14] When popular composer Victor Herbert, a staunch champion in copyright protection, overheard a musician playing a piece of his music in public, for which he knew he did not receive a royalty,[15] he knew that something had to be done by organising a society.

During a time when more and more businesses were building dance floors and hiring orchestras as part of the environment, copyright holders were growing increasing impatient with the public performance copyright situation, and in Progressive Era America if any improvement in society were needed, there were organizations formed to address such issues. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People founded in 1909 is a well-known example of such a society. The Progressive Party Platform from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 election bid reads like a labour movement manifesto, calling for an end to child labour, an eight-hour work day, a day off from work, and social insurance,[16] just to name a few social issues of the time. Even the national pastime, baseball was organized with the short-lived player-centric Federal League.[17] It was in this kind of setting where the concept of a society to protect ownership of copyright grew necessary to ensure that proper royalties get paid to the proper people. On 13 February 2014 at the Claridge Hotel in New York City, a group of songwriters, publishers and artists gathered and founded what would eventually become the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers, better known as ASCAP, whose goal was to be “the most powerful organization in the world” as announced from the front page of the New York Times.[18] The early association was a who’s who of influential music industry names like publishers J. Whitmark, Joseph Stern, Walter Waterman and writers like Irving Berlin, John Philip Sousa, Gus Edwards, Victor Herbert, and Harry B. Smith, and the society immediately offered “several hundred applications for immediate membership,”[19] annual membership costing $10.[20] Even though African-American composer James Weldon Johnson was a founding member, Thomas Morgan and William Barlow note that many other African American composers were excluded from ASCAP.[21] With the need for action regarding outdated copyright law, ASCAP had been founded as part of the organizational culture of the Progressive Era to address the concerns.

The goals of the new society were straightforward, to ensure that public performances would be monitored for use of copyrighted music and to create a method of collection and distribution of royalties from all sources, whether profitable public performance or mechanical reproduction. An earlier licensing organization, the Authors’ and Composers’ League of America, failed partly because its president Victor Herbert and vice-president Reginald de Kovan despised each other.[22] Spokesman for the new organisation, George Maxwell said that, “the Society has not been formed to make a fight upon any one or to stir up trouble…now we are going to enforce [or rights].”[23] Licensing societies had been in existence for decades in Europe already, in France, an organisation had been established in 1851;[24] in America, members of ASCAP looked to the European system for guidance. The scheme involved licensing music, collecting fees and paying copyright owners for intellectual products. By selling “blanket licenses” to cover entire catalogues of a composers or publishers works, for example, cabarets, dancehalls and other such public places could purchase a whole catalogue of music for a flat fee and their establishments could use any songs from these catalogues they wished. Once these fees for public performance had been collected, along with those collected from record companies, the royalties are then divided up among the members. While copyright law remained somewhat out-of-date for the times, composers and publishers took their own initiative to create a system of royalty payments and copyright enforcement.

But ASCAP’s founding did not change the law; the original 1897 copyright law specifically mentions “performance[s] and representation be wilful and for profit”[25] and that only such places would be responsible for paying a royalty. This left the question of whether or not the society could technically sue such places for copyright infringement. Victor Herbert had learned that the expensive and well-known restaurant Shanley’s, “The World’s Wonder Cabaret,”[26] had been playing selections from his comic opera Sweethearts and, with support from John Philip Sousa, filed a test lawsuit against the restaurant in 1914. After a couple of years of legal limbo and initial defeats, Herbert and his lawyer Nathan Burkan appealed enough times to reach the Supreme Court. In the decision, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that “The object is a repast in surroundings that to people having limited powers of conversation, or liking the rival noise, give a luxurious pleasure not to be had from eating a silent meal. If music did not pay, it would be given up. If it pays, it pays out of the public’s pocket.”[27] Meaning, music was a selling point of attracting the public’s attention regardless of entry fee and therefore, the business had financial gains due to music in the environs and should pay royalties. By decision of the Supreme Court, ASCAP officially was able to ensure that the owners of copyright were paid royalties for publically performed pieces of music in venues that did not charge patrons an entry fee. The Herbert v Shanley decision remained the standard for public play lawsuits for over half a century, according to Glynn Lunney.[28]

With the legal precedent set, the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers quickly became influential in the music industry and popular among those involved in it. It also changed the business structure by unifying the royalty system under a single organization and ensured that intellectual property would be protected under copyright law. During the 1920s and 1930, when broadcasting became the new technology for consumers, ASCAP and a rival organization, Broadcast Music Incorporated or BMI, guaranteed royalties for music played over radio. In 2014, ASCAP had more than 400,000 members of all levels of the music industry and all genres ranging from classical to hip-hop to country. ASCAP fees are collected to give permission for popular music such as background music at stores, television commercials, symphonies, all of which pay fees. In 2013, ASCAP paid out royalties totalling about $851M[29] its to members. The consequences do not just affect pop song history, but all of music industry generally, ASCAP and the licensing structure provides continued protection of the intellectual property of popular music and created the foundations of modern musical business structure.

Even though copyright law may not appear like it is a part of pop song history, its inclusion is paramount in understanding the nature of the product, how song is viewed legally and how these legal issues reflect music’s presence in popular culture. While songs can be sold and purchased, their actual intellectual property remains in the hands of those artists and publishers who hold the right of publication and reproduction under copyright law. The various changes in these laws, no matter how outdated some can seem, reflect the ways in which the public is exposed to music whether on stage, in a dance hall or by recordings. But when it seemed as though some composers were not receiving the royalties they felt they were entitled, they took the Progressive Era approach and in 1914, formed their own society, ASCAP, to regulate the performances and royalty structures that were part of their rights as holders of copyright, rights which were affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United states. The ramifications of this structure and the society reach well into the twenty-first century and continue to be influential in the modern music industry with hundreds of thousands of members from all strata of the music business and nearly a billion dollar exchanged in royalties.


“ASCAP Reports Strong Revenues in 2013.” The American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers. 12 February 2014.

Emerson, Ken. Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1997.

Goldstein, Paul. Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2003.

Gould, Neil. Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life. New York: Fordham University Press. 2008.

Lady Gaga. “Pop Music Emergency.”

Lunney, Glynn. “Copyright Collective and Collecting Societies: The United states Experience.” Contained in Collective Management of Copyright and Related Rights, Daniel J Gervais, ed. Boston, MA: Wolters Kluwer. 2010. 339-380.

Monde, Chidereah. “Katy Perry’s New Single, ‘Roar,’ Leaks Online Ahead of Official Release.” NY Daily News. 11 August 2013.

Morgan, Thomas L 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.

“Progressive Party Platform” (1912). Contained in The Annals of America, vol 12, “1905-1915: The Progressive Era.” Toronto, ON: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1976. 347-355.

Rader, Benjamin G. Baseball: A History of America’s Game. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press. 2008.

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

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

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

“Today in History: February 13.” Library of Congress. Last updated 15 October 2010.

“Trust for Control of Music Business,” New York Times, 14 February 2014.

Waters, Edward. Victor Herbert: A Life in Music. New York: Macmillan. 1995.


[1] Lady Gaga, “Pop Music Emergency,”,accessed 12 June 2014,

[2] Chidereah Monde, “Katy Perry’s New Single, ‘Roar,’ Leaks Online Ahead of Official Release,” NY Daily News, 11 August 2013,

[3] Charles Hamm, qtd in Larry Stempel, Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010).

[4] Craig Roell, The Piano in America: 1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 27.

[5] Linda A Tancs, Understanding Copyrights Law: A Beginner’s Guide, (New York: Oceana, 2009), 29.

[6] Ken Emerson, Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 264.

[7] Glynn Lunney, “Copyright Collective and Collecting Societies: The United states Experience,” contained in Collective Management of Copyright and Related Rights, Daniel J Gervais, ed, (Boston, MA: Wolters Kluwer, 2010), 345.

[8] White-Smith Music Publishing Company v Apollo Company, 209 U.S. 1 (1908).

[9] Neil Gould, Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 214.

[10] ibid, 216.

[11] Edward Waters, Victor Herbert: A Life in Music, (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 338.

[12] Senator Alfred Kittridge, qtd in Gould, 214.

[13] The Copyright Act or 1909, or An Act to Amend and Consolidate the Acts Respecting Copyright, 60th Congress, 2nd Session (1909) contained in Linda Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law: A Beginner’s Guide, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[14] Paul Goldstein, Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 54.

[15] “Today in History: February 13,” Library of Congress. Last updated 15 October 2010, accessed 13 June 2014,

[16] “Progressive Party Platform” (1912), contained in The Annals of America, vol 12, “1905-1915: The Progressive Era,” (Toronto, ON: Encyclopaedia Britannica, IN, 1976), 348-349.

[17] Benjamin Rader, Baseball: A History of America’s Game, (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 112.

[18] George Maxwell, qtd in “Trust for Control of Music Business,” New York Times, 14 February 2014, 1.

[19] ibid.

[20] Ledger book, 1914, ASCAP foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress, Digital ID #as0001, accessed 13 June 2014

[21] 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 Publishers, 1992), 49.

[22] Gould, 318.

[23] George Maxwell, qtd in “Trust,” New York Times.

[24] Gould, 317.

[25] Copyright Act (Public Performance of Musical Compositions,) Washington, DC (1897), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L Bently & M. Kretschmer, contained on The University of Texas Tarlton Law Library, accessed 15 June 2014,

[26] Booklet advertising Shanley’s restaurant (1917) qtd in Gould, 216.

[27] As federal judge Oliver Wendell Homes asserted in Herbert v Shanley Co, 242 U.S. 591 (1917), found on FindLaw for Legal Professionals, Thomson Reuters,, accessed 14 June 2014,

[28] Lunney, contained in Collective Management of Copyright and Related Rights, 346.

[29] “ASCAP Reports Strong Revenues in 2013,” The American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers,, 12 February 2014, accessed 15 June 2014,

1910s Pop Trend: The Ragtime Dance Craze

As long as music has existed, even from the mists of antiquity, there have been dances to accompany it. The period of the pop song in America has had some dance trends which define entire musical eras. The popularity of “The Charleston” (1923) “perfectly reflected the defiance, freedom and turmoil of the Jazz Era,”[1] Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” (1961) partly defines the sounds and styles of the Rock ’n’ Roll Era and Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” (1975) helped to usher in the Disco Era of the 1970s. Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” (1996) was not only the most popular song of the year,[2] but it also launched a manic dance fad of that summer thanks to the choreography of its music video. The Club Banger Age of the twenty-first century has experienced its own dance fads like the Chicken Noodle Soup (2006), the Soulja Boy (2007), the Dougie (2010), the Harlem Shake (2012) and the Twerk, a word so popular that it was a runner up the word of the year in 2013, as selected by none other than the Oxford English Dictionary.[3] Songs of the era like ‘Nsync’s “Bye Bye Bye” (2000), Britney Spears’s “Oops…I Did It Again” (2000), Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” (2008) and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” (2012) became dance floor phenomena partly due to the influential choreography featured in their music videos. During a wave of new dance fads during the 1910s, the foxtrot, perhaps the most popular social dance after the waltz was becoming its own cultural phenomenon during the Ragtime Era.

During the second half of the Ragtime era in the 1910s, social dancing had suddenly consumed American culture, and numerous new ragtime dance crazes become fashionable and trendy. The new American dancing fads brought popular culture away from the Victorian age ideals of perpetual toil, work and duty and into the Progressive Age of the twentieth century. New dance floors in cabarets, night clubs and restaurants were abuzz with dozens of new dances and a revived pulse of the Ragtime era. But the new dance steps were not without controversy; in some places certain dances were outlawed and dancing became restricted to permitted areas. But by 1917, most dance crazes faded out of memory, but one dance, the foxtrot, whose rhythms reflected a new blues influence on ragtime music, became part of the American dance canon and part of the musical lexicon for decades. The foxtrot not only became one of the few such dances to continue to have popularity beyond the Ragtime Era, but also lent its name to a musical genre on sheet music and on record labels.

Dancing had been popular in America long before the trend in social dancing happened in the early 1910s; the American public had been introduced to a number of dance fads in the nineteenth century, albeit presented from the theatre stage. People were not necessarily partaking in social dancing in public until well after the Civil War, and even then, most dance occasions like balls were held in private homes.[4] Some theatrical shows of the nineteenth century prominently featured new dance steps, for example, the “Victorian Extravaganza” The Black Crook from 1866 created a sensation with its popular, yet critically maligned, combination of song, dancing and statuesque show girls. By 1895, it had been revived eighteen times in New York alone.[5] Minstrel shows introduced theatre-goers to the cakewalk dance step which concluded such shows and when Coon Songs became a pop trend in the 1890s, the cakewalk consequently became marketing fodder for music publishers indicate the genre on the covers of the plethora of rags during the time. The song “Chocolate Drops” from 1902 had been advertised as “Harry Von Tilzer’s great Cake Walk hit” and “Suitable for March, Cake Walk or Two Step.”[6] The technologically advanced stage of the New York Hippodrome Theatre, opening in 1905, featured a unique theatrical and sensational dance experience with grandiose ballets and legions of up to 150 chorus dancers to entertain audiences.[7] Before the ragtime dance fad began, American had already been exposed to numerous iterations of spectacular theatrical dancing in the pop culture of Victorian Age America.

The 1910s would see spectacular changes in not just dance as an art form in America, but also American attitudes towards social dance. In an era when American culture was beginning to shake off the notions of constant toil and prudence of the Victorian Age, the entire nation began to embrace novelty dances in social situations. The waltz was an older style of dance by this time and was falling out of favour; the public’s reception of new dance style was high. Many trace the beginning of the ragtime dance craze to saloons and beach resorts of San Francisco; at the club Parcell’s, dances like the Texas Tommy and the Turkey Trot were fashionable as early as 1910.[8] Mark Knowles points out that insurance money from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake disaster helped to rebuild the city with new dancehalls and amusements.[9] The George Botsford and Irving Berlin song “Grizzly Bear” from 1910 references the popularity of dancing in San Francisco.[10] New animal ragtime dances were becoming socially diffused and fashionable on a national scale, including the Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug, Bunny Hop, and the Camel Walk as well as variations on old themes like the oddly-metered Hesitation Waltz and exotic dances like the Brazilian Maxixe and eventually the Tango. Almost immediately, the country was swept up in dance fever; so much so that there are reports of throngs of couples dancing the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear in public along sidewalks of cities.[11] It was a time to shake off the Victorian ideals and the waltz and embrace dances that were new, fresh and daring during the “Age of Progress,” capturing Americans’ spirit of the early 1910s.

While the American public were embracing social dancing trends, of course there were also record companies and Tin Pan Alley composers encouraging and capitalizing on the new dance trends by producing a new wave of fashionable ragtime music detailing instruction of new dances. In 1909, composer Harry von Tilzer and lyricist Vincent Bryan published “The Cubanola Glide,” a forerunner of the dance craze, and a song whose raggy and dialect lyrics offer dance step instructions by “rag-a-dag to de left den to de right/Shake it up, shake it up, side by side.”[12] Botsford and Berlin’s instructional song “The Grizzly Bear” (1910), created its own Grizzly Bear dance craze when popular actress Sophie Tucker introduced the song and dance on the vaudeville circuit in 1911.[13] Other Irving Berlin songs from 1911 also perpetuated the growing enthusiasm for dancing. “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now,” a song whose lyrics describe seeing a new dance performed by “a couple over there, Watch them throw their shoulders in the air,”[14] is a song whose sole purpose is to describe a dance fad; its title subsequently became a catch-phrase for the dance fads. Berlin’s tremendously influential song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was about specifically seeing ragtime entertainment, and revived the ragtime name that had been in a slow state of decline. Talking machine and record companies were also marketing to consumers for dance purposes, one advertisement claims that “nothing will aid to your dancing ability more than practice at home to the music of Victor Records or Rythmodik Piano roles.”[15] In 1911, Ragtime was enjoying a revival in its popularity when it had become marketed for dancing purposes rather than just “novelty music”[16] that it had been classified in the early 1900s.

One dance in particular, the foxtrot, would become the most popular dance of not only the 1910s, but the entire first half of the twentieth century. Animal dance fads fell out of fashion when songs slipped from popularity, and new dances came at such a fast pace that oftentimes it was tough work to keep with the new steps.[17] But by 1915, the foxtrot became the dance that represented both popularity of Ragtime Dances and changes in ragtime music. The history of the Foxtrot is disputed. According to Thomas L. Morgan and William Barlow, the foxtrot originated when James Reese Europe’s adapted W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” for Vernon and Irene Castle to perform a new choreographed dance.[18] Other sources give credit to Vaudeville actor Henry Fox, whose surname lends its name to the dance.[19] But Eve Golden notes that an early form of the foxtrot had already been in existence as a syncopated trot step as early as 1905.[20] By 1914, the foxtrot became the latest popular dance craze in a long line of social dances but something else was also happening with the foxtrot name—it was beginning to appear on sheet music as an indicator of musical genre to advertise dance music. Names like waltz and two-step had been used as musical genre in the past, but foxtrot genre shows changes in the rhythms of ragtime music. By 1913, ragtime music was changing from a syncopated style to a more swinging style of “dotted ragtime” partly influenced by the growing popularity in numerous blues songs of the early 1910s.[21] Many blues songs like W.C. Handy’s “The St. Louis Blues” were labelled as rags, after all, and not constituting their own genre in this early stage. An early example of the foxtrot genre, “Ballin’ the Jack” has, in fact two versions of the sheet music, the first, published in 1913 and credits James Reese Europe with composition and only features the title of the song without a genre, while a second vocal version from 1914 indicates that the song is a “Fox Trot” and the cover features dancing couple Arria Hathaway and Joe McShane in a foxtrot dance pose.[22] Other Fox Trot songs and “dotted ragtime” followed, The James Reese Europe composition “The Castle House Rag” from 1914 is labelled both as a rag and as a foxtrot.[23] The foxtrot became the brand of ragtime with a unified dance and a genre for the changes in ragtime music.

The dance fads of the 1910s had a number of repercussions in American society. Dancing not only revitalized the popularity in ragtime music, but provoked a growing demand for social spaces like night clubs, restaurants and cabarets, which could allow people to practice the newest dances. Julie Malnig notes that originally, cabarets were a “wholly American phenomenon that combined dinner, drinks and floorshow.”[24] Restaurants and clubs began offering afternoon thé dansants to entice customers with a new dance floor, no matter how small and unable to accommodate many people. Stylish ballroom dance couples like Maurice Mouvet and Florence Walton and Vernon and Irene Castle became celebrities admired for their grace, forward-thinking fashions and elegance. Vernon and Irene Castle had their own critically and commercially successful Broadway show Watch Your Step in 1914 which featured their dancing style.[25] The new dance trends also changed American fashion, the Victorian style of long dresses, corsets and wide hats limited movement on the dance floor. New styles like the hobble dress with shorter hemlines and plunging necklines, shoes with “Louis heels” and taller ostrich feather hats became the fashion styles during this era.[26] The new dance craze was changing many areas of American culture from celebrity to entertainment to fashion.

But the dances of the times had created a divisive culture war between those embracing a new cultural development and those who found the dances too provocative. In a time when it was law to remain nine inches away from your dance partner, if found dancing too close, a bouncer would eject dancers from the dance floor by a bouncer, according to Irene Castle,[27] songs which encourage “snug up close to your lady,”[28] and “Get away closer hon, Squeeze me tight”[29] were shocking and their associated dances were considered by some to be immoral. There was a grave fear that particularly single American women would lose their morals to the social new dances. Race may have also played a part in the hysteria, since many of these new dances had black origins and Reynolds and McCormack note that “as ragtime and jazz invaded ballrooms and the stage…black style became the basis for a bevy of new social dances.”[30] Social Reformers during the Progressive Era began to push back against the new and provocative dances, looking to change municipal laws for dancing by outlawing some of the animal dances and regulating where dance could happen. So-called “wiggly dances” were banned in places like New Haven, Dallas and Chicago[31] and in New York, dancing became illegal in establishments which did not hold special cabaret licenses. The reaction against the ragtime dances was even international. In 1913, the New York Times reported an Austrian soldier in Geneva Switzerland challenged an American man to a duel after the soldier found his daughter performing the Turkey Trot in a hotel that had banned “American dances.”[32] While the changes brought on by ragtime era dancing had been part of a new form of entertainment, there were genuine concerns that such provocative dancing could lead to loosening morals.

While the Foxtrot as both dance fad and musical genre was approaching its zenith, social changes were bringing the ballroom trend to an abrupt hiatus and musical tastes transitioned from Ragtime to a new style called Jazz. In 1917, the United States entered the Great War in Europe and two million American servicemen travelled across the Atlantic to participate in the war effort.[33] Vernon Castle had begun training as a pilot as early as 1915 and American bandleader James Reese Europe became involved in the war 1918 by providing music to the troops on the battlefield.[34] The war left American culture focused on war production, sales of war bonds and thrift and less on amusements like social ballroom dancing and dance fads. American pop song performers and songwriters reacted by producing patriotic and rousing songs about the War, departing from novelty songs in ragtime tempos in favour of marches like George M Cohan’s “Over There,” Irving Berlin’s “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and Jean Schwartz’s “Hello, Central! Give Me No Man’s Land” and sentimental songs like M.K. Jerome’s “Just a Baby’s Prayer at Twilight (For Her Daddy Over There).” By 1920, the disruptions in American social life had begun to resolve themselves, including social adjustment following a devastating Flu Epidemic in 1918 and recent Prohibition Laws outlawing alcohol. By the time Americans returned to pop culture, a new style of music was on the rise, Jazz, and the various popular orchestras of Paul Whiteman, Art Hickman, Ted Lewis and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band became popular, leaving the pop song styling of the Ragtime Era behind.

Despite the rapid changes in American society after the First World War, by 1920, the other animal dances faded but the Foxtrot dance and the Foxtrot genre would continue to evolve and take their modern forms. Many records like Paul Whiteman’s “Whispering” and “The Japanese Sandman” (both from 1920) and Ben Slevin’s Novelty Orchestra’s “Dardanella” (1919) were classified as Foxtrots. The Foxtrot would become a favoured dance of the Swing years of the Jazz Era, taking a slower form for the lush, orchestrated sounds of Big Band Music. The foxtrot label as a musical genre continued until the early Rock ’n’ Roll Era beginning in the mid-1950s In fact, 45s of Bill Haley and His Comets’s “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” of 1955 were labelled as a “novelty foxtrot,” when it was clear that Decca Records did not know what to call the music. The record sold 25 million copies, making the song, technically a Foxtrot, the most successful Foxtrot in American history,[35] four decades after its introduction. While the Ragtime Era faded and the Jazz Era began, the foxtrot continued to be popular in dance and in music for decades afterwards, even included the popular television show Dancing with the Stars. The dance fads of the 1910s had permanent contributions to American culture in not only Americans’ interest in dance, but also in the music which encouraged dancing’s popularity.


Berlin, Edward A. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1980.

Billboard Magazine. “The Hot 100—1996 Archive.”

Castle, Irene. Castles in the Air. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company. 1958.

“Challenges a ‘Trotter.’” New York Times. 10 July 1913.

Golden, Eve. Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky. 2007.

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

Kynaston, David. Family Britain: 1951-1957. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. 2009.

Malnig, Julie. “Two Stepping to Glory: Social Dance and the Rhetoric of Social Mobility.” Contained in Moving History/Dancing Culture: A Dance History Reader. Ann Dills and Ann Cooper Albright, editors. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 2001. 271-287.

Mendes, Valerie and Amy de la Haye. Fashion Since 1900. 2nd edition. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc. 2010.

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

Oxford University Press. “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013: Runners-up.” Ofxordwords Blog (blog). Published 19 November 2013.

Reynolds, Nancy and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2003.

Tindal, George Brown and David Emory Shi. America: A Narrative History. 8th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2010.

Waldo, Terry. This is Ragtime. New York: Jazz at Lincoln Center Library Edition. 2009.

1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue: A Treasured Replica from the Archives of History. Northfield, IL. 1971.

Songs Cited

Berlin, Irving. Alexander’s Ragtime Band. New York: Ted Snyder & Co. 1911.

——-. Everybody’s Doin’ It Now. New York: Ted Snyder Co. 1911.

Botsford, George (music) and Irving Berlin (lyrics). The Grizzly Bear. New York: Ted Snyder & Co. 1910.

Europe, James Reese. The Castle House Rag. New York: Jos Stern Co, 1914.

Von Tilzer, Harry. Chocolate Drops (A Darktown Improbability). New York: Harry von Tilzer Music Publishing. 1902.

Von Tilzer, Harry (music) and Vincent Bryan (lyrics). The Cubanola Glide. New York: Harry Von Tilzer Music Pub. Co. 1909.


[1] Mark Knowles, The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2009), 135.

[2] Billboard Magazine, “The Hot 100-1996 Archive,”,, (accessed 8 June 2014).

[3] Oxford University Press, “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013: Runners-up,” Oxfordwords Blog (blog), published 19 November 2013,, (accessed 2 June 2014).

[4] Knowles, 36.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Harry Von Tilzer, Chocolate Drops (A Darktown Improbability), (New York: Harry von Tilzer Music Publishing, 1902), contained in Terry Waldo, This is Ragtime, (New York: Jazz At Lincoln Center Library Edition, 2009), 48.

[7] Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormack, No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 676.

[8] Knowles, 63.

[9] Ibid.

[10] George Botsford (music) and Irving Berlin (lyrics), The Grizzly Bear, (New York: Ted Snyder Co, 1910).

[11] Irene Castle, Castles in the Air, (Garden City, NY: Double Day & Company, 1958), 85.

[12] Harry von Tilzer (music) and Vincent Bryan (lyrics), The Cubanola Glide, (New York: Harry von Tilzer Music Pub. Co, 1909).

[13] Terry Waldo, This is Ragtime, (New York: Jazz at Lincoln Center Library Edition, 2009), 130.

[14] Irving Berlin, Everybody’s Doin’ It Now, (New York: Ted Snyder Co, 1911).

[15] Julie Malnig, “Two Stepping to Glory: Social Dance and the Rhetoric of Social Mobility,” contained in Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Albright, ed, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 279.

[16] “List of Columbia P Records,” Sears Roebuck Catalogue, Catalogue No 117 (1908), reprinted as 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue: A Treasured Replica from the Archives of History, (Northfield, IL: DBI Books, Inc, 1971), 200.

[17] Knowles, 71.

[18] 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), 71.

[19] Knowles, 99.

[20] Eve Golden, Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution, (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 101.

[21] Edward A Berlin, Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, (Los Angeles, AC: University of California Press, 1980), 160.

[22] Based on a search of Ballin’ the Jack on Johns Hopkins University Library, JScholarship, Levy Sheet music Collection,, (accessed 7 June 2014).

[23] James Reese Europe, The Castle House Rag, (New York: Jos. Stern Publishing, 1914), contained in Terry Waldo This is Ragtime, 105.

[24] Malnig, contained in Moving History/Dancing Culture, 282.

[25] Golden, 126

[26] Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye, Fashion Since 1900, 2nd ed, (New York: Thames & Hudson Inc, 2000), 40-41.

[27] Castle, 85

[28] Botsford and Berlin, The Grizzly Bear.

[29] Von Tilzer and Bryan, The Cubanola Glide.

[30] Reynolds, 678.

[31] Knowles, 93.

[32] “Challenges a ‘Trotter,’” New York Times, 10 July 1913, 7.

[33] George Brown Tindal and David Emory Shi, American: A Narrative History, 8th ed, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 998.

[34] Morgan and Barlow, 71.

[35] David Kynaston, Family Britain: 1951-1957, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009), 605.