Tag Archive | music trend

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.” Billboard.com. http://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/1996/hot-100.

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. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/word-of-the-year-runners-up/.

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,” Billboard.com, http://www.billboard.com/archive/charts/1996/hot-100, (accessed 8 June 2014).

[3] Oxford University Press, “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013: Runners-up,” Oxfordwords Blog (blog), published 19 November 2013, http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/word-of-the-year-runners-up/, (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, https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/search?scope=%2F&query=ballin+the+jack&rpp=10&sort_by=0&order=DESC&submit=Go, (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.

American One Hit Wonder: Charles K. Harris

          Creating hits is the backbone of the song writing industry; indeed hits earn money, set musical trends and create the inspiration for others to perpetuate the trade and make more music.  During the era when song writers had higher billing than recording artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, song writers like Harry von Tilzer, George M. Cohan, Paul Dresser and Irving Berlin composed numerous hits each.  Hit making then transitioned from the domain of the composer to performer during the 1920s, particularly when radio became popular entertainment, after which recording stars became the public image of a song.  Recording acts like Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller and The Mills Brother and countless others over the decades have recorded numerous hits as well and this pattern continues into the twenty-first century with hit-makers like Rhianna, Eminem, and Katy Perry among others.  But for some writers and performers, their careers would be defined by a sole big hit.  In more affectionate, modern jargon, these are commonly known as one hit wonders.

          Such was the case for Charles K. Harris, whose ballad “After the Ball” not only was the first song to sell one million copies and become a mass produced hit but it also set the musical trends in style and promotion for a whole decade.  The song’s success, and Harris’s financial windfall from it, inspired other Tin Pan Alley songwriters into a hyperactivity of publishing and promotion with lyricists and composers clamouring to create their own big hits.  Harris’s contribution to the revolution in the song writing trade and Tin Pan Alley’s commercial ambition is enormous.  Yet, despite “After the Ball’s” commercial success, Harris’s later songs did not achieve the level of popularity of his big hit and eventually ragtime replaced the popularity of the sentimental ballad genre and left him without a market for his style of song writing.  Harris however, found success collaborating for musical theatre and advocating for copy write laws for music as a the inaugural secretary of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, where he served for a decade.  The man who wrote the song that commercialized Tin Pan Alley and became an advocate for intellectual property for the music business was the first one hit wonder.

The anatomy of “After the Ball” helps to explain why it became such a success.  One reason why it became a big hit was that the verses sparked emotion.  “After the Ball” is an example of one of the most popular genres of the 1890s:  the sentimental ballad, a sad song which told a story intended to excite emotion in the audience and consequently the potential consumer.  In the song, an old man recounts the story of how his heart was broken and why he had never married.  The central character describes the situation thusly,

“I had a sweetheart, years, years ago

Where she is now, you will soon know.

List’ to the story, I’ll tell it all.

I believed her faithless, after the ball.”[1]

The man explains how after fetching his sweetheart a glass of water, he found her kissing another man, after which his heart breaks and he “never wed.”  In the third verse, the audience learns that “long years have passed” and his sweetheart has now died; the man kissing her evidently was her brother.  The long, heart-rending and sometimes convoluted storyline was integral in a song’s popularity, the soap opera-like lyrics kept the audience’s attention to hear what happens in the next verse.[2]  However, lyrically, Harris notes that the song is not perfect and that there are some odd choices including odd word inversions to fit the meter like “I wish some water” and “List’ to the story, I’ll tell it all.”  However, according to Harris, in the final product, “defects are not so apparent.”[3]  The sentimental ballad was what audiences wanted to hear in 1892, despite the sometimes awkward wordings, and consequently, struck a chord with consumers willing to pay for sheet music.

            But beyond the storyline within the verses, Harris used the chorus to popularize the song.  A reason for the song’s success was that the title was used throughout the song in convenient ways so that the audience could remember it.  The song is a simple ABABAB structure, three consecutive verses, each one its own chapter of the story, each one followed by the same refrain summarizing the song.  It is this refrain which accomplishes the technique of popularization; it repeats a simply lyric that an audience would remember and strengthens the title of the song.  The chorus goes:

After the ball is over, after the break of dawn

After the dancers’ leaving, after the stars are gone

Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all

Many the hope that have vanished, after the ball.[4]

Not only does the title begin and end the refrain, it also ends each of the three verses which precede it.  It is an easily memorable title, which customers could see on the cover of the song in a music section of a shop and purchase later on.  Such techniques are even touted in modern methods of popular song writing in the twenty-first century, and according to one source, the objective of the chorus is to “summarize the idea of the song in a general way and to hammer home its title.”[5]  If an audience needed to remember one part of the song, it would have to be the chorus and Harris was one of the first composers to implement the refrain in popular song specifically for this purpose.   After the song’s success, the technique of making a song memorable via the refrain was standard practice throughout Tin Pan Alley in the 1890s.[6]

        Even though the song became the most popular song of the nineteenth century, it was almost a failure, but because of ruthless promotional techniques it became a tremendously popular hit.  During its debut performance in Milwaukee in 1891, the singer Sam Doctor was laughed off stage when he forgot the complicated lyrics mid-performance.  In order to get another chance for its public performance, Harris enticed the singer J. Aldrich Libby $500 and bribed an orchestra conductor with cigars to shoehorn the song into the popular musical farce A Trip to Chinatown, even though the song did not fit the plot in any way.[7]  After the performance the audience demanded an encore as soon as it ended.[8]  Marketing tactics of this merciless sort, even tampering with another’s music work by inserting one’s one song into it, would become common for pop songs of the era and for Harris, made “After the Ball” the first song to sell one million copies of sheet music.  In fact it went on to sell five million thanks to its continued inclusion in the musical; after all, A Trip to Chinatown, enjoyed 657 consecutive performances  on Broadway.[9]   The next year, John Philip Sousa performed it daily at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago[10] and Irish tenor George J Gaskin’s recordings on phonograph were best sellers of that year.[11]  What began as a bribed addition in a Milwaukee performance of a musical became a total moment of American pop hysteria in that year and set the standards of musical plugging that would overtake Tin Pan Alley later in the decade.

         The song created an instant gauge of not just how many copies a song could sell and how much money could earn a person money, but also how much fame a composer of pop songs could achieve.[12]  As the sole lyricist, composer and publisher, Harris was not obligated to share the song’s earnings, roughly $10 million, with anyone. [13] In New York’s Tin Pan Alley, the hub of American song publishing, Harris’s success must have inspired other songwriters to continue writing and to become successful composers and lyricists themselves.  After 1893, the noisy area of clanging pianos in New York City became the epicenter of a change in mentality for entertainment, from public amusement to profitable industry.  When asked where Tin Pan Alley is, Caesar Irving, writer of “Swanee” and “Tea for Two,” responded, “Closest to the nearest buck.”[14] Pop songs had gone from passive entertainment to business and industry and Charles K. Harris’s big hit is one of, if not the biggest, catalyst in this transformation.

          Harris continued to write and publish lachrymose story songs throughout the 1890s and early twentieth century without the great success of “After the Ball.”[15]  Known as The King of the Tear Jerker, Harris continued to publish ballads with such titles as “My Mama Lives Up in the Sky,” “’Tis Not Always Bullets that Kill,” “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them,” and “When Angels Weep,” among dozens of others.  However, few had the success of “After the Ball.”  Only 1897’s “Break the News to Mother,” about a dying soldier[16] and 1901’s “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven,” in which a child tries to connect with her dead mother in Heaven via the new telephone, were even close to Harris’s previous success.  But by then, a new style of syncopated composition and vernacular lyrical styling known as ragtime was changing the aesthetics of writers in Tin Pan Alley; the popularity of Harris’s composition style faded with the sentimental ballad.  Charles K. Harris, however, continued to remain active in music writing and publishing until his death in 1930.  During the first decade of the twentieth century and in the 1910s, he collaborated with famous and celebrated Broadway composers and lyricists like Reginald de Koven, Oscar Hammerstein, and Victor Herbert.  Beginning in 1914, Harris was the first secretary of the Association of Songwriters, Composers and Publishers and he was a stalwart champion of the copy rights of song writers and composers.  Harris even worked with Warner Bros in the very earliest days of talking movies composing music for film.[17]  Charles K. Harris was even inducted in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1970.

            But the song was larger than he was and it is worth mentioning that Harris continued to relish in the success of the song for the rest of his life.  All of his other published songs subsequently included the tagline “Composer of ‘After the Ball’” above his name on the cover pages to help sell them.  He wrote a screen play for film of the song’s plot in 1910, but it was rejected and was never approved by any studio.  In an early talking video recording, Harris himself sang the tune for the camera.[18]  He even titled his autobiography After the Ball.  But the song has remained a culturally defining moment of the so-called Gay Nineties and is included in the 1927 musical Show Boat, which is partly set during this time.  It also appears in period motion pictures and musicals Lillian Russell (1940), The Jolson Story (1946), and There’s A Girl in My Heart (1950).  “After the Ball” had also been recorded by numerous musicians including Guy Lombardo and Johnny Cash.[19]  Not only did the song have great success, but few other such songs can claim the distinction of being a cultural symbol of an entire era.

            “After the Ball” has the dubious distinction of being an important song in pop history in the amount of change in the industry which followed its success, but also in its composer being the first true one hit wonder.  Within one year of a performance in which its words were forgotten, it became a nation hit that nearly everybody knew.  Thanks to Harris’s tenacity for promotion and the song writing skills he used to popularize the song, it became a big hit.  Although the song changed pop history in nearly every aspect from structure to promotion, Harris did not have another big hit, going on to other arenas of the commercial music industry including the stage and the legal aspects of copyright laws.  But his song continues to have relevance, and it remains a cultural benchmark for the 1890s that people recognize in popular culture.


Blume, Jason.  6 Steps to Songwriting Success:  The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs.  New York:  Billboard Books.  1999.

“Charles K. Harris – After the Ball.”  YouTube video, 3:16.  Posted by “adamgswanson,” on 26 November 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIXGlQdTDKY.

“Charles K. Harris:  Biography.”  Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Accessed on 24 January 2014. http://songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/bio/C264

“Charles K. Harris:  Home Exhibit.”  Songwriters Hall of Fame.  Accessed on 24 January 2014. http://songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C264

“Chas K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker.”  The Parlor Songs Academy.  Accessed on 1 February 2014.  Parlorsongs.com/bios/ckharris/ckharris.php.

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

Harris, Charles K.  “After the Ball.”  New York:  Chas. K. Harris & Co.  1892.

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

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

Whitburn, Joel.  Pop Memories:  1890-1955.  Menomonee, WI:  Record Research Inc.  1966.

[1] Charles K Harris, “After the Ball,” (New York:  Chas. K Harris & Co, 1892).

[2] Philip Furia, The Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1990), 22-23.

[3] Charles K. Harris, qtd in Furia, 23.

[4] Harris, “After the Ball.”

[5] Jason Blume, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success:  The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs, (New York:  Billboard Books, 2001), 4.

[6] Furia, 24.

[7] Larry Stempel. Showtime:  A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, (New York:  W.W. Norton & Co, 2010), 152.

[8] Thomas S Hischak, The Tin Pan Alley Encyclopedia, (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 2002), s.v. “After the Ball,.”

[9] Stempel, 69.

[10] “Charles K Harris:  Home Exhibit,” Song Writers Hall of Fame, accessed on 24 January 2014, http://songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/C264.

[11] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1955, (Menomonee, WI:  Record Research Inc, 1986), 642.

[12] Furia, 23.

[13] “Charles K Harris:  Biography,” Song Writer’s Hall of Fame, accessed on 24 January 2014, http://songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/bio/C264.

[14] Caesar Irving, qtd in Furia,19.

[15] Furia, 25.

[16] There are accounts which indicate that “Break the News to Mother” was originally written in 1891 about a dying firefighter, not a soldier.  See “Chas. K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker,” contained on The Parlor Songs Academy, last modified February 2011, http://www.parlorsongs.com/bios/ckharris/ckharris.php.

[17] “Chas K Harris:  King of the Tear Jerker,” found on The Parlor Songs Academy.

[18] “Charles K Harris – After the Ball,” YouTube video, 3:16, posted by “adamgswanson,” posted on 26 November 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIXGlQdTDKY.

[19] Hischak, 4.