Tag Archive | pop culture

Mechanical Reproductions, Pt 2: The Player Piano as Musical Instrument

During the 1910s and 1920s, the mechanical player piano became a popular and technologically forward-thinking form of entertainment. Like the Phonograph or the Victrola, the player piano gave their owners access to instant musical entertainment without the fuss of actually learning how to play a musical instrument or how to read sheet music. Consequently, the mechanical piano as a domestic appliance partly aided in the cultural collapse of home piano playing. On the other hand, the player piano gave consumers, some of whom were completely unable to play a musical instrument, the opportunity to enjoy live music in the home, albeit reproduced mechanically through the guise of a musical instrument. The idiosyncrasies of fewer people learning to play the piano with a growing interest in piano music cannot be more blatant during this transitional period from Ragtime Era to the Jazz Era in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The former asserts that the manual piano was falling out of fashion, while the latter shows that there was still a considerable consumer market for piano music. As a machine, the player piano was a brief fad that had transformative effects on piano culture in America; as a musical instrument, it expanded the reach of piano music in the home.

The results of mechanical reproduction of piano music were widely varied from context to context, but most of piano culture had been affected by the player piano. Within the home, the piano roll transformed musicianship of piano playing into musical ownership of mass produced piano rolls, passive music that anybody with the financial means of purchasing a player piano could enjoy. This change also happened in commercial settings like restaurants and saloons to provide background music, as well as movie theatres to provide a soundtrack to early, otherwise silent films. The piano roll medium also had influence on classical composers eager to tap the experimental potential of a machine that lacked the limitations of human play. For pop song history in the United States, mechanically reproduced piano music and lushly arranged piano rolls helped to popularize stylized ragtime novelty piano pieces during an era when ragtime was already out of fashion in favour of the orchestras of the early Jazz Era. Finally, there was one significant cultural change incurred by the sheer anonymity of the player piano roll. African American musicians, who were oftentimes segregated from white mass commercial audiences, found that they could record their own piano performances and earn commercial success without their audiences knowing they were listening to black musicians. Despite the fad of the player piano, the medium had diverse effects on American musical culture.

Throughout the Ragtime Era, the Victorian-age ethos of domestic piano playing had declined but with the player piano, a new, more accepting attitude about mechanisation and modernisation in music was taking hold with music purchasing consumers. The attitudes of many Americans at the time had shifted to positively embracing mechanical reproducing music. Machines which produced music like talking machines and mechanical pianos were considered part of the musical future, and according to James Haskins, “time is money, and if a middle-class family could afford a Pianola[1] and piano rolls, then they did not have to waste time learning to play on a standard piano.”[2] This new attitude towards mechanically reproduced music changed the culture surrounding the domestic piano away from musicianship and art form and towards music ownership of an entertaining consumer commodity; where music was consumed passively rather than engaged actively on the keyboard. While mastery of the keyboard took months and sometimes years to produce good music, the owner of the player piano could easily operate it and provide entertainment in the home without substantial musical expertise. Many popular titles throughout the 1900s were becoming widely available on piano rolls for consumers. This new passive form of entertainment also meant that player piano owners could also gain wider access to classical music, some compositions of which had been beyond the skill level of even more experienced players. Many titles of the classical music canon consequently became must-have piano rolls, compositions that showed one’s knowledge of cultured music within the home music library.[3] With attitudes towards music changing, the player piano became the latest machine to own, ownership of which created the opportunity for anyone to enjoy live musical experiences in the home.

Passive piano music as entertainment was not confined to domestic environs, it was also available as a commercial venture and business found that they could earn revenue with a coin-operated player piano. Coin-operated music was nothing new to the public; in fact coin-operated Phonographs had entered public spaces as early as 1890.[4] As soon as standardized player pianos became widely available for purchase in the early 1910s, there were restaurants, saloons, cafes, train stations and even grocery store interested in purchasing special, more decorative coin-operated player pianos. These machines could provide business owners with a steady stream of revenue with each drop of a coin of a customer curious about the machine and so live, playerless music became public entertainment, passive background music and commercial investment. Businesses were even instructed by piano roll makers to keep up with the latest popular piano roll titles of to ensure that consumers got the freshest music possible, so customers would not become bored with stale music selections.[5] As well, during the 1910s when the early film industry operated without sound, movie houses and theatres found that they could incorporate a player piano to provide accompanying music, sometimes with piano rolls supplied directly by the movie studio with music synched with the action shown on screen, thus circumventing reliance on a human piano player. Complex player machines had been manufactured specifically for movie theatres to include any sound effect needed for a movie. The Link Piano Company advertised a player piano equipped with four tracker bars and roll mechanisms to facilitate “the right music at the right time,” along with a host of sound effects ranging from footsteps, to gun shots, to sirens and alarms to go along with the action happening before the audience’s eyes.[6] As soon as the mechanical piano became part of the music environment of America, there were also applications of passive music in commercial and industrial settings.

Of course, whenever a new technological development for music comes to the public’s attention, there are vocal critics to oppose it. Such was the case of the player piano, whose mechanical music worried some groups about the status of art in music while others worried that it would destroy their own musical occupations. One of the earliest groups to criticize the mechanisms of the player piano were the Music Teachers National Association, who feared that the widespread popularity of the player piano could lead to fewer people learning proper musical technique.[7] Although player pianos were often advertised and marketed for educational and instructional purposes, “it did not turn people into pianists,” according to Michael Chanan.[8] More opposition came from barbershop quartets, brass bands and orchestras, who saw coin-operated player pianos fitting into hotel lobbies, brothels, restaurants and train stations, places where they would generally be hired to provide background music. After all, bands had to be paid, but a player piano fitted with a coin slot could easily earn money for the proprietor. Composers were also alarmed at the player piano and the piano roll, since copyright law did not include mechanical reproduction; as a result, piano roll makers could produce any popular title they wanted without paying a royalty. Record companies had, in fact, worked closely with sheet music publishers and composers for years to promote sales of popular titles,[9] but piano roll companies that published titles without consultation with publishers, were on the fringes of musical publication. A new copyright law in 1909 had to be passed to include mechanical reproduction, including piano roll.[10] While the new technology allowed easier access to live piano music and ease of piano roll reproduction, there were detractors fearful about the changes in the music culture in America as a result from the player piano.

The music business also changed to include freshly arranged compositions and recordings for famous composers, all available in the paper piano roll format. Traditional manual piano composition and play was restricted to ten fingers, but the mathematical nature of piano roll production changed this considerably with its slits and perforations dictating the action of the piano keys. From the inception of the player piano industry, manufacturers could create perfectly, technically masterful performances, albeit with the lack of heart that a musician could play a composition.[11] As a mechanically produced product, the possibilities for the music contained on a piano roll were boundless; consequently, mechanical reproduction of the music on a paper piano roll could emulate harmony, rhythms and range that human hands could not. Staff arrangers at piano roll companies used this to their advantage, enriching the sounds of already produced titles by adding flourishes to music rolls including “counter melodies, double octaves, tremolos, rapid chromatic runs…all impossible to play by hand.”[12] In 1912, new technology which reproduced more artistic nuances in music for the player piano brought another dimension to the player piano by transcribing live performances on paper roll by ink ready for perforation.[13] A wide range of renowned Romantic composers recorded their own playing on piano rolls, including Camille Saint-Saëns, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Artur Rubenstein; piano roll recording subsequently becoming an “adjunct of musical culture.”[14] Ragtime composer Scott Joplin got into the commercial recording industry with his own piano playing transcribed to piano roll, even though his original performances from 1916 had been heavily edited and arranged to include new, humanly impossible playing.[15] Not only could the new recording mechanisms record the ways in which composers interpreted the piano, it also captured all their playing mistakes on paper roll, all of which could easily be repaired on the final version of the piano roll.[16] The medium of the piano roll could do much more than any single person could possibly perform on a piano.

The boundless world of player piano music gave inspiration to Modernist composers who, throughout the 1910s and 1920s, were eager to push the expanding boundaries of modern music. Perhaps the first composer to create a composition specifically for the player piano was Igor Stravinsky, producing the Étude pour Pianola in 1917. For Stravinsky, interest was in the “whimsicalities of the unexpected melodies of the mechanical piano” to emulate a pianist with “sixteen arms and no feelings.”[17] Claude Debussy also found similar inspiration in player piano. Perhaps the most notorious use of the mechanical piano composition was George Antheil’s La Ballet Mécanique, which had originally been scored to include sixteen simultaneous player pianos, sirens, tam tams, and aeroplane propellers.[18] Composer Conlon Nancarrow has composed over fifty studies specifically for the player piano to explore the “complex simultaneous sounding rhythms along with such impossibly wide reaches for the pianist’s hand.”[19] But composers quickly learned that concert application of the player piano was limited despite the futuristic idea of a piano that could play itself. In 1921, Stravinsky had planned on including a number of synchronized mechanical pianos into a performance of the ballet Les Noces, but due to time constraints and observed difficulties in synchronizing the machines, he abandoned the project in favour of an arrangement that opted for wind instruments and percussion.[20] At the well publicized 1927 debut of Ballet Mécanique at Carnegie Hall, synching four player pianos was too difficult for Antheil and the result was a lot of noise and riotous protest from the audience, along with a number of attendees loosing their hats due to wind from propellers; one critic expressed derision at the performance by quipping “don’t make a mountain out of an Antheil.”[21] But despite the difficulties of bringing to work to the stage, Ballet Mécanique was so futuristic that MIDI technology in the 1990s finally allowed a first perform the piece as planned by Antheil.[22] For composers, the player piano offered possibilities of realising futuristic sounds without interaction by human hands.

Even though there were few pop song consequences of the player piano as a musical instrument, but there was one pop area that did enjoy tremendous success, specifically linked to the popularity of the player piano. By 1917, when Tin Pan Alley composers were looking towards the war in Europe as a topic for commercial songs, a new musical trend was coming out of the piano rolls of music consumers, that of the novelty ragtime piano piece. “The most important medium in terms of the instrumental rag, however, was the player piano,”[23] according to Terry Waldo, a musical genre developed from new mechanical methods of arrangement and ornamentation.[24] During the late 1910s, the ragtime genre was on the decline, but the possibilities unleashed by piano rolls actually helped to produce a whole body of popular ragtime piano work. During the height of player piano popularity, piano techniques of accomplished ragtime pianists of sliding block chords and dizzying syncopated rhythms had found themselves on the pop market and the player piano was the preferred medium for hearing such pieces. The compositions of Zez Confrey like “Kitten on the Keys” (1921), “My Pet” (1921), “Dizzy Fingers” (1923), and “Stumbling” (1922) were well suited for the player piano of this new novelty piano style and becoming big selling hits for piano rolls. Other composers like Roy Bargy had novelty hits like his 1919 piano rag “Knice and Knifty.[25] There is a plausible reason for the upsurge in novelty piano at a time when pop audiences were more embracing the orchestration of Jazz. When these titles had been published between 1919 and 1921, the player piano was experiencing the zenith of sales and more people than ever were buying the instrument and the piano rolls played on them. As a new, rhythmic music on a popular medium, it makes sense that novelty piano enjoyed popularity at a time when Ragtime was out of fashion.

But there are other, more culturally significant aspects of the music of the player piano that changed the musical scene in the United States. Even though there had been successful African musicians and composers during the Ragtime era like recording artist George Washington Johnson, stage performer Bert Williams, and composers James Reese Europe and James P. Johnson, most music coming out of Tin Pan Alley and the recording studios were created by white composers and musicians. It had been a well-established tradition to “black-up” for stage and studio. Singer Al Jolson originally performed his vaudeville act and popular songs in blackface throughout the 1910s and Arthur Collins’s recordings in African American dialect were so successful that in 1905 Edison Records released a disclaimer proclaiming that “Mr. Collins is not a Negro.”[26] During the 1910s, African American pianists learned that they could record their piano playing and earn money selling performances, spread their reputations by quick distribution of paper piano rolls, all unbeknownst to the white consumers purchasing the new novelty piano rolls.[27] Perhaps the first black musician to record a piano roll was John “Blind” Boone in 1912 and stride piano player Eubie Blake made numerous paper roll recordings throughout his career. The piano roll was a revelation for some piano players. When he learned through the pages of The Etude magazine that a contraption called the Leabarjan Perforator could allow home dictation of piano playing “for pleasure or profit,”[28] J. Johnson Cook saved the advertisement for so long that “it began to yellow” for the hopes that he could buy such a mechanism.[29] In the late 1910s, aspiring pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller had practiced on the player piano to learn how to play music, consequently winning a contest and becoming hired to accompany movies at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem in 1919.[30] Piano roll recording was a source of delight for Waller; his son, Maurice, recounts that his father was so proud of his player piano recordings that he carried a piano roll of his most recent effort in his coat pocket.[31] Recording on a piano roll allowed black musicians to earn a living recording music for white audiences who may not know they were listening to black people play the piano.

Although the player piano had a brief overall popularity, after all, throughout the 1920s, radio broadcasts and Jazz Era music did their part in the decline of the piano, its musical capabilities had a diverse influence. Within the home, mechanical pianos allowed owners of any skill level to perform live music, albeit at the expense of actual musicianship. Businesses created a new stream of revenue by coin-operated player piano and the latest piano roll titles, and mechanical pianos player a part of the early years of silent film during the 1910s. The player piano, or more specifically the limitless capabilities of the piano roll, allowed classical composers an outlet for rhythmic and sonic experimentation. But for American pop song, the player piano introduced novelty ragtime piano piece and the playing styles of African American musicians to a mass commercial audience. This was not an insignificant development, considering the amount of segregation in the music industry during this era. The music of the player piano, a quaint distant memory of music history, certainly impacted numerous areas of the music industry.


Antheil, George. The Bad Boy of Music. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. 1945.

Chanan, Michael. “The Player Piano.” Contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano. James Parakilas, ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1999. 72-75.

Cheek, Joshua.   Liner notes to George Antheil: Ballet Mécanique. Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. NAXOS, 8.559060. CD. 1999.

Dolan, Brian. Inventing Entertainment: The Player Piano and the Origin of an American Musical Industry. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. 2009.

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

Haskins, James. Scott Joplin: The Man Who Made Ragtime. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company. 1978.

Kirby, F.E. Music for Piano: A Short History. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press. 1995.

“‘Mr. Collins is not a Negro’—Edison Takes on the Rumor Mill.” The Mainspring Press Record Collector’s Blog (blog). Posted 8 March 2013. http://78records.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/mr-collins-is-not-a-negro-edison-takes-on-the-rumor-mill/.

Roehl, Harvey. Player Piano Treasury: The Scrapbook History of the Mechanical Piano in America. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press. 1973.

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

Sumner, William Leslie. The Pianoforte. London, UK: MacDonald. 1966.

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

Waldo, Terry. This Is ragtime. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1976.

Waller, Maurice and Anthony Calabrese. Fats Waller. New York: Schirmer Books. 1977.

Walsh, Stephen. Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934. New York: Alfred A Knoff. 1999.

[1] The brand name Pianola is often used as a synonym for the player piano.

[2] James Haskins, Scott Joplin: The Man who made Ragtime, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1978), 109.

[3] Brian Dolan, Inventing Entertainment: The Player Piano and the Origins of an American Musical Industry, (New York: Rownman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 138.

[4] Timothy C. Fabrizio and George F. Paul, The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997), 24.

[5] Craig H. Roell, The Piano in America, 1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 59

[6] Roell, 51-52.

[7] Ibid, 55.

[8] Michael Chanan, “The Player Piano,” contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, James Parakilas, ed, (New Hartford, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 74.

[9] Roell, 59.

[10] Copyright Law of 1909, contained in Linda Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law: A Beginner’s Guide, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Sect 78(e).

[11] Terry Waldo, This Is Ragtime, (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1976), 83.

[12] Waldo, 84.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Chanan, contained in Piano Roles, 73.

[15] Haskins, 193-194.

[16] William Leslie Sumner, The Pianoforte, (London, UK: MacDonald, 1966), 195.

[17] Igor Stravinsky, qtd in Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934, (New York: Alfred A Knoff, 1999), 282.

[18] Joshua Cheek, liner notes to George Antheil: Ballet Mécanique, Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, NAXOS, 8.559060, CD, 1999.

[19] F.E. Kirby, Music for Piano: A Short History, (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995), 381.

[20] Igor Stravinsky, qtd in Walsh, 323-324.

[21] George Antheil, The Bad Boy of Music, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Co, 1945), 195-196.

[22] Dolan, 172-3.

[23] Waldo, 82.

[24] Ibid, 84.

[25] Ibid, 85-86.

[26] “Mr. Collins is Not a Negro,” Edison Phonograph Monthly, June 1905, found on The Mainspring Press Record Collector’s Blog (blog), posted 8 March 2013, accessed 25 July 2014, http://78records.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/mr-collins-is-not-a-negro-edison-takes-on-the-rumor-mill/

[27] Dolan, 94.

[28] Advertisement for the Leabarjan Perforator, contained in Harvey Roehl, Player Piano Treasury: The Scrapbook History of the Mechanical Player Piano, (Vestal, NY: The Vestal Press, 1973), 189.

[29] J. Johnson Cook, qtd in Dolan, 135.

[30] Dolan, 136.

[31] Maurice Waller and Anthony Calabrese, Fats Waller, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977), 46.

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. ASCAP.com. 12 February 2014. http://www.ascap.com/press/2014/0213-2013-financials.aspx.

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.” ladygaga.com. http://www.ladygaga.com/news/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. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music-arts/listen-katy-perry-new-single-roar-leaked-online-article-1.1423927.

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. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/feb13.html.

“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,” ladygaga.com,accessed 12 June 2014, http://www.ladygaga.com/news/pop-music-emergency.

[2] Chidereah Monde, “Katy Perry’s New Single, ‘Roar,’ Leaks Online Ahead of Official Release,” NY Daily News, 11 August 2013, http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music-arts/listen-katy-perry-new-single-roar-leaked-online-article-1.1423927.

[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, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/feb13.html.

[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 http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/ascap-100-years-and-beyond/early-years.html.

[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, http://copy.law.cam.ac.uk/cam/tools/request/showRecord?id=record_us_1897.

[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, ip.findlaw.com, accessed 14 June 2014, http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=242&invol=591.

[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, ASCAP.com, 12 February 2014, accessed 15 June 2014, http://www.ascap.com/press/2014/0213-2013-financials.aspx.

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.

1900s Pop Trend: Technological Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come away with me, Lucille, In my merry Oldsmobile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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).

Entertaining Business: The Development of the First Big Three Record Companies

            Although sentimental ballads sold millions of copies of sheet music during the 1890s for play on a home piano, consumers for over a century since have had access to pop songs through musical recordings.  While the technology has changed dramatically regarding a consumer’s access to commercial song, including radio, talking movies, television, and media like vinyl record, cassette, CD and mp3 files, what has not changed is the business of selling these various formats to consumers.  This commercial venture of selling music technology bridges the business of selling both technology and music; consumers experience the latter so they will purchase the former.  In the twenty-first century, Apple is in the business of selling songs via its iTunes Store, and also its lucrative playback methods on many of its devices like its iPod or iPhone.  In the nineteenth century, when the talking machine[1] became the first format of reproducing music on a mass scale, it was the manufacturers of the machines and the materials on which music was recorded that had control of the business of recorded pop music. 

            The development of the record company during this time takes a basic understanding of the evolving technology, who controlled the patents for its recording and playback, and the ruthless business tactics common during of Gilded Age America.  Initially, the business of talking machines had nothing to do with selling music; talking machines companies had little interest in selling recorded music at all believing that their machines would be used in business.  Music eventually did become the greatest marketing tool for selling machines, after which numerous manufacturers became the record labels on which music was recorded.  But throughout second half of the 1890s, patent lawsuits on components and company consolidation eventually simplified the market for record companies, leaving behind a landscape of the first big three music companies in America dealing in music:  Columbia, Edison and Victor Gramophone.  It was not the music business that created commercialized recordings at all, but rather control over patents and technology that companies could sell.  The evolution of the first big three record companies had a profound effect on the history of pop song in America, and it began a model which dominates the music market in the twenty-first century, in 2014, three big record companies still control a substantially large portion of the pop market:  Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Group.

            In order for modern pop songs to have playability, there must exist a machine to play them, and in the late nineteenth century, it was the talking machine.  While the idea of a machine reproducing sound was not new when Thomas Edison invented his Phonograph in 1877, Frenchman Charles Cros thought of a machine before he did,[2] Edison would be the first to patent it.  The Phonograph used a needle whose vertical movements were dictated by the vibrations of a person’s voice through a mouthpiece, resulting in stamped out indentations on a tinfoil film over a cylinder of cardboard as the cylinder spun, with the sound emitting from a horn.  It worked much like a typewriter for sound and it worked the very first time Edison experimented with it.  Edison himself was “never so taken aback in all my life…I was always afraid of anything that worked for the first time.”[3]  Although he formed the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company in 1878 and started a vigorous campaign of promotional scientific articles for the “wonderful invention,”[4] Edison had never perfected the medium.  He eventually set the Phonograph project aside to work on another invention, indoor lighting, to alleviate the problem of gas burners and kerosene lamps setting increasingly paper-packed offices ablaze.[5]  The Phonograph had created substantial buzz in America, some of which was created by Edison himself, but the project got no further than the machine and resulted in some small sales based on curiosity for it.

            To make an actual sound recording, there must be a reliable medium onto which sounds could be produced.  This achievement was not perfected at Edison’s Labs, but rather the laboratory of rival Alexander Graham Bell.  Edison failed to find a material or a playback mechanism which did not destroy the recording when removing it from the machine[6] and in Bell’s laboratory, there was great interest in reproducing sound.  After approaching Edison for possible collaboration in 1886, and after Edison’s outright refusal, Bell’s Volta Labs began their own successful experiments.  The resulting mechanism, the Bell-Tainter floating stylus, etched grooves onto a cylinder whose surface was coated with a layer of wax, a medium which reproduced sound better than Edison’s tinfoil cylinder.[7]  Volta Labs filed patents for both the wax cylinder and the Bell-Tainter repeater and consequently formed the North American Graphophone Company in 1886.  Bell owned the patents the method for which its playback and recording were possible, and eventually Edison issued his own wax-based “Improved Phonographs” in 1888.[8]  This situation created a business environment of two companies in immediate competition with each other in the relatively new market of the talking machine.

            For Edison and North American Graphophone, initially their talking machines had nothing to do with an entertainment marketing for music, but rather with practical purposes of an appliance for the office.  Office work was becoming more mechanized throughout the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, and if a new invention like the typewriter or the telephone could have functional and efficient business applications, then there were firms interested in purchasing them.[9]  For Edison, the motivation to invent the Phonograph came about when Western Union wanted fresh technology to record messages for its telegram lines which did not involve Bell’s telephone patents.[10]  After a hiatus from the Phonograph, and after its improvement in 1888, Edison Phonograph was then marketed as a solution to sloppy secretarial penmanship which reduced productivity.[11]  In the case of American Graphophone, their company’s proximity to Capital Hill enticed congressional reporters with the potential use of the machine for journalism; two legal reporters subsequently invested heavily in the company.[12]  Not all business ventures were as serious as communication or journalism; for example, Edison Phonograph spun off a subsidiary toy company which manufactured delicate speech functions for dolls.  In the late 1880s, talking machine companies were not in the business of selling their machines for musical purposes; instead, they marketed them for business.

            Even though there was some interest in a new expensive invention, talking machine sales lagged and companies eventually entered the entertainment market.  By recording and selling music on their own cylinders, companies like Edison or Graphophone believed that the customer would purchase one of their talking machines to play recorded music.  The first company to market in this manner was Columbia Phonograph recording exclusively for Graphophone around 1889, when Columbia hired the US Marine Band led by composer John Philip Sousa to record some of their popular military marches like “Semper Fidelis” and “The Washington Post.”  Although Sousa himself found recorded music “an impending harm to American musical art”,[13] the Marine Band’s recordings resulted in immediate success for both Graphophone and Columbia’s record sales. The band returned to Columbia’s studios several times a week to keep ahead of record demand, sometimes selling one thousand record in a week in 1890.[14]  Sousa’s Band would become one of the best-selling recording artists of the nineteenth century, including their famous 1897 recordings of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” also recorded on Columbia.[15]  Columbia also hired popular Italian tenor Enrico Caruso with great success.  However, Edison Phonograph still intended to market machines for business purposes and did not initially enter the music market until later in the 1890s and Phonograph sales slumped partly as a result of this decision.  The decision by Columbia to begin marketing recorded music had profound effects on pop song history by not only promoting celebrity musicians, but by also changing the business model by using Graphophone’s format to help sell talking machines.

            Talking machine companies were not the only kinds of businesses to use music and Americans’ increasing thirst for popular songs to boost income.  Saloons, hotels, brothels, theatres, train stations all found that they could supplement their income by adding talking machines to the environs, fitting them with coin operating systems and selling music to consumers for a nickel per play.  The trick worked tremendously well for such businesses, one drug store owner in New Orleans reported that he earned $500 in a month in 1891, enough to earn back the initial investment on the Phonograph.[16]  Whole arcades exclusively for the purpose of listening to recorded music on machine had entered the business as well; the Palais Royal Saloon in San Francisco had fifteen machines fitted for coin operation and listening stethoscope-like ear tubes in 1890.[17]  Salesmen claiming titles of “professor” or “doctor” travelled around with machines and earphones selling music plays to rural customers.[18]  The appetite and market for music was so large in the early 1890s that pirated music became problematic.  Dealers in black market music fashioned together pantograph mechanisms which would copy cylinders of pop songs for sale; although they did not have the sound quality of big name labels, pirated music was cause for alarm for record companies.[19]  Not only did music change the nature of the talking machine business, it was also changing the culture of businesses that could capitalize on Americans’ enthusiasm for recorded music.

            With the success that the Graphophone was having with recording and the famous and valuable name embossing each of Edison’s Phonograph machines, another competitor, German-born Emile Berliner, would change the nature of the medium on which music was recorded. The difficulty of recording on cylinders was that each one had to be individually recorded and there was no easy way for a company to duplicate an original recording with the same sound standards.  If a company had an order for 200 copies of a song, then the recording artist, even while recording on four machines simultaneously, would have to perform the song the same way fifty times in a row in the early years of acoustic recording.[20]  Instead of writing on a cylinder, Berliner created a system that produced music on a flat disk, and copies of recordings could be pressed into a mould and mass produced quicker than cylinder recordings.  In 1895, Berliner gained a patent for his machine, the Gramophone. Not only were records cheaper, but so were his machines, some as inexpensive as $15 in 1895.[21]  Columbia also began to manufacture its own disk player, the Zonophone, in 1900.[22]  By the turn of the twentieth century, Berliner’s Gramophone was gaining popularity as an alternative to cylinder machines, creating a new format from which consumers could get access to recorded music.  Subsequently, the disk format in its various forms would remain popular for most of the twentieth century.

            With a new invention selling well by the mid-1890s, scores of new talking machine companies like Talkophone, Vitaphone, Metaphone, and Echophone went into business,[23] but many eventually became victims of the business culture around the turn of the century.  Business were constantly consolidating either through acquisition or through organizational efforts, and larger companies frequently bought or merged with smaller ones.[24]  Berliner Gramophone and US Gramophone, for example, merged to form the Consolidated Gramophone Company in 1900.[25]  If companies were not victims of the reorganizational efforts, then they were likely sued over the patents in their machines, no matter how minute the details of a mechanism and these patent lawsuits ultimately gave way to the first three big record companies.  Considering that after the transformation in invention that had taken place during the nineteenth century, the original 1790 American Patent Law had not been amended allowing for a substantial number of such lawsuits.[26]  Large companies not only sued each other over inventions, but also sued smaller ones out of existence.  American Graphophone had aggressively been trying to litigate Edison out of business beginning in 1895 over the Bell-Tainter patent.[27]  The Chicago Talking Machine Company had been sued out of existence in 1897 by Columbia for adding a third spring in its motors. The remnants of the company were purchased by Columbia after which, Columbia began producing machines fitted with a third spring in its motor design.[28]  The Consolidated Gramophone Company was even involved in a patent lawsuit with Columbia in 1901 and when company president Eldridge Johnson was confident that he would win his case, he named his company Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901.[29]  By the end of these so-called talking machine wars, three big companies survived.

            The cathartic changes in the talking machine business had been resolved in 1903 with three companies controlling the majority of the markets for both talking machines and recorded music.  There was Edison Phonograph, which dealt with cylinders exclusively; Victor Gramophone, which used flat disks; and Columbia, which used both formats.  For nearly two decades afterwards, these three companies controlled the market for pop sings in America and, with century-old copyright laws which did not include sound recordings,[30] record companies could record any music they wished until such laws were amended in 1909.[31]  This trend in big business controlling major markets in music still exists today with the likes of Sony, Universal and Warner Music Group owning much of the pop song content audiences hear.  For pop song history, what started as talking machine companies trying to sell machines by using songs, became the first three major record companies releasing music by the end of the talking machine wars of 1903.


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

Beatty, Jack.  Colossus:  How the Corporation Changed America.  New York:  Broadway Books, 2001. 128.

Bruce, Robert V.  Bell:  Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude.  Boston, MA:  Little Brown and Co.  1973.

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

Mackay, James.  Alexander Graham Bell:  A Life.  New York:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  1997.

Morton, David.  Sound Recording:  The Life and Story of a Technology.  Baltimore, MD:  The Johns Hopkins University Press.  2004.

Schlereth, Thomas J.  Victorian America:  Transformations in Everyday Life.  New York:  HarperColins Publishers.  1991.

Sousa, John Philip.  “The Menace of Mechanical Music.”  1906.  Explore PA History. http://explorepahistory.com/odocument.php?docId=1-4-1A1.

“The Stenographer’s Friend, or What was Accomplished by an Edison Business Phonograph.” Historic Films, 7:54.  http://www.historicfilms.com/tapes/17641.

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

——-.  Understanding Patent Law:  A Beginner’s Guide.  New York:  Oxford University Press. 2010.

Whitburn, Joel.  Pop Memories:  1890-1954.  Menomonee Falls, WI:  Record Research Inc. 1986.

Zunz, Olivier.  Making America Corporate:  1870-1920.  Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press. 1990.

[1] For a general term for machines that acoustically recorded sound, regardless of the brand stated like Phonograph or Gramophone, the term talking machine will be used throughout the remainder of this essay.

[2] Timothy C. Fabrizio and George F. Paul, The Talking Machine:  An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929, (Atglen, PA:  Schiffer Publishing, 1997), 9.

[3] Thomas A Edison, qtd in Neil Baldwin, Edison:  Inventing the Century, (New York:  Hyperion, 1995), 83.

[4] Neil Baldwin, Edison:  Inventing the Century, (New York:  Hyperion, 1995), 81.

[5] Olivier Zunz, Making America Corporate:  1870-1920, (Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 108.

[6] Fabrizio and Paul, 10.

[7] Robert V. Bruce, Bell:  Alexander Graham Bell and the conquest of Solitude, (Boston, MA:  Little Brown and Co, 1973), 354.

[8] Baldwin, 191-192

[9] Thomas J Schlereth, Victorian America:  Transformations in Everyday Life, (New York:  HarperColins Publishers, 1991), 190.

[10] Fabrizio and Paul, 9.

[11] “The Stenographer’s Friend, or What was Accomplished by an Edison Business Phonograph” (1910), Historic Films, 7:54, http://www.historicfilms.com/tapes/17641.

[12] James Mackay, Alexander Graham Bell:  A Life, (New York:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1997), 216.

[13] John Philip Sousa, “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” 1906, Explore PA History, http://explorepahistory.com/odocument.php?docId=1-4-1A1.

[14] Fabrizio and Paul, 17.

[15] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories:  1890-1954, (Menomonee Falls, WI:  Record Research Inc, 1986), 625.

[16] Schlereth, 192.

[17] Fabirizo and Paul, 24.

[18] ibid, 31.

[19] ibid.

[20] David Morton, Sound Recording:  The Life and Story of a Technology, (Baltimore, MD:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 176.

[21] Fabrizio and Paul, 37.

[22] ibid, 75.

[23] ibid, 36-39.

[24] Jack Beatty, Colossus:  How the Corporation Changed America, (New York:  Broadway Books, 2001), 128.

[25] Fabrizio and Paul, 76.

            [26] Linda A. Tancs, Understanding Patent Law:  A Beginner’s Guide, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010), 1.

[27] Fabrizio and Paul, 35.

[28] Fabrizio and Paul, 40.

[29] ibid, 78.

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

[31] The Copyright Act of 1909, Sect. 1(e) (1906), contained in Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law, 67-89.