A History of Early American Popular Music


A good old-fashioned girl with heart so true
One who loves nobody else but you[1]

Dominic Vautier 4-11

Early American popular music is a fairly unknown part of our history.  It is also an interesting part because, as may be the case with any attempt to recall times and things past, unrelated factors can influence and even obscure what we perceive took place.  I will try to explain not just the music but also some social aspects of this time, 1892 to 1915 that undoubtedly influenced the music.  The dates are important because they signal a specific change in perception, direction and attitude of America toward its everyday music.  Popular music emerged not just as an industry but also as an economic force.  At this transitional time popular music began to address real social issues, not just moons and Junes as we are liked to believe.  The emerging middle class came to see popular music more as an expression of their own values, talents and enjoyments, and as being really “middle class”, as opposed to something restrictively Victorian, "high brow", and much less exuberant.  In short, the emerging middle class saw popular music as a mirror of itself.

What is presented here as “popular” is that collection of melodies in sheet music form and later in recorded form that was successful in the general market place, and that people were willing to spend valuable money on to have, play and enjoy.  This is actual music Americans sang and danced to.  Our present-day opinions about how important it was a hundred years ago may lead people to pass judgment on which songs were artistically significant.  This argument is perhaps weak compared to the best measuring tool of all, the raw dollars that popular music cost people to buy.  So music that sold millions of copies tell us best which songs made a difference to Americans.

In this context the term “popular”  needs to be a little better defined.  Here I am tempted to consider music that was widely sold, that is, was widely popular.  But the designation “popular music” was a term that developed around the turn of the 1900's to refer to more--a specific type of music.  This type of music was specifically designed to appeal to large and diverse segments of the American public by employing musical elements that everyone wanted and liked.  The music targeted a rising middle class in particular by using a form and content that was most associated with their expectations and accelerating lifestyles.  The framework originally developed by Stephen Foster and perfected by Harry Von Tilzer, Ernest Ball, Joe Howard, and others was highly effective in this respect, and contributed in no small way to the sudden rapid growth and overwhelming success of this type of music.  That movement was so effective that it consequently became permanent, and that fad became what we know today as  “popular music”.

So I talk about several topics that seemed to have influenced early popular music.  First of all I think that the music was strongly interdisciplinary, because it deals with  a society that largely affected musical history of this period, and was in turn itself affected.  Bloomers, which appear to have nothing to do with this topic, are instead a microcosm of a larger movement, being both an element of fashion and a symbol of some of the changes at this time, namely the entry of women into the work force, the drive toward increased independence for women and a greater acceptance of female equality.  Wearing bloomers for example implied that it was not just men who “wore the pants.”  The mere mention of bloomers can be associated with the same insouciance that pervaded early American popular music.  Women who wore bloomers were pushing the envelope of what was permissible, but in greater and greater numbers.  Even “nice” girls began to wear bloomers, although bloomers were considered years earlier as only proper undergarments.  Any woman who wore them, mentioned them, liked them, was symbolically displaying an affinity for what had heretofore been off limits and relegated to the bedroom.  Including sex.

Did you ever see a maiden when she’s riding on her wheel?
How she wears her baggy bloomers that her limbs she may conceal?[2]

Sex also is a big consideration, because there has been an inseparable relationship that music has with physical aspects of the human condition, and this is a good reason why songs of this period cannot help but be  sexual.  Beginning in 1900 the walls of Victorian conservatism, strongly influencing American music for over 60 years before this time, began to give way, and by 1909 popular music was radically different from the music of just ten years before, openly promoting obvious sexual indiscretions, although in a style carefully cloaked in double-meaning and metaphor.

I ain’t had no loven’ since
January, February, June, or July.[3]

A hug he’d give her then
He’d kiss her now and then,
They would kiss again, then
He would row, row, row[4]

Like to feel your cheek so rosy
Like to make you comfy, cozy
‘cause I love from head to toesy[5]
If I could be with you I’d love you strong.
If I could be with you I’d love you long.[6]

The period explored here is not well known.  It could be the absence of war and the consequent perception that this time in our history was uneventful, placid and peaceful--that is to say, boring.  The frontier was gone and high adventure was at a premium.  Billy the Kid was dead along with Jesse James, as well as the larger-than-life lawmen who pursued these symbols of the Wild West.  The heroic accomplishments that tend to fill pages of chronologies came from a bygone age, not this one.  And in addition only one small war occurred.  These may be some of the reasons why this period was a parenthesis in time, but there is no reason to ignore it for great musical value was there.  The music was rich and most of all formative.  As matters now stand, a key page from the gospel of music is lost to us..

This era also suffers from the human tendency to interpret the past in ways that conform to our current tastes and that reinforce our favorite stereotypes.  For example, Meet Me in St. Louis Louis was not much of an earth-shattering song when it was first published, selling perhaps a respectable 200,000 copies of sheet music.  It enjoyed a very successful rebirth in 1941 in a movie of the same name starring Judy Garland.  Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis has, in some minds, incorrectly come to represent the very embodiment of turn-of-the-century popular music, but in truth its part was minor.

Maple Leaf Rag was also a success and also heavily associated with the time, but Classic Ragtime never lasted very long nor was it very successful.  Current thinking distorts the picture with a misconception that Classic Ragtime absolutely dominated the marketplace, which it did not.  Once again a song that was comparatively peripheral has been retrofitted, so it can serve as a convenient and more commercially viable symbol. 

Most of the illustrations contained here have been done in the style of the era.  It is my hope that these graphics provide some contemporary flavor.

Popular music tradition had its beginnings with Stephen Foster.  He based his music loosely on the traditional English ballad, local work songs, and black spiritual music.  He developed the standard verse and the 16-measure chorus.  He installed many devices that helped people remember the words and music.  His tunes were simple, repetitious, and heavily melodic.  That’s the way he thought Americans liked their music, that’s the music they danced to and worked to, and that’s the music they most easily remembered.

Origins of popular music 

Ed Christy’s Minstrels and other groups carried Foster’s tradition forward in the years following the Civil War.  Songwriters such as Harry Kennedy, Ted Harrigan, and James Bland were, by 1880, turning out fairly good music very much in the Foster tradition.  In fact, James Bland's style is strikingly Fosterish, as seen in such ballads as  In The Evening By the Moonlight and Oh Dem Golden Slippers.  These early songwriters gradually began to migrate to New York City prior to 1880 because popular music writing had been largely taken over by the songwriters and publishers located in Manhattan.

By the 1890’s popular music intensified its habit of voraciously borrowing anything that was good and publishable, Vaudeville, Broadway, and minstrelsy being its major sources.  This trend went on until minstrelsy faded and Vaudeville moved to Hollywood.  But popular music continued to draw its material from Broadway, and turned to emerging music sources such as Jazz, Swing, Big Band, The Blues, and later, Rock ‘n Roll and Country.  See Origins of Popular Music in America for more on this subject.



Original Baby Boomers

Other reasons existed for the phenomenal success of popular music starting in the 1890’s, not the least of which was the growth of urban populations.  These populations more than doubled during the period from just after the Civil War to 1900.  This growth was fueled by rural residents who were attracted to big-city jobs, entertainment, and lifestyles.  Immigration played an important part in the buildup of population.  Although the actual proportion of immigrants was only 7 percent then, many of these immigrants gravitated to the music and entertainment business so their participation in musical development was much more significant, adding to it a richness and international character that it may never have possessed otherwise.  American popular music is universal because it was born of immigrants.  See more in my section  The First Baby Boom.


The huge popularity of this music didn’t come about by accident.  For years piano manufacturers had been steadily increasing their output of pianos and harmoniums,[7] and at the same time conducting an effective campaign of so-called “culturization” to educate people.  Sales were up, and the number of new piano students was ever growing.  This effort was well rewarded, because rapid growth in the sale of pianos had long been awaited and expected by these manufacturers. See the section The Piano.


Along with the growth of cities came a corresponding increase in entertainment, in particular dance halls, ballrooms, and amusement parks.  This new type of music largely catered to dance, dominated by the slow American waltz and fast ragtime one-steps which were becoming a sensation among young people.  All successful sheet music of this time was, by its very nature and without exception, dance music, most often in slow American waltz time.  See my section on Dancing.

Sheet Music

Sheet-music sales were spectacular as well.  Before 1892 a 50,000-copy sale was a big deal, but such a sale after 1892 was disappointing.  Million-copy sales were the norm after 1892, and there were probably 100 such million-copy hits between that time and 1915 [8]  The beginning of early popular-music was marked by big sales of sheet music and began to end by 1915.  See Sheet Music for more on this subject.

Recorded Music

The birth of the phonograph sounded the death-knoll for sheet music.  Record players altogether changed the nature of popular music because the media had a lot more to do with the message.  It wasn’t so much the music anymore, but rather, how and where it could be presented.  By 1915, recording stars began to appear and music became portable.  It became a spectator sport.  See Recorded Music.

Sex in Early Music

Almost unknown before 1892, a type of  “social song” came into prominence, one that made relative and meaningful social comment.  Social songs[9] addressed such issues as prostitution and sexual relationships, topics that were absolutely not allowed in popular music before this time.  Victorian restraint was still strong, and popular music had to confront a well-entrenched set of moral taboos.  Songwriters developed ways to get around sexual restrictions, mainly by the use of ambiguous words and phrases, disguises, metaphor, symbolism, and code words.[10]  From about 1900 to 1909, music radically changed in the way it handled topics of a sexual nature.  Efforts to challenge the long-standing Victorian caveats by the more famous songwriters, such as Harry Von Tilzer, Cole and Johnson, Irving Berlin, and Al Piantadosi, began to yield results, and the public started to accept and buy these their songs.  To the shock and disbelief of the old order, premarital sex, petting, clandestine rendezvous, and kissing became favorite song topics.  This is discussed in more detail at Sex in Music.

Music helped Women's Rights

Women also played a significant part in the evolution of modern popular song.  The music reflected changes in dress, recreational habits, and moral conduct, and it encouraged independence and self-awareness among women.  Music may have brought the bicycle into common use or at least contributed to the bicycle fad.  In any case the bicycle fad of the 1890’s radically changed dress styles and altered society’s perception of women. See Women's Rights.

The songwriters of early popular music who came together in New York beginning around 1888 were a diverse collection of talent. Their backgrounds were as different as night and day.  Many came from poverty, and many more were drawn to the city from other places especially the Midwest and South in search of opportunity.  Others came from foreign shores: Jews fleeing the oppression they had been subjected to in Russia, Germans forsaking a fatherland ravaged by war, Irish escaping intense poverty and hunger, Italians wanting a better life, Greeks and Armenians seeking a stable and democratic government, and blacks looking for a life free of hatred and discrimination.  All shared a common purpose: all were driven by a desire to write or play music.  They wanted to be involved in the music industry, not producing just any music. it had to be of the people, music that best represented the backgrounds they themselves had come from and still maintained sentimental attachments to. However diverse their backgrounds, they participated in nearly identical everyday life experiences in the big city. They lived in close proximity to the same saloons, flop houses, brothels, vaudeville theaters, Broadway shows, and beer gardens. They were all exposed to the divergent variety of life in the tenderloin, the Lower East Side , and especially the Bowery.  To look further into this see The Songwriters of Tin Pan Alley.

Probably no fewer than 10,000 moderately successful songs were produced by Tin Pan Alley between 1892 and 1915.  A few of the songs from that time are still heard on occasion such as Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Sweet Adeline, Bill Bailey, Sidewalks of New York, Daisy Bell, and Bird in a Gilded Cage.  But the vast majority of these early songs have been pretty much  forgotten.

A Few Stories

One of the more interesting aspects of this early music were the flashes of insight, inspirations, situations, and urban legends surrounding these compositions.  Some of the stories perhaps were anecdotal or invented simply to gain publicity.  But in general, we have to believe that the interesting little tidbits of folklore surrounding these early songs very well may have happened.  We like to believe they happened anyway.  So here are a few stories about how some songs were made.

Popular music came into a world that was set for change.  The evolution during that period was far greater than what we are accustomed to today.  In our present society, order and custom have been well established for years, and the extent of discomfort we experience due to change usually translates into little more than relative inconvenience.  On the other hand, the changes that affected Americans in the two decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century were deep-seated.  They dealt with issues close to the heart; that is, they involved profound re-adjustments in values and perceptions.  These changes were often necessitated by the dislocation of people from farms and foreign soil to American cities, places of uncomfortable customs and different lifestyles.

One thing that these transplanted arrivals to New York could share was the music.  They might not necessarily share the music of Germany or Greece or Tennessee or South Carolina, but they all responded to the American music of the day.  The street music was sung by merchants, vendors, hurdy-gurdies, trolley car riders, and passers-by.  It spoke of baseball, girlies, canoe rides, the subway, and trips to Coney Island, the things that helped these newly arrived people feel at home in their unfamiliar surroundings.  Music was their language, their first introduction to this way of life, for indeed the music spoke its own kind of language, a universal language.

During summers on the East Side, people left their insufferably hot tenements and took refuge in the streets to talk, barbecue, gossip, play, drink, dance, and sing.  What did they sing?  In the Italian neighborhoods, they sang Italian songs, and in the Irish neighborhoods, they sang Irish songs.  But what did they sing when they all got together?  They sang After the Ball, Daisy Bell, The Band Played On, and Moonlight Bay.  They sang American popular songs.


A Chronology and Other Things

I have developed a year-by-year history of these times.  Each year from 1892 until 1899 is discussed in chronolog one and from 1900 through 1915 in chronology two.  I have also put together a list of million-sellers during this period as well as some of my favorite recorded music.  

Here are some other links in this article:

  Origins of Early Popular Music

     Other sources

  People Growth - the First Baby Boom and it's effect

  How Dancing Helped Music

  Women and Early Music

  Some Early Songwriters

  Some Songs

  The Influence of the Piano

  Recorded Music

  Sheet Music

  Chronicles 1892-1900

  Chronicles 1901-1915

  Million Sellers

[1] Will Dillon and Harry Von Tilzer, I Want a Girl, Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad, 1909.
[2] Douglas Gilbert, Lost Chords: The Diverting Story of American Popular Songs (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1942), 215.
[3] Jack Norworth & Nora Bayes, Shine On Harvest Moon, 1908.
[4] William Jerome and Jimmy Monaco, Row, Row, Row, 1912.
[5] Otto Hauerbach and Karl Hoschna, Cuddle Up a Little Closer, 1908.
[6] Henry Creamer, If I could Be With You One Hour Tonight, 1926.

[7] A small foot-pumped reed organ.  Also called the parlor organ.
[8] Appendix I contains a list of million-sellers.
[9] Appendix VI is an analysis of social songs from 1880 to 1915.
Code words are words that have special meaning w
ithin a subculture.