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The Music of the Gilded Age (March 2021): Popular Vocal Music

by John Druesedow

Popular Vocal Music

In the second half of the nineteenth century, popular vocal music thrived in home parlors, with people gathered around the piano—with its piano bench full of sheet music—at various social gatherings, and on the popular stage in musical productions of all kinds. (A scene in the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis provides a prototypical example of a family singing around the piano.) Pianos and sheet music were everywhere, and piano manufacturing was at its height in the last years of the Gilded Age.

The sheet music industry expanded enormously. Popular entertainers, whose signatures often graced the covers of sheet music, became household names. Jon Finson provides an excellent survey of this music in The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song. Particularly noteworthy is chapter 2, “Realism and National Industry: Courtship in the Gilded Age,” in which Finson sees beyond mere sentimentality in his discussion of the song “Silver Threads among the Gold.” “After the Ball,” written by Charles Harris and published in 1892, became the bestselling sheet music of the nineteenth century. In “Tin Pan Alley Songs on Stage and Screen before World War II,” his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical, which he coedited with Mitchell Morris and Stacy Wolf, Raymond Knapp provides detailed analyses of songs from the era of minstrelsy through the later years of Tin Pan Alley, including “After the Ball.”

Facsimiles of sheet music of this era (including “After the Ball”) are available online in various institutional sheet music collections, including the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University and the Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800 to 1922 at the Library of Congress. In addition, Lester Levy’s Picture the Songs: Lithographs from the Sheet Music of Nineteenth-Century America includes 100 facsimiles of title pages along with commentary. Other books discussed in this essay include valuable information about publishers of sheet music. Margaret Bradford Boni and Robert Fremont each put together anthologies of sheet music of songs that are still remembered and sung after more than a century. Songs of the Gilded Age, selected and edited by Boni, includes arrangements for voice and piano. Boni organized the songs under such topics as place, love, girls, memories, stories, and patriotism. Fremont’s Favorite Songs of the Nineties: Complete Original Sheet Music for 89 Songs, followed by More Favorite Songs of the Nineties (coedited by Fremont and Paul Charosh), includes facsimiles.6 There is not a great deal of duplication among these three anthologies.