The Search for the American Sound, 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound
Scott Joplin, 1907

The Search for the American Sound – 3

About a century and a quarter ago in my now hometown of Keene, NH, an announcement appeared to one and all concerning “The 18th Annual Festival of The Cheshire County Musical Convention” that was to start on August 22, 1870 and last for five days. Among the participants were two conductors, five soloists, a pianist, and the Mendelssohn Quintette Club. The music was by     American and British composers, all of it classical or “light” classical and all of it quite respectable.

download (4)Around 1904, the popular Arthur Pryor Band gave concerts at Asbury Park’s Arcade Pier and at the Casino. These two events have been reconstructed on Archeophone CDs, “Echoes of Asbury Park”   by using old Pryor recordings. Among the selections are works by Berlioz, Balfe, Verdi, Pryor himself, and a few others known only to historians of the time.

None of this was quite what one would hear at the same times on the streets of New Orleans. But those antipodal musical worlds were soon to meet in the concert hall as they had done in the minstrel shows.

With the coming of the 20th century, the Philippines were demanding freedom from the United States’ military presence, Admiral Dewey was given an ovation in New York City, Carry Nation began to take her hatchet to Kansas saloons, and the newfangled automobile was banned from Central Park.

The book that held our attention included the first of the Rover Boys series. A team called The Four Cohans was getting good notices on the vaudeville stage, while Victor Herbert was still the king of operetta and William Gillette was portraying Sherlock Holmes on the “legitimate” stage.

In 1909, “I wonder who’s kissing her now” was heard in the musical show above

After the Civil War, there were a good many songs about angels and death, almost as if we were trying to atone for the useless slaughter that ended in 1866—at least on paper. But lyrics were lightening up after 1885, while some were taking a more cynical turn. “I wonder who’s kissing her now” (1909) talks about an affair that is now over, not a love that has lasted since they were sweet sixteen. When a Follies singer was slightly shocking when she declared “I just can’t make my eyes behave” (1906), Eva Tanguay stunned audiences by confessing “I don’t care” (1905).

In 1892, Edison built the first movie studio in America in West Orange, NJ, and pianists had a bonanza playing familiar (mostly classical) tunes to fit the action on the screen. What was to be called Tin Pan Alley was paying great attention to the “huddled masses” arriving at these shores with lyrics such as those of an 1894 song:

That’s where Johnny Casey and Little Jenny Crowe

                With Jaikey Krause the baker who always had the dough,

                Pretty Nellie Shannon with her fellow fresh from Cork,

                First picked up the waltz step on the sidewalks of New York.

            Indeed, the once venerable waltz (which had been condemned when it first appeared as too immoral for decent folk) had evolved into a lower class masterpiece like “Waltz me around again, Willy” (1906). And big church weddings, beyond the means of most people, yielded to such compromises as

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

               I can’t afford a carriage.

               But you’ll look sweet upon the seat

              Of a bicycle built for two

that was sung in 1891.

Now, such new sentiments demanded new music. It was just fine to parody respectable European works, but an American sound was needed to do the job completely. The chemistry of the Black and French cultures in New Orleans had given rise to something called “ragging it up” or somewhat later “ragtime.” Inventing elaborate systems of syncopation (the strong beats of the melody NOT coinciding all the time with the strong beats of the accompaniment), black composers like Scott Joplin were forced to play in brothels and other sites of low entertainment where they would give a vitality to the music they played on out-of-tune pianos with missing keys.

This style of composition was quickly picked up by white composers like Irving Berlin and was heard on vaudeville stages all over America. It seems that an American sound had finally arrived from Africa and Creole New Orleans. What was done with it is quite another story.

Sometime in the future, we will pick up that story in an exploration on the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and other composers. But for now we can see how the American Sound was found in the unlikeliest of places.


21YC5JP3HRL._AA160_Recommended recordings. From New World Records: “Don’t Give the Name a Bad Place: Types and Stereotypes in American Musical Theater 1870-1900”; “I Wants to Be a Actor Lady and Other Hits from Early Musical Comedies.” Note: The Archeophone catalogue provides original recordings from as early as 1890 up to the middle 1920s. See their website. From Elektra: “After the Ball” with Joan Morris, mezzo.

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