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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Themes In 19th-Century American Popular Song


The Voices That Are Gone:
Themes in 19th-Century American Popular Song
by Jon W. Finson
p. 1994
Oxford University Press

    The history of American Popular Song is pretty clear over the past one hundred years:  Tin Pan Alley, succeeded by the Brill Building, succeeded by the Beatles and the Summer of Love, drawing on and recombining with separate but related traditions emanating out of rural White (Country/Hillbilly) and Black (Blues) culture.  But what of the period before?  A twenty first century student of popular song might be forgiven for his or her utter ignorance of the popular song tradition in America in the first half of the 19th century.  Between the politically incorrect tradition of minstelry and the largely irrelevant English inspired fascination with the otherness and exoticism of Scotland and Ireland,  it's a tradition which can be profitably ignored.

   However, as I learned in The Voices That Are Gone, there is much to recommend this period to the student of popular music.  When Voices That Are Gone picks up, we are the very early stages of the 19th century, and American Popular Song is largely, if not entirely, derivative of British culture.  At that time British culture was in love with the Scottish exoticism and poetry of Walter Scott and his ilk, and this is reflected in song themes that reflect the ever present specter of death and the realities of lovers separated by long distances.  This older style was supplanted in the middle of the century by a stylistically similar song writing that instead focused on the "close proximity and physical contact." of young lovers.

  These newer songs about courtship begin to take on the shape of what would later be associated with Tin Pany Alley songwriting.  Specifically: short phrases, narrow melodic range and repeated note choruses.  By the 1860s and 1870s, courtship songs begin to share characteristics that fully presage popular song in the Tin Pan Alley era: terse melodic periods, an intermixture of lyrical and declamatory vocal writing, a relatively narrow range, and frequent syncopation imitating the natural rhythms of speech.

   These changes in audience taste were accompanied (or perhaps precipitated) by advances in technology: transit by rail and communication with telegraph.  These two technological advances not only affected audience concerns, they also allowed the formation of the modern publishing industry, which would burst into full flower during the Tin Pan Alley period (and forever after.)  Using modern forms of communication, businessmen in New York City could sell sheet music promoted by traveling musicians.

   With the development of the modern music publishing industry in the post Civil War Period, popular song writing received a new level of attention from artists, businessmen and audiences.  Once formed, the music publishing business continued to be impacted by outside trends.  A significant early influencer was the fast paced German developed waltz.  The waltz sped up the tempo, and it's speed mirrored the increase in speed allowed by technological innovations.  The above description takes you through Part I of this book.  Unfortunately Part II devolves into a tired analysis of the influence of minstelry before and after the Civil War and two bad chapters on the treatment of Native Americans and Western European Ethnicity.  It is almost like Finson wrote half of an amazing book and then ran out of steam.

   The one interesting observation about minstelry that Finson makes is how pre-Civil War minstelry was often a combination of African American themes with older themes and song structures derived from the Anglo/Irish/Scottish continuum.   Finson notes a change in tone between the pre-Civil War minstrels, where claims to "authenticity" were a sly mask for poking fun at the established order, vs. after, when increased proximity between African American's and northern whites let to a situation where claims to "authenticity" were there own justification.   There are some interesting ways to relate this distinction to modern musical genres with their own guidelines about artist authenticity claims: Nashville country or American Indie, for example.  But I will leave that for another time.

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