“After the Ball” (1891). The first song in America to make its composer (Charles K. Harris) one million dollars.

Oops!  I skipped Chapter 2 and need to summarize it now.

Arguably the first respectable composer of American popular song was Stephen Foster.  He died penniless in 1864 at the age of 37, supposedly having made a total of only $36 on his music in his entire life.

The first successful American composer was Charles K. Harris, whose “After the Ball” made him one million dollars in 1891-92.  (If you want to hear the composer himself sing the song later in life, about 1929, click here.  Born in Poughkeepsie, but having spent much of his life in New York City, listen to his pronunciation of “words” as “woids.”  Also listen to his reference to “sentiment.”)  While this specific song is no longer known, it is very much in the spirit of more familiar ones from the era such as “In the Good Old Summer Time”)  – 3/4 waltz time, simple, nostalgic, and very sentimental.

Charles Harris could neither read nor write music.  In fact, in his autobiography, he related that the way he composed was to come up with a melody.  Then he would hire a professional musician to whom he would hum the melody.  The professional musician would then write it down and arrange it for piano.  (Does this sound familiar?  Check my post from June 22 – Bob Merrill, composer of “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” (1953).  At least he could play his melodies on a toy xylophone for the professional musician to transcribe.)

At any rate, this made a kind of sense at the time, because the market for popular music was largely for amateur performers – people who would play from sheet music at the family piano.  This was the age of Tin Pan Alley.  Literally hundreds of songwriters (of varying ability themselves) writing music simple enough for amateur musicians to play and writing music that they would be attracted to – largely nostalgic, sentimental  waltzes.  This “sheet music era” reaches its climax in 1917 when two billion copies of sheet music were sold.  By this time, however, due to World War I, the subject matter of the songs, if not their corniness, had changed.  One of the big hits of the era was, “If He Can Fight Like He Can Love, Then Good Night Germany!”

So, how do we get from the “fighting lover” of 1917 to such a classic popular song as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me” less than a decade later (1926)?  There are four reasons put forward by Ben Yagoda.  He calls them “individual,” “technological,” “institutional,” and “cultural.”

By individual he seems to mean “individual genius.”  At least that is what I think he means, but he also seems to establish within this very section that such early songwriters (Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, and Rodgers) did share certain things in common: they were all Jewish and, all but Berlin, had classical training.

Technologically, the introduction of the 78 rpm record, which dominates well into the 1960’s, as the chief means of the dissemination of popular music helps to create (due to its short, four minute length), the standard AABA 32-measure popular song form.  It also shifts the whole situation of popular music from songwriters composing music that amateurs could perform, to songwriters writing for professional performers who will perform for amateurs – whether live or on recordings.

As to the “institutional,” Ben Yagoda is talking about patronage.  There weren’t many patrons in the classical sense.  However, he does mention one Max Dreyfus who became the owner of T. B. Harms Music, a publishing house through which he gave ‘financial assistance’ by hiring many of the early composers of the Great American Song Book, such as Kern, Porter, and Gershwin, paying them more than the standard royalty.

As to the “cultural,” Yagoda speaks about the good public school education of that era in New York City and the influence it had on lyricists.  He also speaks about a Black-Jewish connection: the minor-keyed modes sung in the synagogues and the pentatonic blues scales of the blacks.  He also speaks about the beginning of the modern dance craze in 1913 and the influence this had.

Personally, I think that there is more to be said in the cultural sphere which the author doesn’t attend to here.  America had developed much more of a classical music culture by the early twentieth century than it ever had – especially compared to the nineteenth century.  Not only did this group of composers, generally, have some classical training – at least childhood piano lessons – some of them had real pretensions to write jazz-influenced classical music (especially George Gershwin) – which elevated their popular music.

But more about this in the future . . .