Popular Music: The Band Played On
Music was a national pastime at the turn of the century. The popularity of John Philip Sousa (pictured) gave prestige to the band tradition, inspiring factory workers, church groups and Boy Scout troops to form bands. Many towns built bandstands to shelter musicians during concerts.
Bands played marches and semi-classical pieces. They also played the popular tunes written by Tin Pan Alley songwriters in New York, including sentimental ballads and ragtime.
Some of the most popular music had its roots in black culture. Vaudeville and minstrel shows featured what were then called “coon songs,” which were full of racist overtones but provided black songwriters the first glimmer of recognition in the eye of the general public. Black pianists devised the syncopated beat of ragtime in the 1890s, which led to huge sales in musical instruments and sheet music. The Cakewalk was a black dance that launched the dance craze of the 1910s.
Tin Pan Alley
"We have a new grade of publisher that caters more to what would take hold with the masses than what would please a better grade of musician. The types of advertising and the pushing of the sale have led publishers to refer to this new class of music as 'popular music.'"
- E.T. Paul, a leading publisher of the day
A group of brash young men entered music publishing in the 1880s. While other publishing houses printed serious music and instruction books, such companies as M. Whitmark and Sons and Chas. K. Harris published “popular music,” which catered to public taste and drew on events of the day.
Most popular music publishers were located on 28th Street in Manhattan. New York Times reporter Monroe Rosenfield termed the area “the Alley” and described the din created by dozens of staff composers sitting at pianos to pen the latest pop tunes. It sounded to him like tin pans banging together. The area became known as Tin Pan Alley.
The Alleymen developed unique sales tools. Frank Harding devised the method of “plugging” new songs by singing them to customers in local shops and beer halls in an era before the phonograph, radio and television. Well-known composers such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin got their start as pluggers.
Over the years musical styles and celebrity performers have greatly influenced the sale of musical instruments, sheet music, and records. Hear samples of popular music from 1890 to 1909 that affected the music products industry:
Mr. Black Man performed by Arthur Pryor’s Band
Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin
Frog Leg Rag by James Scott
Dixie Girl performed by The Ossman/Dudley Trio
Cakewalk in the Sky performed by Victor Minstrels