"A Duet." Lithograph from the 1850's
Have you ever wondered what music sounded like in 19th century America? In my quest to experience American Victorian life in its truest form, I've collected original and bound reproductions of 19th century popular sheet music over the years. I also collect early recordings and modern performances, played and sung as close to the original intent as I can get.
I've searched the internet for what I believe to be the best links through which to experience these great American popular tunes. Some are links to YouTube videos, so please do not judge these by the video quality as much as for the audio content and the spirit in which the performances are played.
Others are links to various internet music formats (mp3, midi, and other audio formats). Some will play immediately, but some you will have to find and hit the "play" buttons. I have included several links to very old recordings when possible (some well over 100 years old). In this way, I feel the performances are much closer to the original intent of the music.
Finally, if you like the idea of hearing more great old-time music, visit my links at the end of the post for my sources!
Let's begin our journey about 1800. What were Americans listening to and humming in their heads, and what was their access to music? America was still a young country. A lot of songs they loved were patriotic or sacred in nature. They were passed on in the oral tradition and learned through attending church services or at public performances by local or traveling musicians. A lot of the tunes were very old and came from England, but were given new lyrics to match American sentimentalities. Of course, classical music was going strong, and most people were familiar with at least a few classical bits and pieces, just as most people are today. There was always someone in the immediate family who could play piano, organ or fiddle, so that everyone could sing and dance to the songs they loved most.
Here are some of the "Top of the Pops" from the very early years of America:
Early One Morning (English traditional)
Barbara Allen (1600's)
Fair Margaret And Sweet William (pre-1611)
The Girl I Left Behind Me (as early as 1650)
Greensleeves (1584 words, tune 1652. Became What Child Is This after the Civil War, William C. Dix)
Johnny's Gone For A Soldier (later 1600's, Irish)
Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes (1770, words by Ben Johnson, tune unknown origin)
Yankee Doodle ( c. 1750's)
The Cruel War (popular during the American Revolution)
Amazing Grace (1779, John Newton)
To Anacreon In Heaven (c. 1780, Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner to the same tune during the War of 1812)
Star Spangled Banner (1814, Francis Scott Key & John S. Smith. Also known as "To Anacreon in Heaven")
Rock Of Ages (1832, Hastings. English)
America (1832, from an English traditional melody, also became "God Save The King")
The Parting Hand (1835, John Blain & William Walker) Sacred Harp, or Shape Note music.
Woodman Spare That Tree (1837, George P. Morris and Henry Russell)
Rocked In The Cradle Of The Deep (1839, Emma H. Willard & Joseph P. Knight)
Simple Gifts (1848, Joseph Brackett, Jr.)
Arkansas Traveler (c. 1850, Sanford Faulkner)
Around 1830, a new musical format began that makes modern day Victorians shudder with disgust. Minstrel shows were performances staged by white men in black face. The lyrics were written in a mocking African-American stereotyped dialect, and African-Americans were portrayed as simple-minded, comical beings. Traveling minstrel troupes were extremely popular, and the tunes carry on to this day, more often than not with the original words changed so as to not offend the modern ear:
Jump, Jim Crow (1828, Thomas D. Rice. This was the beginning of the minstrel show era)
Jim Crack Corn (c. 1846, Daniel Emmett. Also known as "Blue-Tail Fly)
Ben Bolt (1848, Thomas D. English and Nelson Kneass)
Buffalo Gals (1844, John Hodges. Written for the minstrel stage)
Wait For The Wagon (1851, R. Bishop Buckley & George P. Knauff)
The Yellow Rose Of Texas (c. 1858, unknown author)
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Many African-Americans began composing and publishing their own popular minstrel music. Here are some memorable favorites from James A. Bland:
Stephen Foster is probably the most recognizable American Victorian songwriter. His songs endure, even though a good portion of them were written for the minstrel stage. He tended to be sympathetic to the slave population, and he tried to portray African-Americans with true human emotions (even though he kept the stereotyped dialect). Minstrel songs were now known as "Ethiopian Melodies." Foster wrote pieces for The Christy Minstrels to perform:
Old Folks At Home (1851, Stephen Foster)
Hard Times (1854, Stephen Foster)
Beautiful Dreamer (1864, Stephen Foster)
Virginia Belle (1860, Stephen Foster)
Old Black Joe (Stephen Foster)
My Old Kentucky Home (1853, Stephen Foster. Click on the wav or mp3 icons)
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (c. 1862, Wallace Willis. Negro spiritual)
Then, the Civil War began. Both the North and South had their own songs, but some tunes were given different lyrics by each side. Some are patriotic, but some are of the loneliness the soldiers and their distant families were feeling:
Lorena (1856, Henry D. L. Webster)
Dixie's Land (1859, Daniel D. Emmett)
Tenting On The Old Campground (1863, Walter Kittredge)
Aura Lee (1861, W. W. Fosdick & George R. Poulton)
Marching Through Georgia (1865, Henry Clay Work)
Just Before The Battle, Mother (1864, George F. Root)
Battle Cry Of Freedom (1862, George F. Root)
Tramp Tramp Tramp (1864, George F. Root)
Bonny Blue Flag (1861, Harry McCarthy, from an old Irish tune)
The Vacant Chair (1862, George F. Root)
Goober Peas (pre-1866, A. Pindar)
John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa, "The March King," popularized the military march with his famous band and original patriotic scores in the late 1800's and early 1900's. No words, just rousing music:
In the later 1800's, musical theater and light opera became popular in the U.S. and the hit songs were learned by everyone. In England, Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operas were very popular, and became so here in the States as well. The songs had a comic, lighthearted sense of humor, often with a twist, and the productions are still being performed today:
HMS Pinafore excerpt. My favorite!
Some songs reflected the westward progression in America. Songs about mining, the railroads, river travel and the West were very popular:
Clementine (1863, Percy Montrose and H. S. Thompson)
Home On The Range (1873, Dr. Brewster Higley and Daniel E. Kelley)
Oh Shenandoah (c. 1820's)
Then there were the parlor songs. These were sentimental favorites that really began the modern idea of "hit singles." Sheet music was widely available, and anyone could pick up a copy and learn to play and sing these songs:
Silver Threads Among The Gold (1873, Eben E. Rexford & Hart P. Danks)
I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen (1875, Thomas Westendorf)
Grandfather's Clock (1876, Henry Clay Work)
While Strolling Through The Park One Day (1884, Ed Haley)
A Bird In A Gilded Cage (1900, Arthur J. Lamb & Harry Von Tilzer)
In the Good Old Summertime (1902, George Evans & Vincent P. Bryan)
Under the Bamboo Tree (1902, J. Rosamond Johnson & Bob Cole)
Wait Til The Sun Shines, Nellie (1905, Albert Von Tilzer & Andrew B. Sterling)
The Bird On Nellie's Hat (1906, Arthur J. Lamb & Alfred Solman)
Shine On Harvest Moon (1908, Nora Bayes & Jack Norworth)
I Want A Girl Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad (1911, Harry Von Tilzer & Will Dillon)
Thomas A. Edison with his first phonograph
In late 1880's, a new device took the country by storm. The phonograph cylinder was the first sound recording device, and soon afterward, the cylinder phonographs and gramophones were very popular in America. Mechanically reproduced music was a great new way for Americans to hear the music they loved. No longer was there a need to go to a concert, or to even play or sing your own songs. You could just put on a record and enjoy the best the world had to offer!
I hope you've enjoyed my journey through Victorian American music. I used a lot of references in researching this post! Here are some of the best:
• For Old Time Victrola Music, click here.
• For lyrics and midi format to songs from 1800-1860, click here.
• For some original 1890's recordings, click here.
• Browse the collection of original recordings at the Cylinder Preservation and Digitation Project. This is a wonderful site!
• Tinfoil is a great site to hear very old music in RealAudio format. CD's for sale also.
• The Belfers Digital Cylinder Collection has more original recordings.
• For the ultimate collection of Stephen Foster tunes, click here. You can click on each title to hear the melody, or click on Text to read the words. This entire site is packed with information.
• Read a great article about Stephen Foster.
• Great story about the prolific African-American songwriter, James A. Bland.
• For more about the structure and popularity of the minstrel show, click here.
• For more on African-American music history, click here.
• For an overview of early 19th-century American music styles, click here.
• For an overview of late 19th-century American music styles, click here.
• For more about Shape Note and Sacred Harp singing, click here.
• For some midi versions of popular songs in American history, click here.
• For more old-time music midi's, click here.
• For digitized copies of historical sheet music, click here.
• Parlor Songs has some great sheet music, history and songs you can listen to.
• For more about Tin Pan Alley, Showtunes, Ragtime and Sousa, click here.
• For a great explanation of the evolution of parlour music, click here.
• For a detailed description of the Victorian ball, click here.
• For a history of the guitar in Victorian times, click here.
Here is a list of my personal favorite modern recordings of American Victorian music:
Hard Times, It Ain't Right, and Stolen Love (The Red Clay Ramblers). The Ramblers are my favorite group who perform some terrific renditions of American old-time music. Not all the songs on these collections are old, but they all have an old-time feel.
After The Ball Joan Morris sings to the piano accompaniment of William Bolcom. This is a great CD, and very true to the original numbers! I highly recommend this one!
The Gay 90's This is a wonderful CD containing original music box and piano roll music from the era of the 1890's.
The Civil War Original Soundtrack Recording. From the great Ken Burns film. Mostly instrumentals, but very true to form.
The Greatest Ragtime of the Century Biograph. Original piano roll solos from the great ragtime pianists.
The Shapenote Album A nice collection of shapenote or sacred harp music.
Some individual songs that can be downloaded from iTunes that are worthy of a 19th century collection are:
Hard Times Come Again No More — The Red Clay Ramblers
Long Time Traveling — Red Clay Ramblers
Ol' Zip Coon — Camptown Shakers or 2nd South Carolina String Band
Ol' Dan Tucker — Camptown Shakers or 2nd South Carolina String Band
The Boatman's Dance — Camptown Shakers
The Arkansas Traveler — 2nd South Carolina String Band
The Yellow Rose of Texas — Bobby Horton
Lorena — Bobby Horton
The Bonnie Blue Flag — Bobby Horton
Tramp Tramp Tramp — Jerry Silverman and The Harvesters
Battle Cry of Freedom — Jerry Silverman with The Harvesters
Just Before the Battle, Mother — Jerry Silverman and The Harvesters
After the Ball — Joan Morris. Download the whole "After The Ball" CD. You won't be sorry!
Buffalo Gals — Allen J. M. Smith
Old Black Joe — Allen J. M. Smith
Silver Threads Among The Gold — John McCormack
Kingdom Coming — Susquehana Travellers
Wait For the Wagon — Susquehana Travellers
My Old Kentucky Home —Susquehana Travellers