Researching Yiddish penny songs (tenement song broadsides of theater and variety show songs, 1895-1925)
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Sunday, August 23, 2020

Why were there so many waltzes at the turn of the 20th century?

In the days before ragtime hit, almost all popular songs were waltzes, which seems quite tedious to us. Here are some thoughts from Isaac Goldberg who was an old codger when he wrote his 1961 book Tin pan alley; a chronicle of American popular music:
Our popular song, in its industrial phase, begins largely under the influence of women. It is women who sing songs in the home. It is women who play them on the piano. The men, as it were, serve only as the page-turners ...Thus it happens that, to the songs that our parents sang before ragtime came to rescue us from the musical doldrums, there was, in words and melody, a distinctly feminine flavor.

A wise-cracker of Broadway exploded the other day with the report that the "waltz is coming back." One hadn't noticed that the waltz had ever gone out. It is one of those dances that live beyond the vogue of a night because they embody, somehow, the spirit of dance itself rather than the figures of a passing pattern. The innocent waltz! And yet a gay, not too innocent Goethe could write, in his even simpler day, of a "chaste and dignified polonaise," after which "a waltz is played and whirls the whole company of young people away in a bacchic frenzy"

There was no bacchic frenzy to our waltz-songs of the Nineties and early Nineteen-Hundreds. If the verses were frequently maudlin, the sentiments were as moral as the maxims in a copy-book. Often they read — and sound — like the sentimental admonitions of a drunkard in his self-pitying, weepy stage. There is the faint aroma of alcoholic hysteria about them. It is difficult, indeed, to dissociate the popular song from a hovering suggestion of globulus hystericus. Its tears are often as false as its laughter.


For sheet music and/or performances contact me: jane@mappamundi.com

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