The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song

The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song

The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song

The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song

Synopsis

In this unique and readable study, Jon Finson views the mores and values of nineteenth-century Americans as they appear in their popular songs. The author sets forth lyricists' and composers' notions of courtship, technology, death, African Americans, Native Americans, and European ethnicity by grouping songs topically. He goes on to explore the interaction between musical style and lyrics within each topic. The lyrics and changing musical styles present a vivid portrait of nineteenth-century America. The composers discussed in the book range from Henry Russell ("Woodman, Spare That Tree"), Stephen Foster ("Oh! Susanna"), and Dan Emmett ("I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land"), to George M. Cohan and Maude Nugent ("Sweet Rosie O'Grady"), and Gussie Lord Davis ("In the Baggage Coach Ahead"). Readers will recognize songs like "Pop Goes the Weasel," "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "The Fountain in the Park," "After the Ball," "A Bicycle Built for Two," and many others which gain significance by being placed in the larger context of American history.

Excerpt

"The wine of Love is music," the nineteenth-century British poet James Thomson avers in The Vine, "And the feast of Love is song . . ." a sentiment that seems commonplace when viewed in the context of twentieth-century popular songs that devote themselves overwhelmingly to matters of courtship. Thomson's conviction applies less clearly to the American practice of his own time, when song was the feast of humor, of economic ambition, of nostalgia, of racial fear, and of mourning, among many other things. Yet it seems appropriate to begin reflection on nineteenth-century American popular song by seeing how composers and lyricists conceived the activity surrounding one of our most elemental and persistent concerns. and if we allow for earlier lyrics' wider attention to matters beyond initial attraction and passion, then songs about romance can reasonably form the backdrop against which we understand the whole field. Because in a real sense, compositions about all other topics, even in this period, play against the musical style and poetic content found in songs of love and courtship.

What are normally considered genteel songs provide the best starting point for discussion. By "genteel" I simply mean songs with polite rather than vulgar lyrics (though they may sometimes be genteel, songs involving ethnicity appear later). I do not use this term to create a rigid category, but rather to provide a loose rule of thumb. Nineteenth-century genteel lyrics about love are rooted in the changing attitudes of the late eighteenth century. Composers gradually associated a catalogue of musical features with polite lyrics in the ensuing decades, and this linkage proved crucial to the course of American popular song in the first half of the century.

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