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1890s Music
A Note From the Composer
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A Note From the Composer, T.O. Sterrett

I was very intrigued when the director of CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE, Daniel Miller, approached me with the idea of incorporating songs of the 1890s into the film. The first step I took was to contact various colleagues and see if they knew of any material from that period. One person I asked, a voice teacher, broke into song with the first few bars of JUST BREAK THE NEWS TO MOTHER. As it turned out, she was right about the song's era, and that number made it into the film.

After gathering some other preliminary information from colleagues and materials at my home, I went to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There I found a treasure trove of songs from the period of the Spanish-American War. This only happened with the indispensable help of two of the library's curators, George Boziwick and Don McCormick. Of the abundance of material, most useful was the large collection of popular songs of the era that the library had on microfilm.

I went through many reels of microfilm and looked at the songs for their title, cover, lyrics and tunefulness. The majority of the songs were quite well written, and I was excited by how many of them were appropriate to the film. Many songs were bursting with patriotism. Quite a few had very eye-catching covers. And it was very interesting that a large number of the songs were written from a perspective on society-at -large--songs about national events such as presidential politics, the assassination of William McKinley, events in the war, the international exposition held in Buffalo, NY; songs about technology of the time, such as the telephone and trolley cars; religious songs; moralizing songs, and so on. Today almost all published popular songs are written about personal feelings and very personal experiences.

I was most struck, however, by the vicious racism of many of the songs. I discovered that "rag time" and "coon song" were interchangeable terms of the time--both meaning songs which were about African Americans, and a large number of popular songs of the day were these coon songs --"You Ain't The Kind Ob' Coon I's Lookin' Fo'" and "Little Alabama Coon," etc. There were songs maligning other groups of people, too, such as Chinese, Irish, Japanese, Mexicans, and so on. These songs lacked any subtlety or irony. In the parlance of today, they were "in your face."

Dan Miller and I reviewed the songs from the information that had been gathered, and we eventually winnowed the list down to a reasonable number. I then arranged and recorded the songs using singers from the Broadway and popular music fields in New York. During this process, I was again impressed by how many of these songs are gems of the songwriting craft—models of economy, the marriage of memorable lyric to memorable melody, and catchy rhythm. It was a pleasure to learn them.

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