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Max Morath : Lyrics at the Turn of the Century
Max Morath I always try to be very careful about trying to feel like a person felt in the year 1900. I think it's very condescending to say that they were sentimental in all their actions, that they were naive from our point of view. This was a pretty tough bunch of people. They were up against a lot of things that the average American today doesn't even think about. Infant death, typhoid, war, and they had a lot of personal tragedy that certainly was magnified way beyond what we experience today in the average American family. So when we look at these old songs and they seem so square and they seem so terribly sentimental and so terribly simple, I have to think, "Wait a minute. This was their entertainment. This may have expressed at several levels ideals or myths, but let's not think that they believed it."

It's very difficult to take a simple-minded lyric, and I say that in the best sense of the word, a simple, sentimental lyric that, from our point of view, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." Let's say that was a big hit in 1900. And it's tempting to say, "Gosh, weren't our grandparents pretty stodgy, pretty naive? Come on." And, again, I can't believe that. I think that, in the first place, you have to go back -- forgive me, but you have to go back to the merchandising and a lot of people bought a lot of songs and thought, "Boy, this is a real stinker, Maude. Get rid of that one," and yet it might have sold a million copies. But, they expressed perhaps the views of a simpler time in certain ways, religion being the main one.

One of the things you can certainly say about those songs at the turn of the century and later is that they do accurately reflect a lot of the no longer acceptable positions of women in the society. The woman is always, in the first place, pursued. The woman is always impassive. The woman is often put in a compromising situation when she leaves the village and goes to the city and becomes a "fallen woman", as they used to say. The woman is not able to support herself and, therefore, if she marries for money and it ruins her life, she should have known better. We all know the situation in a hundred years for women in this society has changed in such radical ways that no one could even believe it at that time, much even 50 years ago.

There's another song, which was, I think, in '97, and it was a big hit. And the cover shows a young woman going like this and rejecting this lover and the title of that song is "Take Back Your Gold, for Gold Will Never Buy Me". Ah, "Take back your gold and promise you'll be true."

"Daisy, Daisy" is another type of song. "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true. I'm half crazy" -- it's a sweet little love song in three, is a little waltz. I don't think it tells us anything. I think it tells us that, ah, "The Bicycle Built for Two" has arrived on the scene, ah, a few years earlier and that it was a wonderful thing to take your girl in the park and ride a bicycle built for two. And the melody was very attractive and easy to harmonize on.

There were strictures on those days. You couldn't use the four-letter words in songs. You could not do that. You couldn't say "damn" in a popular song, much less talk about sex in any specific way. Forget it. They were not once removed, they were ten times removed from that. That as the convention of the time. And, by the way, there's a lot to be said for it. Specificity is not always a great thing in a song lyric.

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