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Max Morath : Popular Music
Max Morath The term "popular music", without capitalizing the initials, is loose and has been around perhaps even since Stephen Foster's day, but I think when we say "pop" -- because we've shortened it now. When we say "popular music" now, we mean an industry. And from everything I've been able to find out, that industry began in the early '90s for a number of reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with music. It had to do with technology. It had to do with the economic system. It had to do with transportation. It had to do with a million things besides music, but here was finally a business, an industry that began and ballooned in the '90s. I have said on record, and I still believe that it's safe to say, that the music that we loosely call "ragtime" was America's first -- and I'll do this -- "popular music" in the sense that it swept the country in the same way that every, forgive me, revolution in music has since jazz, swing, rock 'n roll, whatever. I'm cheating a little bit here because there was mass merchandising and there were mass sales from about 1892-93 on into 1900, when ragtime emerges and blows the lid off of everything.

One thing that has to be said is that the term "popular music" supplants what we now call folk music. My theory always has been that a pop song is a folk song that makes money. And by 1900 you had all of these elements that defined, in my view, and most of the other people that think about these things, popular music one, first and foremost, it's for profit. It's a capitalistic manifestation. You make money. If you don't, you're out. Two, it's national. And because of a lot of elements in American society, largely technological and industrial, it was possible to publish a tune in New York on Friday and have copies of it in San Francisco next week, not to mention Des Moines and everywhere in between. Three, because of the advent of ragtime and music from the underground, largely black people, but essentially this, kids, young, people. This is where it's coming from. And ever since this has been a hallmark of popular music. We now take for granted that popular music is going to be generational. I'm gonna hate the music. My mother did. My kids are gonna hate the music I like. That began in those days. So that's another manifestation.

There are several elements making popular music and they all coalesce, magically almost, at the turn of the century. A couple of obvious ones. The railroads. The railroads are, okay, industrial, technological, and they now connect every city in the country. That means that vaudeville, or what they called "variety" in those days, begins to supplant the local minstrel shows and the local shows, so that you could mount a tour in New York and play Cedar Rapids and do a tour. And that's where so much of these popular songs were introduced. So that's one thing that ties the country together. Another thing that does it in the same sense, although it certainly isn't a specific invention, is the sophistication of the mail service. Parcel post began in the late '90s. You could ship packages. Okay, so you can ship sheet music. Rural free deliver, RFD, kicked in, in 1897. So the farmers could get some music. Merchandising. The Woolworth stores were beginning, the five and ten. That's where the music was merchandised and in department stores. So there was a network of mercantile sources. Now these are not technological inventions. You've got to go to the phonograph. Eighteen-seventy-eight Edison patents the first tinfoil phonograph. Nothing much happens. The next few years Alexander Graham Bell and his brother and a fella by the name of Tainter figure out how to put wax in those grooves. And in 1888, Thomas Edison, who took a few years off to invent the electric light, and actually figured out how to make a pure wax cylinder and the cylinder record began its career which lasted about 30 years. Edison owned his own record company. He was beaten out in the marketplace by Amiel Berliner's invention of the disk record, which came along in the mid-90s, started with the Victor Talking Machine Company, which became RCA. Meanwhile, the patents that were owned by Alexander Graham Bell and Edison became Graphophone, which became the Columbia Record Company. And by the turn of the century cylinder records and the beginning of disks, these were big businesses and would grow phenomenal in the next 20 years. So it's a turning point. It's not big by 1900, but it's there, it's cooking, it's working, they are records. There are a lot of records, most of them cylinders, to be supplanted by the disks as Edison slowly loses out.

In come these kids, most of them either young Jews, blacks, Irish kids, they're going for the main chance. It turns out to be show business and popular music. There's money to be made. I don't think that can be -- it sounds terribly cynical and I certainly don't mean that a lot of these composers didn't love their music and think they were writing important things. Of course. But they had to make money. Now another aspect of it is that, therefore, and this is a very personal point of view, popular music, by definition is emphera. It has to fade. There has to be a constant output. If you're in the publishing business in New York in 1900 and you've just had a massive hit, you're workin' on the next one. You're not waiting. You have to have a flow of, as we call it now, and this says everything, product, merchandise. When I was a kid and began to say, "Well, what's your latest product, Max? What kinda product have you got going?" "Product?" You know, I don't like that. But that's what we have.

The family is listening to the music. And, after all, remember while I say young people, in some cases even teenagers were beginning to write this. The kids in those days really don't have the money to be the buyers. So, therefore, we had to have a head of a household or someone who had the dollars. Sheet music was still up around 50 cents a copy, pretty big money in those days. So we have to assume that the family bought the sheet music, gathered around the piano and sang the songs. The kids didn't go out and buy the sheet music. They couldn't. And this is a big difference, by the way, I think it's worth pointing out, to today's music or the music of the last 30 years or so, teenagers have had money. They have money. They have their own music. "That's our music, Dad. We buy it. We like it. You don't." "I don't want you to like it." Now, by the way, I have to add that I've seen plenty of articles by people in 1910 saying, "Boy, I miss the good ol' songs," and they're talking about the camp songs of the 1870s, they're talking about Stephen Foster. Irving Berlin wrote a song somewhere in the early '20s called "Crinoline Days", how he longed for those good old crinoline days, old-fashioned people and their old-fashioned ways. So, again, we have to say popular music, in spite of the changing economics, is generational.

Certainly it brought families together in the sense that there was still a parlor with a piano in it and parties where you had soft drinks and gathered around the piano and sang as a family. But you can't over romanticize that. I don't know that anybody was looking -- one of the big problems, of course, we have to admit, is that nobody was following these people around with a tape deck. We don't know a lot of this. We can look at the sheet music sales and we can read the lyrics of the songs and we can read the sales of pianos, but we can't really re-create -- and one of the things that blows us away about all of this is all of those Hollywood musicals that told us what was happening, mostly lies. There was a musical about Paul Dresser called "My Gal, Sal", lies, romanticized lies. Lovely. We enjoyed it. I loved it. It came out in the '40s with Rita Hayworth. It was a bad movie. With the exception of the one about George M. Cohan, which was good because of Cagney, it's over romanticized. We'll always do that. We'll at least make things better than they were. We'll always take out the sweat and the grime.

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