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Max Morath : The Year in Music

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Max Morath 1900 is a boring year musically. The old style ballads, typified by Charles K. Harris' "After the Ball", which was one of the first big hits of the early '90s, that type of ballad, plus some felicitous little waltzes, like "The Bicycle Built for Two" and "East Side, West Side" and "Sweet Rosie O'Grady". These were the popular songs of the '90s, but underground, as we would say today, subversively even, was this new music called "ragtime". And it manifests itself in the late '90s in cakewalks and two-steps and a handful of rags, but it doesn't break through until after the turn of the century. So the year 1900, I wish it were a more exciting year. It isn't. It's boring.

Ragtime has not yet slammed into the American consciousness like it would in a year or two. So the dominant songs of the year 1900 and most of us go back to the Variety list, the Variety Magazine, the Cavalcade of Hits. And I don't know how they arrived at their hits. Nobody knows these numbers for sure, but the Variety hits lists four ballads by the great Paul Dresser, who was, along with Charlie K. Harris, the leading balladeer of the period, plus two or three others whose names have been totally forgotten. There were a few marches. There was "The Floradora", which was the big musical by Leslie Stewart, who was British and "The Floradora" sextet, "Tell Me, Pretty Maiden" is still, if it isn't done in camp, is still done as one of the hallmarks of 1900, has nothing to do with ragtime and nothing to do with the type of ballads that Tin Pan Alley was putting out. It has to do with theatre of the time. It has to do with -- oh, you know, I'd say the influence of Gilbert & Sullivan, in that kind of music.

The big hit, and I'm quoting here Charles Hamm, the musicologist who claims it sold two million copies in 1900 -- forget about since because it was a durable hit -- is "The Bird in the Gilded Cage". And if we had planned it, we couldn't have found a more quintessential ballad to represent that turning point in American popular music, 'cause it evokes all of the things that were in the ballads that preceded it, ahm, very strong statements about the position of women in society, very strong statements about money and about social class and structure.

That song is about a young woman who marries for money and pays the price of death for having done so. Her life is destroyed because she marries an old man. She married for wealth, not for love, it 'tis said, so she lived in a mansion grand. Ah, you know, it's really kind hard to draw pure sociological conclusions from these things because, like most popular music, including ours today and ever since, a lot of it is facetious and the composers knew that then. I don't mean that the composers -- Harry von Tilson, who was one of the great balladeers later, wrote this. I don't think they believed it. They were writing for the marketplace.

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