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
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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