Saturday, February 22, 2014

American Music: Parlour Music

adjective: maudlin
  1. 1.
    self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental, often through drunkenness.
    "the drink made her maudlin"
    synonyms:sentimental, oversentimental, emotional, overemotional, tearful, lachrymose;

What would become modern American popular music first started to jell in the early 1890's with the advent of parlour music and the rise publishing empires, centered around Tin Pan Alley to churn out sheet music for it.

Parlour Music

WikiPedia - Parlour_music

Parlour music is a type of popular music which, as the name suggests, is intended to be performed in the parlours of middle-class homes by amateur singers and pianists. Disseminated as sheet music, its heyday came in the 19th century, as a result of a steady increase in the number of households with enough surplus cash to purchase musical instruments and instruction in music

In contrast to the chord-based classical music era, parlour music features melodies which are harmonically independent or not determined by the harmony. This produces parlour chords, many of them added tone chords if not extended such as the dominant thirteenth, added sixth, and major dominant ninth. Rather, the melodies are organized through parlour modes, variants of the major mode with the third, sixth, and seventh emphasized through modal frames such as the mediant-octave mode, which uses the third as a floor and ceiling note, its less common variants the pseudo-phrygian, in which the seventh and often fifth are given prominence, and submediant-octave mode

Tin Pan Alley

Song Writers Hall of fame - Tin Pan Alley

"Tin Pan Alley" was the nickname given to the street where many music publishers worked during the period of 1880 to 1953. In the late 19th century, New York had become the epicenter of songwriting and music publishing, and publishers converged on the block of West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. There are several stories about how the block got its name. One that is often repeated tells of a reporter for the New York Herald who was hired to write about the new business of sheet music publishing in the city. As he walked down 28th Street toward the publishing offices, he heard the dissonant chords and strings of competing pianos through the open windows. The sound, he remarked, sounded like a bunch of tin pans clanging.

After the Ball

The song generally credited as being the watershed moment sweeping in the parlour song and its vast publishing industry component is After the Ball by Charles Kassell Harris published in 1890:

The Parlor Songs Academy - Tear Jerkers in American Song

Charles Kassell Harris was born in 1867 in Poughkipsie, NY and died in NYC in 1930. He lived for many years in Milwaukee and published many of his early songs there. After The Ball, is generally considered to be the watershed song that started the popular song industry in earnest as a commercial juggernaught. Though Harris wrote many songs over the years, none ever rose to the level of popularity as After The Ball.

A Drunken Sentiment

To JohnQuincy, these songs contain the maudlin soaked sentiments of alcohol. In fact, when I hear them, they always bring to mind the Looney Tunes scene of the Drunk Cats:

In fact much of American Art, including its literature has been strongly informed by alcohol:


He was the first American author of his rank to do so. Much ink has been spilled on the question of why so many writers are alcoholics. Of America’s seven Nobel laureates, five were lushes—to whom we can add an equally drunk-and-disorderly line of Brits: Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, Brendan Behan, Patrick Hamilton, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, all doing the conga to (in most cases) an early grave. According to Donald Goodwin in his book “Alcohol and the Writer”:
Writing involves fantasy; alcohol promotes fantasy. Writing requires self-confidence; alcohol bolsters confidence. Writing is lonely work; alcohol assuages loneliness. Writing demands intense concentration; alcohol relaxes.
Others such as Derek B. Scott, the Music Chair at the University of Salford as expressed in this snippet from his book, Sounds of the Metropolis, disagree. To him, these songs had a strong moral component and whose goal was character improvement.

Sounds of the Metropolis

JQ suspects otherwise: American arts has a long history of wrapping potentially objectionable material in a wrapper of a moral lesson in order to avoid censorship. 

Further Reading

Don't Stay Up Too Late - 50 Records That Matter, 1900-1919.

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