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Music Had Charms

July 2024
5min read

Homely sentiment and crude humor—in delightful covers—helped soothe the mid-nineteenth-century breast

I hear America singing,” wrote Walt Whitman in 1860, and on a quantitative basis, at least, the air was as full of quavering voices, scraping fiddles, and tinkling pianos as—in other ways, in different rhythms—it is today. The publishers of the confection at the left, for example, advertised 33,000 different pieces of sheet music in 1867—most of them especially aimed at the family group around the parlor upright. In the days before radio and television and before we developed a special musical form in jazz, this kind of singing was widespread. It was homely and unsophisticated, filled with maidens’ blushes and everyone’s tears, with crude humor and sentiment, and with the same appeals to the headlines which characterize Tin Pan Alley today. And, not to put too fine a point on it, most of this outpouring was as bad as the popular music of our own time—if not a little worse. The era produced Stephen Foster, Dan Emmett, a lew good hymns, and the music of the Civil War; but, in general, America had a tin ear.

What distinguishes the sheet music of a century ago, and spurs collectors on, is the vanished charm of its appearance. Song publishers discovered early that much of the selling power of their product depended on the attractiveness of the cover. Thus they came to work with some of the best lithographers in America at a time when the art of soft-stone engraving was at its peak. Most of the major engraving firms of the period—in particular, Nathaniel Currier, Sarony of New York, and J. H. Builord of Boston—did song “fronts” at one time or other, and occasionally they hired struggling young artists like Alfred Jacob Miller and Winslow Homer. On the following pages some notable examples of the stone engraver’s art are reproduced—and with them, for those who care to experiment, some less memorable examples of the songwriter’s craft. All appear through the courtesy of Lester S. Levy of Baltimore, whose famous American music collection includes more than 25,000 song sheets.

When birds are singing in distress, and nature’s face is fair , Where wild flowers bring the busy bees I often wander there; To meet young Harry in the grove; But where can Harry be! I plac’d a letter to my love, in yonder hollow tree; In yonder hollow tree, In yonder hollow tree , I plac’d a letter to my love, in yonder hollow tree .
No “Postman’s knock” or ringing bell, No maids to peep and see; Dear Harry knows this very well, He’s sure to come to me ; Young Cupid ever watches near, The lover’s hollow tree; He’ll see me safe. I’ve nought to fear, While Harry’s true to me ; Dear Harry’s true to me, Dear Harry’s true to me , He’ll see me safe, I’ve nought to fear, While Harry’s true to me .

The headlines, with disaster a specialty

In a day when polkas, waltzes, and quadrilles were the rage of America, music publishers often found that they could push nondescript dance tunes by giving them topical lyrics and colorful “fronts.” The four covers shown at left commemorate subjects as diverse as the 1863 marriage of two of P. T. Barnum’s midgets, Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren; Amelia Bloomer’s innovations in feminine auhe; the laying of the Atlantic Cable in 1858; and the great fire in downtown Boston in 1872.

In 1862 the steamship Golden Gate burned and sank, off the west coast of Mexico. In appropriately heroic terms, the song at right described the rescue of a child from the wreck:

On deck there is terror and agony wild , “The ship is on fire!” is the ominous sound ; And pleading for life hear a motherless child , “Oh save me, do please, I don’t want to be drowned!”
“Cling close to me, Addle!” a hero replied , “I’ll risk my own life, little darling, for thee .” Then sprang with her over the ship’s heated side , From merciless flames to the pitiless sea .

They’re riding the wave, he is breasting the foam , She’s clinging for life to the neck of the brave , But over them rushes the breaker’s high comb And Addie sinks under the ravenous wave .

Yet never despair for at mercy’s command , The ocean its prey shall uninjured restore . See! Addie is seized by a rescuing hand , And stands like a nymph on the desolate shore .

A warning for the susceptible young man of 1868

3. The Widow and I side by side sat together The carriage containing ourselves and no more , When silence was broken by my fair companion Who enquired the time by the watch that I wore . I of course satisfied her, and then conversation Was freely indulged in by both, ’till my brain Fairly reeled with excitement, I grew so enchanted With the Charming Young Widow I met in the Train .

4. We became so familiar I ventured to ask her How old was the child that she held at her breast . “Ah Sir!” she responded, and into tears bursting , Her infant still closer convulsively pressed , “When I think of my child I am well nigh distracted Its Father—my Husband—oh my heart breaks with pain.” She choking with sobs leaned her head on my waistcoat— Did the Charming Young Widow I met in the Train .

5. By this time the Train had arrived at a Station Within a few miles of the great one in town When my charmer exclaimed, ax she looked through the window , “Good gracious alive! why there goes Mr. Brown . He’s my late Husband’s Brother—dear Sir would you kindly My best beloved child for a moment sustain?” Of course I complied—then off on the platform Tripped the Charming Young Widow I met in the Train .

6. Three minutes elapsed when the whistle it sounded The Train began moving—no Widow appeared . I bawled out “Stop! Stop!” but they paid no attention With a snort, and a jerk, starting off as I feared . In this horrid dilemma I sought for the hour— But my watch! ha! where was it? where, where was my chain? My purse too, my ticket, gold pencil-case—all gone! Oh that Artful Young Widow I met in the Train .

7. While I was my loss thus so deeply bewailing The Train again stopped and I “Tickets please” heard . So I told the Conductor while dandling the infant The loss I’d sustained—but he doubted my word . He called more officials—a lot gathered round me— Uncovered the child—oh how shall I explain! For behold ‘twas no baby—’twas only a dummy! Oh that Crafty Young Widow I met in the Train .

8. Satisfied I’d been robbed they allowed my departure Though, of course I’d to settle my fare the next day . And I now wish to counsel young men from the country Lest they should get served in a similar way Beware of Young Widows you meet on the Railway Who lean on your shoulder—whose tears fall like rain . Look out for your pockets in case they resemble The Charming Young Widow I met in the Train .

Popular heroes, a tearful victim, an enviable bon vivant

On Shiloh’s dark and bloody ground , The dead and wounded lay , Amongst them was a drummer boy , That beat the drum tlitil day .

A wounded soldier raised him up , His drum was by his side , He clasped his hands and raised his eyes And prayed before he died .

Oh the fireman’s heart is bold and free , His motto is to save , He works without reward or fee , Hurrah! for the fireman brave .

On, and on, and on he goes , Never a doubt or danger knows , King of the Road, he’s nothing to fear , Ho, for the faithful Engineer .

Some survive, but most songs die

Although presented to the public in delightful gift wrappings, now collectors’ items, the songs themselves generally laded rapidly into obscurity. A few caught on to live as part of the folk music of America. One famous survivor, “The Flying Trapeze” (1868) became a favorite with circus clowns and later enjoyed a revival by such popular singers as Walter O’Keefe and Rudy Vallee. It is still familiar to singing Americans everywhere and, with the possible exception of “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” a favorite of Civil War buffs, is the only song from this selection to have passed the test of the years. Musical Americana publications have published a facsimile of this classic in their scries of One Hundred Great American Songs . The version at left is one of three which appeared during the song’s first year—a not uncommon publishing occurrence in those days before copyright. The parody is apparent in the substitution of a girl for the man on the trapeze. The last chorus goes:

She floats through the air with the greatest of ease , You’d think her a man on the flying trapeze , She does all the work while he takes his ease , And that’s what’s become of my love .

In pre-Freudian days, when an ankle was an aphrodisiac, “Matilda Toots or You Should Have Seen Her Boots” enjoyed its brief moment. The heroine was having her boots laced on when she fell in; she married her rescuer—still in the same boots. Time has mercifully forgotten Matilda.

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