The Origins and Beginnings of American Popular Song

The first music to take on a typically American character was popular song. By the middle of the nineteenth century American singers were traveling to England to perform programs of their own works, and European songwriters were incorporating stylistic elements of this new music into their own compositions.

The story of indigenous popular song in the New World has the same shape as that of virtually every other sort of music with which this book is concerned: the importation of European music to America; the composition of pieces in a similar style here; and the shaping of a native style from elements of several different national or ethnic styles.

The first songs performed and published in America were brought from England—the pleasure garden songs of Thomas Arne and James Hook; airs from ballad and comic operas by Samuel Arnold, William Reeve, William Shield, and Charles Dibdin; concert songs by Dibdin, Hook, and Reginald Spofford. They were sung in the same settings as in Great Britain: in pleasure gardens, on the stage, on concert programs of mixed instrumental and vocal music. Beginning in the 1780s, they were printed and sold here in the form of sheet music, arranged for voice and keyboard accompaniment, sung by musical amateurs in their parlors for the amusement of themselves and their friends. The style had developed mostly in London, forged out of eighteenth-century musical elements: Italian opera and song, the vocal lines of Handel, and English songs by Purcell and his successors.

Irish and Scottish song became increasingly popular at the turn of the century. The Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore (1779-1852) were published in Dublin and London in a series of volumes brought out between 1807 and 1834; they were traditional Irish tunes fitted to new texts by Moore, with keyboard accompaniments by Sir John Stevenson and Sir Henry Bishop. With their haunting and often familiar tunes and their delicate texts dealing mostly with nostalgia for lost youth and faded hopes, they were among the best-loved songs in the English language of the entire century, in the United States as well as in Great Britain. "The Last Rose of Summer," "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms," and "The Minstrel Boy" are merely three of several dozen to penetrate deeply into English-speaking culture around the globe.

A handful of the songs of Robert Burns (1759-96) also became popular at this time. Like Moore, Burns fitted his own poems to folk tunes, the results first appearing in various issues of the Scots Musical Museum between 1787 and 1803; among them were "Auld Lang Syne," "Coming thru the Rye," "John Anderson, My Jo," and "Scots What Hae wi' Wallace Bled." Other Scottish songs, most of them anonymous arrangements of traditional airs such as "The Blue Bell of Scotland," appeared also in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth.

Another national music flowered in Great Britain and the United States in the second, third, and fourth decades of the nineteenth century. The popular song repertory had already included an occasional piece fashioned from opera; "Away with Melancholy," an air from Mozart's The Magic Flute fitted with an English text, had been a popular item of sheet music since its first publication in America in the late 1790s, for instance. But the great operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti inspired an absolute craze for Italian melody. Manuel Garcia brought the New World its first taste of "modern" Italian opera when his troupe performed works by Rossini in New York and elsewhere, in 1825; Lorenzo Da Ponte, librettist of several of Mozart's late operas, had settled in New York and was responsible for the establishment of the first resident Italian operatic troupe in the city, in 1832; and a succession of other companies offered a steady stream of Italian operas to cities on the East Coast until the establishment of permanent companies in the 1850s.

At the same time, theaters all over America were offering English versions of favorite Italian operas, fashioned by Henry Bishop, Rophino Lacy, and others. In addition, several operas in the Italian style by British composers enjoyed tremendous popularity— Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (1843) and William Vincent Wallace's Maritana (1845). Music publishers found a wide market for songs based on Italian operatic airs, from the first publication of a song from a Rossini opera in 1818 ("Here We Meet Too Soon to Part," from Tancredi) through almost a dozen songs from Bellini's Norma and almost as many from Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment, right up to mid-century with songs based on early Verdi operatic arias.

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