June 2, 2012

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Do-it-yourself Music


           Today, teens and their music are inseparable.  Indeed, as recently as the 1950’s whole generations have been defined by the classics of their day. But what did teens do for music before the invention of electricity, the phonograph, radio, TV and the internet?  We’ve all seen movies where old timey folks are standing around a piano, singing and grinning, having a grand old time.  This is not a movie cliché.  This was reality in the nineteenth century.  If you wanted music at home, you pretty much had to do it yourself.

            In large urban areas, if families were affluent enough, there was almost always a piano or a reed organ and a skilled pianist in the home.  It was considered de rigeuer for young ladies of upper class families to be trained to play the piano and to sing. But play what?  Sheet music.

            Immensely popular, sheet music was big business in the 1800’s.  By 1890, department stores had counters devoted to the sales of sheet music.  Popular magazines of the day such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Godey’s Lady’s Book, had sheet music in every issue. In 1892, After the Ball by Charles K. Harris was the first sheet music to sell several million copies.  Popular songs were typically in a vocal score format with notes and lyrics for voice and a two-staff format for a single musical instrument (usually the piano).  In 1860, a few of the most popular songs were [Dixie Land] I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land, Annie Lisle, Old Black Joe and Rock Me to Sleep, Mother. I’m sure most of us would recognize at least two of these songs.

            In small remote towns, farms and homesteads, a piano was a rarity.  The sheer size and weight of the instrument precluded easy transport.  Instruments that were small and easily portable were the instruments of choice like the banjo, the harmonica (also called a mouth organ) and the violin (fiddle).  Interestingly, the guitar, although it had been around for centuries, was out of favor from the mid-nineteenth century until it was electrified in the 1930’s.

            By 1896, with the invention of the phonograph and gramophone disks, other non-do-it-yourself music found its way into the home.  And by 1919, when radio became available, the days of song fests around the old piano were on the way out, largely to disappear during the Great Depression.

For additional reading and references, go to the Extras tab.

             

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