19th Century American Popular Music


Popular music in the United States is a big industry with a long history. But what was this music like before the days of recordings, radio and digital technologies? Who were the pop stars, what did they perform, and who was listening? “Popular music” is a broad category, but can be understood as music that is mass-reproduced, reaches a wide audience, and draws from a variety of musical traditions. In the 19th century United States, this involved music publishers, public and private music making, and the confluence of racial, cultural and religious diversity and divisions. Immigrants carried traditions over from their homelands and adapted them, while new musical forms were also created, particularly influenced by European American and African American culture groups. To explore the modes of 19th century popular music production and consumption, this lecture focuses on the places and spaces that such music was made available to the public: the street, stage and home.

Music in the Street

  • There was much opportunity to hear music in the public street, including traveling musical troupes and vaudeville street shows, as well as plenty of local, amateur music making. Such outdoor venues called for loud instrumental music, such as military, wind or brass bands. The repertoire was varied and included many arrangements of popular tunes and dances.
  • Bands were important during the Civil War, and amateur bands as well as professional bands proliferated post-war. By the end of the century, American band music reached new heights of quality, professionalism, and repertoire with the likes of John Philip Sousa (1854-1932).

Music on the Stage

  • Audiences could experience a variety of music on stage: the latest Italian operas, musical comedy and theatre, performers touring from Europe such as Jenny Lind, groups such as the Hutchinson Family, and blackface minstrelsy.
  • The most popular of all staged musical performances was blackface minstrelsy, which raises many important and controversial issues concerning class, race, representation, appropriation and stereotyping in 19th century society and culture.
  • The practice began in the urban north, with character songs such as T.D. Rice’s “Jump Jim Crow” (1829) and G.W. Dixon’s “Zip Coon” (1834). Performers put on blackface, dressed in character, and sang in “negro” dialect, although the melodies likely had Irish origins.
  • The minstrel show developed by the 1840s, with set acts, differing song types (comic and sentimental), and ensembles incorporating instruments associated with African American slaves (banjo, tambourine, bones).
  • Stephen Foster (1826-1864) composed minstrel songs for Christy’s Minstrels, including: “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Nelly Bly,” “Massa’s in de Cold Ground,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Old Folks at Home.”
  • Minstrel songs were performed and published throughout the country and internationally, and became popular among all classes. Many became American folk songs, with their minstrel origins and meanings practically forgotten.

Music in the Home

  • As an American middle class grew during the 19th century, the market for music in the home also grew. Music popularized in the street and on stage was made available via sheet music, and new songs were also composed for the domestic sphere. Parlor songs marketed towards amateur women musicians tended to be refined, sentimental ballads, often with stories of lost love and heartbreak.
  • Stephen Foster composed many beloved parlor songs, such as “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” (1854) and “Beautiful Dreamer” (1864). These songs use certain musical techniques to create a feeling of nostalgia, and border the line between popular and art songs.
  • By the end of the century, creating fast selling sheet music for home consumption was a huge industry. The publishing houses clustered in New York City became known as Tin Pan Alley. “After the Ball” (1891) by Charles K. Harris was the first song to sell 1 million copies.
  • By the 1890s, the popular music industry was starting to be shaped by new technologies and developments: commercial recordings.

Exploration Questions

  • What were some of the opportunities for Americans in the 1800s to experience popular music?
  • Why were brass bands so suitable for public performance?
  • In what ways did blackface minstrelsy cross cultural boundaries of class and race? How could this be heard in the music?
  • What were some characteristics of parlor songs marketed for domestic performance?

Reflective Questions

  • How did these popular musics reflect their performance spaces and audiences?
  • Why do you think blackface minstrelsy became such a popular form of musical entertainment?
  • In what ways can you hear “nostalgia” in parlor songs, such as Stephen Foster’s sentimental ballads?
  • How would you compare contemporary styles of popular music with 19th century popular music? Consider the intersections of musical and cultural traditions, as well as modes of transmission and consumption.

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. W.W. Norton. 2005. 992 pages. This is a survey of American music history from the late 18th century up to the 21st, covering many styles and genres of American music from popular to classical.
    Click here to order
  • Foster, Stephen. Stephen Foster Song Book (Dover Song Collections). Selected by Richard Jackson. Dover Publications. 1974. 181 pages. This is a collection of 40 of Foster’s songs, in facsimile from original or early sheet music editions.
    Click here to order