Skip to main content

Collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885

A New Generation of Songwriters

The new songwriter of the period whose songs made the most permanent impact on American music was James M. Bland (1854-1911), the first prominent African-American songwriter, whose "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," "In the Evening by the Moonlight," and "Golden Slippers" are still well known. Other songs of his that were major hits during the period are "In the Morning by the Bright Light" and "De Golden Wedding." Bland wrote most of his songs in a burst of activity from 1879 to 1882; in 1881 he left America for England with Haverly's Genuine Colored Minstrels. Bland found England more rewarding than the United States and stayed there until 1890; either he stopped writing songs during this period or he was unable to find an English publisher.

"Close Dem Windows"
Composer: James M. Bland
Published: 1879
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

The most important songwriter of the period at the time was David Braham (1834-1905), who with the lyricist-librettist Edward Harrigan wrote the series of Harrigan and Hart shows, beginning with the 1873 sketch The Mulligan Guard and continuing with a series of shows that defined the American musical theater for the period 1877-86. Songs from David Braham's shows are presented in this online collection not only in their voice-and-piano form, but also in many other arrangements and medleys. Particularly interesting are the overtures, present here in the form of orchestral parts; these give an idea of what a Harrigan and Hart show sounded like in the theater.

The two most prolific writers of popular songs of the period, C. A. White and J. P. Skelly, are alike in that neither produced a song still sung today. Otherwise they represent polar opposites of the songwriting spectrum of 1870-85.

"Mulligan Guard Chowder"
Composer: David Braham
Published: 1879
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

C. A. White (1829-1892), whose birth date puts him among the contemporaries of Stephen Foster, published his first songs in 1867. His hit of 1869, "Put Me in My Little Bed," established him as a major songwriter. White, like Foster and Millard, was a songwriter of serious aspirations: many of his songs are written for vocal quartet throughout (as was Foster's "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming"). He even made several attempts at opera. As half-owner of the music publishing firm White-Smith and Co., he had a ready outlet for his songs: but it was his songs that supported the publishing firm and not the other way around. White did not scorn writing for the popular stage--indeed he wrote a song for the pioneering African-American stage production Out of Bondage--but his principal audience was the parlor singer. White's major successes include "Marguerite," "Moonlight on the Lake," "When 'Tis Moonlight," and "The Fisherman and His Child." His earlier hit "Put Me in My Little Bed" is also present in the form of arrangements, answer songs, and parodies.

"I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen"
Composer: Thomas P. Westendorf
Published: 1876
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

J. P. Skelly (1850-1895) wrote not for the parlor but for the variety stage. Many of his early songs are published simply as a voice part without accompaniment, an unusual format for the time, and one that discouraged amateur performers, but a convenient form for showpeople. He strove to be topical, not to be memorable; thus his songs are particularly useful for those who seek to document the attitudes of the period. His biggest successes--in a career that relied on steady production rather than on major hits--include "My Pretty Red Rose," "A Boy's Best Friend is His Mother," and "Strolling on the Brooklyn Bridge."

"The Little Old Cabin in the Lane"
Composer: Will S. Hays
Published: 1877
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

Other prolific songwriters had more lasting success. One was H. P. Danks (1834-1903), whose "Silver Threads among the Gold" (1872), probably the most popular song of the decade, is still sung today. One of the signs of an extremely popular song of the period is the number of "companion songs" and "answer songs" it generates and the number of imitations and parodies it inspires. No song of the period, save perhaps Henry Clay Work's "Grandfather's Clock," (audio clip) generated so many answers and imitations as "Silver Threads among the Gold." Danks is represented in this collection principally by hundreds of gospel hymns; but he also had the defining popular song of the era.

One of the best-known songs of this era is itself a "companion song." Thomas P. Westendorf (1848-1923) wrote his most famous song, "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," (audio clip) in 1875 as a companion song to George W. Persley's song "Barney, Take Me Home Again." George W. Persley (1837-1894), a frequent collaborator with Westendorf, had dedicated "Barney, Take Me Home Again" to Westendorf, whose "companion song" was written before "Barney" was published. Westendorf became one of the most prolific songwriters of the period, writing words for other songwriters (especially Persley) as well as for his own songs; Charles Ives quotes Westendorf's "De Little Cabins All Am Empty Now" in his eerie "In the Night." "Kathleen," however, remains his monument.

 Back to top