Skip to main content

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

Ethnic Groups and Popular Songs

Characters from several ethnic groups appear repeatedly in songs of the period. Though they often speak in the first person ("I'm Terence O'Reilly, I'm a man of renown. . ."), they are usually seen from outside (though "Is That Mr. Reilly?" is in fact by Irish-American comic Pat Rooney). The two groups that appear most often are Irish and Irish Americans (the distinction is not always profitable, especially since many songs concern a sweetheart in Ireland yearning for someone in America or vice versa; they will both be "Irish" from here on in this essay) and African Americans. There are few songs about Africans, unless one counts material from such European imports as Suppé's Afrikareise and Verdi's Aïda. Irish songs are more numerous during the 1870s, African-American in the 1880s, but both ethnic groups are regular presences in all years from 1870 to 1885.

"Eilleen Allanna"
Composer: J. R. Thomas
Published: 1876
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

The images of the Irish come from many sources: the romantic Irish of Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, the tradition of the stage Irishman, current "Irish act" comedians, and from the considerable Irish presence in 1870s America. There are, in fact, several images of the Irish in songs of this period: besides the comic stage Irishman and the brash young Irish American, there is also the romantic dreamer, often an immigrant, often pining for his home, often with a sweetheart in the old country. Many "Irish" songs are, in fact, love songs with only a place-name, a bit of accent, or perhaps only the name of the beloved to identify them as ethnic. The Irish-American workingman shows up in many of these songs--the most famous of them, Tim Finigan, who carried a hod to rise in life, appeared in a song of the 1860s--but the brutal Mick of later songs ("Throw Him Down, McCloskey," 1890) shows up seldom in the songs of 1870 to 1885. One new figure who does emerge in the songs of this period is the solid Irish citizen, mainstream and proud of it: such folks as Terence O'Reilly, the man of renown.

"Red Cloud Polka"
Composer: Henry Sutter
Published: 1871
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

There were also Irish national songs, both new songs written in America about the movement for Irish independence and genuine Irish folksongs published in a spirit of Irish patriotism. In 1880-81, the years of Charles Stewart Parnell's visit to the United States and the founding of the American Land League, there is an increased number of these songs and an intensification of their separatist sentiment.

Songs about African Americans draw on several sources. These include the Stephen Foster tradition of sentimental songs, the emerging tradition of jubilee songs, and the minstrel tradition. By 1870 the minstrel tradition involved several strands, some African-American, some not. In searching or browsing this online collection, the term "minstrel" will find many types of minstrel songs. Specifically African-American songs will be found under "Afro-American."

"Carry Me Back to Old Virginny"
Composer: James M. Bland
Published: 1878
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

The 1870s saw the first full decade of freedom for most African Americans. Many of the songs dealing with African Americans deal specifically with the reactions, real or imagined, of these new freedmen: their search for new livelihood, their wanderings, their consciousness that the old order had passed. This material had its model in Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home," but now the old life was indeed gone. Songs about this African-American diaspora suggest the reactions of the freedmen.

The 1880s saw the beginnings of the "coon song," a style that would be a major part of American songwriting from the 1890s to the World War I era. The use of the word "coon" for African Americans dates to the earlier nineteenth century and became more derogatory as the century went on. The word is rare in songs before 1880; its first appearance in the period of this collection was in 1879, notably in "The Skidmore Fancy Ball." Though most of the songs in this online collection containing the word are not differentiated from other songs about African Americans, by the mid-1880s an occasional song was specifically identified as a "coon song."

"My little German Home Across The Sea"
Composer: Schneider
Published: 1878
(Music Division, Library of Congress)

Several of the songwriters of this period were themselves African American. James A. Bland (1854-1911) was the most successful, with three still well known songs to his credit; following close behind him was Sam Lucas (1840-1916) (audio clip), whose "Carve Dat Possum" is a country-music evergreen. Gussie L. Davis(1863-1899) was well established by the mid-1880s, though his most enduring songs ("In the Baggage Coach Ahead," "The Fatal Wedding") were products of the 1890s. Behind these were less well-known figures, the prolific Fred Lyons and Dan Lewis, and less-published songwriters such as Basile Barès, Harry Davis, Pete Devonear, Jacob J. Sawyer, Frederick G. Carnes, Henry Newman, Albert Saunders, Dudley Clark(who specialized in "dutch," that is, German, impersonations), and J. S. McMurray. The great guitarist Justin Holland published a few pieces under his own name; he is also represented by arrangements. Pianist Blind Boone (1864-1927), a major figure of turn-of-the-century African-American music, appears in this online collection with an early publication. Several pieces claimed to be by African-American pianist Blind Tom were published in the 1870s. Unlike earlier and later pieces published under his name, these seem to be forgeries, written by others with his name added to sell copies of the music.

In 1871 the Fisk Jubilee Singers made their first tour, introducing the public to the rich repertoire of African-American spirituals. So great was the impact of these spirituals that songwriters white and black wrote jubilee songs in imitation of them. Some of these have entered the folk repertory and have been collected as genuine folk spirituals: James Bland's "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," (audio clip) Will S. Hays's "Keep in de Middle ob de Road," and Sam Lucas's "Every Day'll Be Sunday By and By." By the mid-1880s there were several companies of touring jubilee singers. "Jubilee songs" in this online collection includes both genuine folk spirituals and composed songs.

Running a distinct third to Irish-American and African-American songs are the German-American songs. These songs, performed in a quasi-German accent, were used in the "Dutch acts" popular on the American stage of the period. There was also a literary tradition of songs in German dialect, somewhat subtler and weaving in references to German culture, exemplified by the "Hans Breitmann" poems of Charles Godfrey Leland. Indeed one "Hans Breitmann" poem shows up here as the text of the song "O Were My Love a Sugar-bowl." Once more this repertory contrasts with a genuine repertory of German patriotic songs--most notably, multiple editions of "Die Wacht am Rhein"--published by and for German Americans. These are particularly common in the early 1870s, the years of German unification.

The one other ethnic group to be extensively portrayed in American songs of the 1870s is the Scots. It is to a large extent the Scots on their native soil rather than Scottish Americans who are depicted in these songs: the tradition of portrayal is not a stage tradition but a literary-musical one, stemming from Robert Burns and the Scots songs sung as a substitute for American folksong by cultivated American families of the mid-century. The songs, like the other ethnic songs discussed above, are written from the outside; Americans of varied backgrounds wrote "Scots songs." The very few Welsh songs in the collection are genuine products of Welsh Americans: one cannot fake a language as one can a dialect.

No other specific ethnic group is represented by nearly the number of songs of the four groups discussed above. There are a few songs and pieces about Native Americans and a few songs about Asians. Some of the latter express a racial animosity not otherwise present in this collection. Two ethnic groups that regularly appear in American popular songs of the twentieth century, Jews and Italians, are almost unrepresented among popular songs in this collection. There is a fair amount of genuine Jewish music, most of it sacred.

 Back to top