There were hits before radio

Hit songs are hits for a reason. There’s a combination of catchiness, uniqueness, and lyricism that wins so much loyalty that the song becomes self-propelling. 

The very idea of a hit song seems to begin with radio and vinyl records, but is that so? The narrative of a nineteenth-century midwestern family tells how they sang and played music for recreation - you know, the old songs, such as “Sweet By and By” and “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” and “John Brown’s Body.” 

Except - I noticed for the first time several of these songs weren’t very old to them. Some were written within ten or fifteen years before the date of the account. One of them, "Old Stebbins On The North-Western Line," was made up and sung around by the very railroaders they worked with. “John Brown’s Body” was an evolution of the Civil War, which must have felt quite fresh even in 1880. Like today, there was an eagerness for new tunes to popularize - new hits, if you will - while the hits of yesteryear ("Oh, Susanna," "Old Dan Tucker," "Arkansas Traveler") stayed in circulation. 

Had my daughter’s youth chorus group been able to perform last Wednesday, they would have delivered the original version of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” by Jack Norworth and Albert von Tilzer. Published in 1908 by the York Music Company, “The Sensational Base Ball Song” became one of the "most easily recognized songs in America," just trailing "Happy Birthday" and the national anthem. The inside and back pages convey advertisements for more music from the publisher. 

This artifact shows us the music business hard at work prior to the proliferation of recorded music. We also see that back then people wanted new music, yet it must be familiar, too. They wanted music that was relevant to their shared experiences (in this case, baseball!). Technology has changed our consumption of music, but not what we want from it. 

In the days before Billboard charts and vinyl singles, what made these songs popular? What made them last? This could stand a good bit of research, but I have a couple hunches. 

First and not surprisingly, they were strong songs. They were catchy. They were lyrically relevant to their listeners. It’s been observed, too, that prior to the era of ubiquitous records, publishers would rely on producing music that the average piano-playing mom or the average singing teenager could learn. The songs were not just reproducible data, they were re-creatable performances. 

Which leads me to my second hunch. Because these songs had to be shared by physically performing them, they could leave a much deeper impression on their listeners. Music was shared as a norm. Today, many of us tuck ourselves away with our private headset and personally edited playlists. As a result we have a very fractured music literature. Other than the short hooks of some big hits, the average group of Americans would be hard-pressed to find more than a few songs everyone could sing together. 

One big exception is church-goers. This was plainest to me at my alma mater, a Christian college with regular chapel meetings. There were mixed opinions about chapel and chapel music, but it didn’t keep the room from resounding with singing voices. One student introduced an original song that was carried on for years after he left; the context, origin, and accumulated memories behind the song made it stick. A steady group would gather in stairwells just to sing together, mostly from memory as I recall, and all songs of worship.

Outside of church music, I wonder if today’s popular songs will be remembered a century from now. I don’t think they will, at least not as well as we remember numbers from the nineteenth century. Not because they’re not great songs, but because they’re not reaching as deeply and widely into our human experience.

But, perhaps you have a different perspective. I haven’t been around that long and have been as guilty of staying in my tiny music niche as any other. Let me know what you think.

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