Harmon’s Histories: Sing me a chart-topping song of the 1800s
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Folks of a certain age (aka, me) were around for the birth of rock and roll.
Back then (the early to mid-1950s), we couldn’t wait for the release of the latest music-chart to see how our favorite songs were faring, and what new songs were being released.
The Billboard Hot 100 chart was the music bible of the day. Rolling Stone magazine, with its roots in San Francisco, made its debut much later, in the late 1960s.
Today’s charts are dominated by artists like Taylor Swift, Drake, Rihanna and Beyonce. Swift, in fact, recently managed to do what no artist had ever done: inhabit every slot in the Billboard Top Ten.
In the 1950s and '60s, chart-topping artists included Bill Haley, Bobby Darin, Elvis and the Beatles.
All of this caused me to wonder what the chart-toppers were in the 1800s?
Well, according to an advertisement in the New York Herald of October 6, 1843, the popular music of the day included waltzes, marches and quicksteps.
Atwill’s Music Repository at 201 Broadway, N.Y., listed “Woodland Bride” as one of top sellers of the day. George Pope Morris wrote the lyrics and Charles Edward Horn supplied the music.
“Here upon this mountain side, Till now we met together;
Here I won my woodland bride, In flush of summer weather;
Green was then each friendly bough, This dear retreat that shaded;
Autumn winds are round me now, And the leaves are faded,
and the leaves are faded.”
“Take Your Time Miss Lucy” (1842) was another hit (a comic ballad):
“When young my heart was bent, sir, Upon a nice young beau,
So to my ma I went, sir, And she reproved me so.
Indeed my dear, you are joking, You’re still too young you know;
So take your time Miss Lucy, Miss Lucy, Lucy, oh!
So take your time Miss Lucy, Miss Lucy, Lucy, oh!”
Of course, these weren’t released as records, tapes, CDs or digital files; these were pages of sheet music, selling for about 30 cents to 50 cents each.
But if that was too much, you could always find a bargain. Another advertisement, this one in the Democrat Northwest newspaper from Napoleon, Ohio, August 13, 1885, offered a list of (1,000 of) “the most popular music published.”
Each piece of sheet music, according to J.H. Thomas Publishing of Albany, N.Y., could be purchased at a bargain rate of 5-cents a copy, and was “printed on the best heavy music paper (with) good clear print (in) full sheet music size.”
Songs offered included “Alice, Where Art Thou?,” “Clang of the Wooden Shoon (plural for shoe),” “Home Sweet Home,” and the ever-popular “Chop Sticks” waltz.
Purchasing by mail was easy. Just send cash, post office order, or postal note. Do not, however, send stamps: “We get so many stamps we can’t use them!”
If we were to travel even further back, we would find the popular “Campaign Song for A. Lincoln” offered by the publishing house of H. M. Higgins, advertised in the Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1864.
The Portland, Maine Daily Press newspaper of November 12, 1872, carried an ad for “White, Smith & Perry’s book of Strauss Waltzes,” containing “all his popular waltzes and polkas played at the Jubilee, $13 worth of music in all” for just $1.25!
Also available was the Boston company’s “new book of sacred quartets, trios and duets, plus sixteen preludes, voluntaries and responses” for both church and homes services, priced at $1.50.
Today, many of the songs of the 1800s are still cherished: "Good Morning to All" (aka, "Happy Birthday To You"), "Amazing Grace," "Jingle Bells," "Joy to the World" and "Red River Valley."
All that causes one to pause. Will modern, perennial holiday hits like “All I Want for Christmas is You” or “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” still be on the charts in 100 years?
With modern medicine and technology surprising us daily with new discoveries, who knows – we could possibly live to be 200 years old, and be able to answer that question. I’m game, but only if we feel 20 again.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.