Popular songs of the early 20th Century

By | May 22, 2009

Originally Published on March 2, 2007

Maple Leaf Rag – 1899 written by Scott Joplin.
The song was one of his earliest works and he predicted that it would make him, “King of Ragtime composers.” In a time when sheet music sales gauged the popularity of a song, it became the first to sell over a million copies.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band – 1911 written by Irving Berlin.
This was one of his first major hits, and although it was about a ragtime band, the song has little of its characteristic features. The song celebrated the liveliness, spirit, and irresistible nature of ragtime and helped make Berlin a star songwriter. Many of the survivors of the Titanic recall hearing this song played on the night it sank.

Over There – 1917 written by George M. Cohan
While traveling from New Rochelle to New York City on the train, Cohan read the headline that the US was entering World War I. By the time he reached the city he had finished the chorus and verse and had a title. It had its first public performance at a Red Cross Benefit concert by Charles King. It was recorded a number of times including the hugely popular singer Nora Bayes, vaudeville star Billy Murray, and the opera singer Enrico Caruso.

I’m Just Wild about Harry – 1921 Words and Music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle
Both of these men were African-American songwriters. They began their careers in the early 1900s and came together as a team since in that time only one black act was allowed in the white vaudeville circuit. In 1921 they decided to organize a musical written and performed totally by black artists. That show was Shuffle Along with I’m Just Wild about Harry as one of the numbers.

Old Man River – 1927 Music: Jerome Kern; Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II from the musical Show Boat.
Paul Robeson was the first to perform the song in the musical. The song is perhaps the most popular songs in a show with popular songs. It has been recorded by others such as Frank Sinatra as well as Judy Garland.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime – 1932 written by E. Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney
The United States was in a depression and this song tells the story of a man who once stood at the top, but because of the stock market crash now stands along with many just trying to survive. It was one of Bing Crosby’s first hit recordings.


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