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David and Art - The Hits Just Keep on Coming

Because it’s art like any other kind, popular music does what all art can do.

In every class I teach, I always wonder how much students know about pop culture from the years before they were born. I’m sure my teachers wondered that about me too. Because of this, I was recently thinking about some big pop songs from the 90’s. My students weren’t alive then.

Have you heard of any of these titles? “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” “The Picture that is Turned to the Wall,” “The Moth and the Flame,” “Put Me Off at Buffalo,” “Two Girls in Blue.” Not ringing a bell? What about “Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage?” How about “The Cat Came Back?” What about “Ta-Ra-Ra-Ra Boom De-Ay?”

Actually, if you’ve heard of any of these I’m impressed. Yes, these were monster hits in the 90’s. In the 1890’s.

The last few decades of the 19th century were a roaring good time for American popular songs and songwriters. Popular culture was beginning to coalesce, and popular songs were one of the most vivid manifestations of that culture. You could make a lot of money as a good songwriter. Charles K Harris made over $100,000 from one song—“After the Ball”—which he wrote in 1892. Pop songs circulated, by the way, via sheet music. The sheet music for “After the Ball” sold over 5 million copies in the 1890s.

Pop songs were as pervasive and as defining of the moment then as they are now. Maybe even more so.

One of my favorite stories involving pop songs from the 1890s happened on the far side of the world. On the night of April 30, 1898, as the ships of Commodore George Dewey’s East Asia Squadron approached the entrance to Manila Bay, the anxiety of an impending battle hung in the air. On one of his ships one sailor began singing a melancholy popular song called “Sweet Marie.” It tugged everyone’s hearts back to loved ones in the United States, people they didn’t know if they would ever see again. The next morning, as the American ships passed back-and-forth in front of the Spanish pacific fleet blasting it to pieces, down in the stifling hot lower decks of the cruiser Raleigh, one sailor grabbed a guitar and another grabbed a violin, and they begin playing a rousing version of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” It was a song that everyone there instantly knew. “Play it louder boys, said an officer standing nearby. “I want them to hear it up on deck.”

Whatever the year, whatever the decade, whatever the century, pop songs show what a big part art plays in our lives.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.