Time Machine

Our latest find

Our latest find

One of the things that amazes me most about this project is that every now and then, a piece of the puzzle drops mysteriously from the sky, as if by preordained writ. I noted in a previous post how a strange and unlikely attraction to a tiny spot in Big Sur led me to Lathrop Brown’s descendants in the persons of Pam and Elmer Grossman, and how since then, so many aspects of Lathrop’s life, previously almost a perfect void, have now come together, including the wonderful family photo archives Dan L’Engle Davis shared with us last month. Thanks to these folks, Lathrop’s room will be as replete with personal memorabilia as Franklin’s (there thanks to the FDR Library), just as if ol’ “Lapes” had left the Suite moments before.

Last week another fascinating bit of FDR history descended from the heavens, this time from a far more prosaic source: EBay. As is my occasional wont, I was scanning one day for period Harvard memorabilia, and I noticed a little tome entitled Harvard University Songs. It had a delightful cover, and I was intrigued. There was very little detail supplied, except that it was an illustrated songbook, and that the publication date was 1902 – right in our range. So without giving it much thought, I bid on the item, maximum price, $20, thinking it might make an interesting addition to the period music already in our collection. It was mine later that day for a grand total of $18.12, including shipping.

The book arrived today, and turned out to be a small treasure.

True to description, it was a charmingly illustrated volume, much akin to the caricature book of Harvard Personalities I discovered earlier this year (also on EBay, and the subject of a future post). Even more appropriately, the drawings were done by FDR classmate (and fellow Newell Junior Crew Member freshman year) S.A. Welldon ’04, and dedicated, interestingly, to the Harvard Union. (The Union’s appeal is hard for us to appreciate today, but in 1902, it was hugely important in Harvard student life.)  All very intriguing. But what really got me going was the short introduction:

The compiler has tried to make a collection of the songs that are actually sung at Harvard, by the Glee Club, by the crowds at football games, and by the undergraduates and graduates. Many of the songs and versions of songs have been passed down to the present classes by ear alone, and are printed here for the first time.


Think about it: what sits beside me on my desk as I write is a veritable miniature window back in time, capturing from that pre-recording age, the actual songs, and versions of songs, that FDR knew and sang at Harvard, exactly as he sang them. (And sang our president-resident did: the reason we have a piano in the Suite is that FDR and Lathrop both belonged to the Freshman Glee Club.) And these songs were sung not only by the class of 1904, but by generations of Harvardians before them. You can tell by just reading the melody and lyrics that some of these songs are truly old:


Now I can’t claim this volume as a first-ever discovery; once I had this dear little book in my hands and realized what exactly it was, I soon able to backtrack and find another copy buried away in the Harvard University archives, and later, was even able to track down a scanned version of the entire book (at UCLA Berkeley, of all places. You can, and should, view it here). But what fascinates me, and what I hope fascinates you, is the FDR Project’s unique ability to pluck otherwise dead and dry material like this thin neglected volume and place it once again in a living, breathing historical context of immense interest to scholars and historians worldwide, so that you and I and they,  – and eventually, hopefully, everyone with a computer through the virtual museum we’re planning – can hop-skip an entire century, and for a brief instant, experience what it was like to be alive at Harvard with FDR in his sophomore year. It’s one thing for me to simply tell you that FDR and Lathrop sat in Morris chairs and sang some ditty called “The Winter Song” over a glass of Piper with chums by the fire: it’s entirely another for me to give you the opportunity to sink into the soft cushions of those very same chairs, feel the heat of that same crackling fire, hand you a glass of sibilant bubbly, and teach you to sing this almost forgotten song in precisely the manner,  in precisely the same spot, on precisely the same instrument as FDR heard it eleven decades ago.

Time travel is what this is, really – rudimentary perhaps, but time travel none-the-less, and frankly, it’s enthralling.

What’s next from the heavens? I know not, but surely something. For the moment, we’ll just take our cue from another FDR contemporary, and head towards “the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning…”

Thanks to all you who’ve made this incredible journey possible. We continue to welcome, and need, your support.

Tree Exercises, and Odd Historical Paths Taken

One of the most interesting things about the FDR Restoration Project is that I never know down which fascinating historical path I’ll be drawn next. Take yesterday for instance: Dave Robinson, grandson of Chester Robinson ’04 arrived in Cambridge from Maine bearing a whole host of original materials he and his family are sharing with the Restoration. It’s a real treasure trove, and one that I’ll be detailing over numerous posts during the next year. But of immediate note was a volume he showed me that I hadn’t ever seen before: the Harvard Yearbook of 1904.

“Ah ha! What’s this?” I cried, eagerly clasping the thick volume. “Nothing less than a complete catalog of  the state of the College in FDR’s last year, with pictures! Ho! HO!”

Dave kindly consented to a loan, and later that evening I came across the following notice:


(Now, this could be interesting, I thought; after all FDR was on the Class Day committee, his first elected office in fact… What do we have here?)

flower rush

“When in 1897 the College authorities first objected to the Tree Exercises, there was raised in the undergraduates’ mind a problem, which, it is hoped, has been finally settled this year. In 1897 the undergraduates, finding themselves in danger of losing a custom descended to succeeding classes from time almost immemorial, promised to lessen the fight around the tree by lowering the height of the flowers from the ground. They were allowed to hold the exercise in this modified form, which however achieved only a moderate success. These modifications proved so distasteful to the next class, that after considerable discussion, they decided to give up the old exercises, and start somewhat different ones around the John Harvard statue in the Delta. As the fighting for flowers had become objectionable to many, it was omitted, or rather, left in such a modified form as to be almost unrecognizable; and instead cheering and singing were introduced. In this form the exercises have been held for six years, but they have never been considered highly entertaining, or altogether successful. In addition, the feeling has gradually grown that the wooden grand stands erected for the occasion were dangerous on account of fire, but as there seemed to be no substitute which would obviate this difficulty, nothing was done about it. This year, however, after the class of ’79 had given the magnificent stadium to the University, this naturally suggested itself as a suitable place to hold the troublesome exercises… and to give a more substantial tone to the whole… by moving the Ivy Oration from the morning…

OK. Sounds reasonable. But tree exercises? What ever do they mean, “tree exercises”? And what’s this mention of fighting? And which tree? On Class Day? Whatever for?

Then, leafing (pardon the pun) through the volume, I discovered a small picture:

class tree

So, that’s one piece of the puzzle solved: there’s the tree, and that’s clearly Holden Chapel, with the Cambridge Common visible beyond, before iron fencing and Lionel Hall closed off this side of the yard.  But still no explanation of what these strange exercises were about.

Continuing backward down the historical path, I next found this, from an 1897 article in the New York Times:

scrimmage doomed

Holy smokes, the Corporation’s now involved, ladies are being insulted, Harvard men are wearing “dirty football gear” to Class Day, and the news is considered important enough to have made the Times! You’ve got to be kidding. What exactly could be the nature of this “struggle for flowers”?!!  Now I really was intrigued, but while I discovered a fair number of references to the mysterious ceremony, I could find no explanation of why a group of grown men would wrestle each other for flowers tied to a tree…

Further into the past…

Then finally, from the 1880 Harvard Register, a suitably flowery article chronicling yet another President’s graduation ceremony, this time Theodore Roosevelt.

Around the old Class Elm, in the square formed by Holden Chapel, Hollis and Harvard Halls, and the fence on Harvard Square, tiers of seats in circus style were built. Shortly after five o’clock all of the thousand seats were occupied, chiefly by ladies, dressed in light and beautiful costumes, giving the whole the appearance of a gay parterre. Then enter at the gate between Hollis and Holden the juniors (1881) who seat themselves on the ground within the circle. Next come the sophomores (1882) followed by the freshman (1883). After these have taken their places, a group of graduates, many from the recent classes, file in, and seat themselves on the ground, facing the juniors.

Suddenly the rustling of the fans, the low hum of conversation is no longer heard. The music of the band and the cheering of the buildings announce by increased loudness that the seniors are approaching. As they enter, not in their full-dress suits as regulations of Class Day require, but in the oldest clothes they own, the juniors, sophomores, freshmen and graduates rise, and, in turn, greet them with a hearty “Rah! Rah! Rah!” each class attempting to excel in volume of tone and perfection of time. Then ’80 returns the compliment to ’81, ’82, ’83 and the graduates; and then cheer, with their utmost zeal and power, almost every object of college affection, beginning with “President Eliot” and closing with “the ladies.” When the class have exhausted their voices, they sing, as well as can be expected under the circumstances, the Class Song… The song over, hands are joined, each class forming a living chain, of which every link is resolved not to prove the weakest part. Now the word is given: round and round they go, the whirl grows furious, maddening. Fond parents looking from their seats tremble for the safety of sons who may chance to fall and be trampled by that writhing, seething mass, and sigh with relief when they see the rings broken, and attention drawn to the seniors alone, as they, at a given signal from the marshal, strive to grasp a blossom from the bouquets forming the wreathes which at a height of ten feet encircle the dear old tree. Pushed up against the tree beyond hope of release, those who were foremost served as stepping stones for the others. Up struggled an adventurous youth upon the heaving shoulders: he grasped at the tantalizing blossoms, and some of them came away with his touch, but he left the cuticle of his knuckles behind. Nor did he make off with his prize; for he took a plunge backward among those beneath him, lost his grasp upon his trophy, and it was borne away to deck the dress of some one other than she for whom he intended it. Another and another followed his example, some to meet with his fate, others to be more fortunate. More eager grew the struggle as the girdle was broken and torn away. The last flower is gone: there is nothing more to be striven for; and so, the most pleasant and unique rite of Class Day over, the seniors pass out to prepare for the softer and perhaps more entrancing pleasures of the evening.

There it was, at last. So simple, yet so unpredicted. And what an interesting sea change in attitudes between Teddy’s and FDR’s terms at Harvard! Only one question still troubled me: what was the origin of this bizarre custom? The 1904 Yearbook mentioned that the practice dated from “almost time immemorial,” but how long had this been going on?

Next, a hint in Thayer’s Historical Sketch of Harvard University (1890):

“Among the famous ‘rebellions’ I have already mentioned that of 1768, when, says Governor Hutchinson, “the scholars met in body under and about a great tree, to which they have given the name of the ‘Tree of Liberty’.’ Some years after, this tree was either blown or cut down, and the name was given to the present Liberty Tree, which stand between Holden Chapel and Harvard Hall, and is now hung with flowers for the seniors to scramble for on Class Day.

Ho! Ho! So now we are really stepping back…  Our 1904 “Class Tree” was originally “The Liberty Tree,” a meeting place during “rebellions.” Political Rebellions? It was just before the Revolution War, after all. But no. Turns out that wasn’t it at all: Here’s Brian Deming, from his Student Discontent at Harvard Before the Revolution:

Called the Turkish Tyranny, as students likened Harvard authorities to Turkish despots, the 1768 student revolt came about “after the college changed its rules about how students could respond when asked in class to recite. The rule had been that students could simply say “nolo,” meaning “I don’t want to” and be excused. Under the new policy, which applied to all students except the seniors, students couldn’t excuse themselves so easily. Students had to get permission from tutors before class to be excused from reciting. As a consequence many students promptly asked tutors to be excused. Some tutors, such as Thomas “Horsehead” Danforth, turned down all requests. He subsequently had manure smeared on his door. Another tutor, Joseph Willard, had his room ransacked, and several had their chamber windows broken. Then rumors circulated that Willard his efforts to find the identities of the students who ransacked his room, had locked up a freshman “without Victuals, Fire or Drink.” A mob of students soon appeared at Willard’s quarters and broke the windows.”

In the following days, many students met to plan protests at a large elm tree, which they called their Liberty Tree, the same name given to an elm in Boston where Sons of Liberty gathered to protest the Stamp Act… Seniors, who had been aloof from the whole controversy, finally became involved and asked the faculty to properly look into recent events.When the faculty ignored the request, the seniors went to the College president to request a transfer to Yale.”

The entire senior class moved to Yale! Now that would have been something! Fortunately for Harvard (or for Yale), calmer heads soon prevailed, and when the freshman who had supposedly been imprisoned admitted that he hadn’t been restrained in any way, this particular revolt collapsed, but not before the custom of meeting beneath the Liberty Elm in times of crisis, or eventually, celebration, had been implanted in minds of future Harvard generations.

So here then, gentle reader, is the complete historical chain we’ve just followed backwards, in case you’ve forgotten or lost your way in all the twists and turns: In 1768, pre-Revolutionary student discontent at the cruelty of Harvard tutors leads to a rebellious series of gatherings which just happened to meet under a large elm which subsequently became immortalized as the symbol of Revolutionary activism which was commemorated each year by the placing of a wreath which subsequently morphed into series of wreathes and then a girdle of flowers, which one day, perhaps, a graduating senior attempted to carry off to his sweetheart, thereby inciting his fellow classmates to attempt rival feats of gallantry, which, due to the amusement and gaiety hereby invoked, initiated a friendly competition each June wherein the the most agile members of the class would vie for floral tokens much like medieval knights in a jousting match, a Class Day tradition which over the decades grew and became beloved by generations of Harvard men including Theodore Roosevelt until, as matters often do, things got out of hand and the Administration stepped in to prevent what it considered unnecessary rowdiness and uncouth behavior (not to mention, undoubtedly, undue risk of litigation), convincing the student body over threat of cancellation of this time-worn custom to adopt a series of modifications and changes which were neither liked nor well received, and which eventually resulted in such a diminution and devaluation of the practice that by FDR’s time, the Class Committee (of which FDR was a member)  had no real objections to letting the Tree Exercises fall into abeyance, despite the heated protests of previous generations of alumni, who thoroughly missed the old ritual and predicted that this was just another symbol of the decadence and softness of present day youth, a chorus which was only finally stilled with the gradual disappearance of anyone who remembered what the Tree Exercises had ever been about in the first place.

Whew! Got that?

Regrettably for us, the Class Tree, too, is now long gone, carried off in the first great Elm blight that denuded the Yard just before the First World War. But perhaps, given such a grand history, it’s time to think about planting a replacement. There are several recently released Elm hybrids that are supposedly immune to Dutch Elm disease, and now that President Faust has declared that “Green is the New Crimson” a new Class Tree would seem an appropriately environmental gesture to link today’s classes with those hundreds past. And who knows, perhaps, if we’re lucky, on some warm June eve years hence, we might even catch glimpse of a grateful collegiate spirit or two, or three, once again singing, cheering and toasting our health beneath the graceful spread of arching branches.

And On An Entirely Unrelated Note

In researching Chet Robinson’s history for the previous piece, I was investigating the private Stone School in Boston which he attended, and came across the following ad in something called “A Handbook of American Private Schools.” I simply couldn’t resist sharing this with you:

rivers school

Now granted, the original idea here was to prevent tuberculosis. But can you IMAGINE sitting day after day in that unheated classroom? As much as we often like to romanticize the past, there are many times that I thank my lucky stars we live when we do!

Interior Design, and Redesign, Harvard 1900

Shortly after last year’s FDR dinner, I received an email from a certain Mr. Dave Robinson in Maine, inquiring as to whether or not we’d be interested in taking a look at some of the Harvard photos and ephemera he’d inherited from his grandfather, Chester Robinson, ’04, a friend and a classmate of FDR’s. I said certainly. Well, one thing led to another, I got busy, Dave got busy, then we made arrangements to get the materials scanned, then there was further delay, then mysteriously the ISB drive Dave sent me arrived empty: you get the general idea. Almost a year passed, and I still really hadn’t had a chance to see the extent of the collection.

The files arrived last week, and I opened them today.

Are we in for a treat!

Over the next few weeks I’ll be showing you more of the incredible treasure trove of material that the Robinson family has been kind enough to share with us, but let’s just say we’ve taken a major step forward in locating specific items to purchase or replicate. For now, I wanted to share with you these six photos, of Chester (Chet) Robinson’s rooms. They show Robinson and his roommate Goodhue’s bay-windowed corner suite in the old Russel Hall, a Claverly like building that stood where today’s Russell (C-Entry) now stands. What’s fantastic about these photos, (and to my knowledge unique in the Harvard collection) is that they show the same room from three views, with two different decorative schemes. Somewhere during their four years, the pair decided to redecorate, in keeping with the shift in taste that was occurring right around the turn of the century. Ornate Victorian styling was moving out, and what would become Arts and Crafts, and eventually, neo-Colonial, was beginning to take hold. What’s critical about finding these pictures, just as we are about to paper the FDR suite, is what it reveals about the wallpaper: we’ve been wondering whether or not our selection of solid silk papers for the bedrooms, as we had seen in the Vanderbilt Suite, was typical of the time, or merely the product of Vanderbilt’s elevated design aesthetic. No longer:


Here’s the window seat before. Note the rather frilly drapes, and the striped wall paper. Two Morris chairs, similar to those coming to the FDR suite, and again, all those Harvard pillows we see in many of the photos. Heaven knows where we will find or recreate those! And how’s this for bizarre coincidence: the view out the windows reveals Westmorly, and the windows of the FDR suite!


Now look at this: a much more distinguished arrangement, with a solid, silk like material on the walls, almost identical to what we were guessing for the FDR Suite bedrooms. YES! The name placards, by the way, are another typical element of Harvard student rooms of the period, though generally they are located over the individual’s bedroom door.

hearth before

A view of the hearth before. Note the Meerschaum pipes (present in almost every room photo) and the beer mugs (another ubiquitous student item.)


Here’s the hearth view after: you can tell it’s years later from the medals now hanging from the pictures: these are club and sports member medallions, and Dave’s family still has many of them, as well as the picture of dear old John the Orangeman, just visible on the mantle behind the mugs to right.


The doors to the bedrooms before: the curtains over the doorways appear in many of the room pictures of the period, and seem very odd to modern eyes. Most bookcases had curtains as well, as shown in the picture two above this one – to keep out coal and wood dust from the fires.


The door view after: a much more civilized arrangement than the ad hoc day bed previously. Note the Crimsons hanging from a hook on the wall. In general, it’s surprising how much the decor has matured over the interval. One (or both) of these gentlemen had a very good eye!

All in all, these six pictures provide a wealth of invaluable leads as to what kind of items we’ll need to acquire for the Suite, and as well as confirming both our reproduction of the printed study paper, and use of solid silks elsewhere. They also remind us what we often forget: the past is not static, locked at a single point and place the way we tend to view it from photos. It changed and moved, just like the present. Something to keep in mind when re-creaeting a set of rooms occupied for four years by two men of maturing times and taste…

We are all hugely grateful to Dave Robinson and his family for sharing this amazing time capsule with us, and I look forward to sharing more of it with you, our readers, over the next month.

FDR’s Harvard Through The Brush of Edward Penfield


A line from Vergil: "One day this too may be happy to recall" graces the entrance to the Coolidge Room in Adams House. Note the pipes and beer steins, an integral part of 19th century Harvard.

Many of you may not be aware (as I was not, despite 3 years residence) that Adams House possesses a tremendous artistic treasure built into its walls, one that gives us a fascinating glimpse of what FDR’s Harvard must have looked like. I’m referring to the incredible series of murals in the Coolidge Room, the former breakfast room of Randolph Hall. This building, another one of Harvard’s fabled Gold Coast dormitories, has a fascinating history of its own. Built in 1897 by Archibald Cary Coolidge (later Harvard Professor and Head of the University Library System) this luxurious Flemish Revival edifice was state of the art when constructed: electric and gas lighting, private bathrooms, swimming pool, concierge entrance – all the trappings of a 5th Avenue Mansion. FDR himself originally thought to live there alone in a single, until Groton chum Lathrop Brown agreed to room with him;  the pair eventually spurned Randolph for digs in Westmorly Hall, 2 years newer and even more palatial.

Somewhere during the construction process, Coolidge must have convinced penfieldEdward Penfield to paint a series of murals for the breakfast room of his new building. How this occurred, and what precisely their connection was, is entirely unclear. Penfield at the time was a nationally known artist, made famous by his covers for Harpers magazine. 1897, the year he painted the murals in Randolph, was also – perhaps not coincidentally – the year Penfield wed. It’s possible that the newly married artist, never rich, decided to moonlight for additional funds. Or perhaps there was some personal connection to Coolidge, or to Coolidge’s brother who was the architect of the building. Whatever the case, Penfield surely warmed to his task, perfectly capturing the aristocratic, upper-class image that Harvard very much wished to portray (and did portray) during that era. Interestingly, these scenes of College life, though lovingly conserved at Adams for over one hundred years, have languished in scholarly obscurity: they don’t appear in many published canons of Penfield’s work, and are rarely mentioned even in Harvard art circles. That’s a real shame, because as you’ll see, they are spectacular. While FDR never mentions the murals in his College correspondence, undoubtedly he knew of them: Coolidge, who himself lived in Randolph, was FDR’s tutor, and it’s highly likely that Roosevelt had many acquaintances among the smart set living just next door. In any event, these pictures, painted just three years before FDR arrived in Cambridge, constitute a remarkably preserved window into the Harvard our 32nd president knew intimately.

The following pictures, by the way, are just a selection of the several dozen panels that circle the room at head-height. Unfortunately, my amateur photography doesn’t do them full justice. With any luck we’ll get the complete cycle professionally photographed next year.

The ball. This image is not distorted; the panel actually curves to meet the fireplace.

The ball: FDR was invited to attend the exclusive Saturday Evening Dance Classes (really soirees) at the Somerset Hotel, where the scene must have looked much like this. The image, by the way, is not distorted; the panel actually curves to meet the baronial fireplace just out of sight to the right.


The track race: our Harvard boy seems momentarily behind, though soon to break out, no doubt! Other panels show scenes from football, hockey, and baseball.


Tally-ho and all that! Watching polo at the Myopia Club on the North Shore was a common pastime for undergraduates.


On the Way to the Big Game


This is John the Orangeman, a cherished College character for decades. (You may be wondering how we know who this is, considering none of the panels bear labels. The fact is, the old boy had been totally forgotten until this past year, when I, by pure chance, discovered pictures of John and his donkey in several of the student scrapbooks now in the Harvard University Archives.) Once identified, the image becomes clear – according to Lucius Beebe in his 1935 work, Boston and the Boston Legend, recalling his own Harvard days not long after FDR's : "The Yard swarmed with personalities... Most beloved was John the Orangeman, who greeted all Freshmen cheerily with the same exclamation: 'I knew y'r father, fri'nd!" Welcome back, John!


This is the old Harvard boat house, which FDR would have rowed from, located where the Weld boathouse now stands. Notice the rather run down buildings to either side – the University wharves – as well as the still tidal nature of the Charles. The riverfront would not look like today's for many more decades. Note, too, Penfield's amazing treatment of the water, with an almost deco feel to the waves.


A soothing country ride on one's "Wheel." FDR kept a Columbia Chainless while at College.

The Music of FDR’s Harvard

For those of you interested in learning more about what music was like in the early years of the past century, this fascinating excerpt from the 1910 Encyclopedia of American Music details the state of affairs quite thoroughly. To make the article more enjoyable, I’ve edited the text, added the illustrations, as well as provided Wikipedia links where possible to clarify period references. (The complete original text may be found at parlorsongs.com, and a hearty thank you to them for finding and publicizing this lost work.)


The Rise of Vocal Music
Among the popular song writers of recent years the name of Chas. K. Harris of Milwaukee has become best known, owing perhaps first of all, to the fact that he has more surely gauged the public taste than has any contemporary writer in the same field, and also because he is his own publisher. Mr. Harris was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1865. He early began his career as a popular song writer, composing songs to order for professional people. After the Ball (1891) was the song which first brought him into prominence. Indeed it may be said that it was this song which really, started the popular song craze as we know it today. Over $100,000 was realized by the composer from the sale of this one song alone. As will be remembered, After the Ball is a song of the ballad character and tells’ a complete story. It was first presented to the public by May Irwin in New York City, afterward being introduced in Hoyt’s A Trip to Chinatown.

Mr. Harris has stated that he received many suggestions from the stage for the subjects of popular songs. He writes: “For example, about twelve years ago such plays as The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and The Crust of Society were in vogue. I then wrote Cast Aside, Fallen by the Wayside and There’Il Come a Time Someday. Over 300,000 copies were sold of each. Then came the era of society dramas such as Belasco’s Charity Ball and The Wife. I wrote and published While the Dance Goes On, Hearts, You’ll Never Know and Can Hearts So Soon Forget; which had enormous sales.” Military dramas such as Held by the Enemy and Secret Service called out such songs as Just Break the News to Mother and Tell Her that I Loved Her, Too.

Among the many successful popular song-writers of today are William B. Gray, who made a small fortune by his Volunteer Organist; H. W. Petrie, whose name is associated with the child song I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard; Charles Graham, who wrote Two Little Girls in Blue” Other familiar names are those of Raymon Moore, Paul Dresser, Felix McGlennon, Mabel McKinley, Edward B. Marks, Gus Edwards, Egbert Van Alstyne, Harry Von Tilzer and Nell Moret. Modern popular songs have been classified as follows: Coon Songs (rough, comic, refined, love or serenade); Comic Songs (topical, character or dialect); March Songs (patriotic, war, girl or character); Waltz Songs; Home or Mother Songs; Descriptive or Story Ballads; Child Songs; Love Ballads; Ballads of a Higher Class; Sacred Songs; Production Songs (for interpolation in big musical productions, entailing use of chorus, costumes, and stage business).

In the popular song of today the chorus is of most importance, for upon this part of the song usually rests its ultimate success or failure. The words of the chorus usually are applicable to every verse. In the descriptive song, the writer aims to tell a complete story in as few words and as graphically as possible. The success of the comic or topical song rests on the “gag” introduced into each verse and made apparent by the first or last line of the chorus. In the several classes or divisions of popular songs those of more serious character strive to make their appeal equally through both words and music; in the march song the music is of most account, while the comic song depends largely on the words.

Many reasons may be given for the ever-increasing vogue of popular music. Not the least of these is to be found in the presence of a piano or some musical instrument in nearly every home. Such was not the case a quarter century ago. The advent of the pianola and other mechanical players, together with the phonograph and gramophone also have tended to create a demand for popular music. Again, the teaching of the rudiments of music in the public schools has served to bring the art more closely before the public, with the result that nearly every girl in the country, whose parents can afford it, is receiving music lessons as a part of her general education. In homes where very little music of any kind previously had been heard it is but natural that music of a popular style at first would be most acceptable, this serving to satisfy until the taste be elevated so as to desire something of a better nature.

The appearance of singers of the first rank in musical comedy and in vaudeville undoubtedly has become a factor in forwarding the cause of popular music. While the presence of such singers in the vaudeville ranks has been deplored, the fact that they have made their appearance there has to some extent raised the standard of popular music in this country; for the class of music which they have sung has been in advance of that generally produced. There is no question but what the purveyors of popular music have shown more enterprise in the production of music that will please their patrons than have those who cater to a class with higher artistic perceptions.

Of the quantities of popular songs published in the last thirty years (ed. 1880 – 1910) but few have attained any lasting popularity. Songs of which hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold now are completely forgotten. The reason for this is hard to ascertain. It is not because the later songs are of inferior merit, for a steady advance has been made in all popular music. The public now readily accepts harmonies which but a few years ago would have been looked upon as too difficult and complicated.

homesweetIn the matter of the text of our present day popular songs, however, the same advancement has not been made. There rarely is shown the same simplicity and wholesome sentiment seen in our earlier songs, such as Home, Sweet Home and Old Black Joe. Popular taste now looks for words touching on the events of the moment rather than those dealing with emotions and feeling which are common to all and which always are in evidence.

For short periods the majority of compositions written in popular style will be very similar. Take, for instance, the introduction of ragtime melodies. At first the words of such songs dealt almost exclusively with negro characterizations. Later came songs in a quasi-Indian manner. Mexico, Japan, China were all used as ragtime suggestions. Ragtime has been much abused and its incessant use decried by many people, yet it has done much in educating the public to an appreciation of the more complicated rhythms used in music of a higher grade. The tendencies all are favorable for the production of popular music of an even better character. What would have been listened to with delight by the public a generation ago now would be looked upon as decidedly flat and uninteresting. In the light operas and musical comedies of such composers as Victor Herbert and Reginald De Koven many numbers will be found which are of real musical worth. And yet they rarely last beyond two or three years at the most. As before suggested, the inanition of the text probably is responsible for the short life of the songs, while the nervous desire of the public for something new gives to the best of the popular instrumental music of today but an ephemeral existence. Doubtless as time goes on we shall revert to the ever passing stream of popular songs and the best will be saved, until finally they become incorporated into our folk-song literature. It is only in rare cases that a tune has any lengthy existence when separated from words of universal context…

Two special classes of songs, which, in a way, may be termed popular, are college songs and gospel hymns. Of the two, the hymns more properly may be classified as popular music, insomuch as they are sung by all sorts and conditions of people, while the college songs are somewhat limited in their employment, although some of them have come into general use. Many of the latter did not originate as student songs but have been appropriated from various sources until now they are conceded to be the especial property of the undergraduate.

An early photo of the Harvard Glee Club to which FDR belonged

An early photo of the Harvard Glee Club, to which FDR belonged

The college glee club, for which many of these songs originally were indited, is patterned after the German Männerchor, though the singing and the selections hardly attain to the dignity of those of the Teutonic choruses. Nevertheless excellent musical and dramatic effects, though often of an exaggerated order, are obtained by the college men. The songs themselves, with which most of us are familiar, contain as their most salient feature a sharply marked rhythm, thus making them especially effective when given in chorus. The melodies and harmonies are pleasing and catchy, while the words usually are sentimental or humorous, certain of them being elaborations of Mother Goose rhymes. All of the larger and older institutions have their own individual songs which are looked upon as the special property of the student body, both graduate and undergraduate.

Among the songs most popular with all the colleges are Gaudeamus, Integer Vitae, Vive l’Amour, Bingo, Mary had a little Lamb, Tarpaulin Jacket, The Dutch Company, Spanish Cavalier, Good-night, Ladies, Soldier’s Farewell, Nelly was a Lady, Old Cabin Home and scores of others. It will be seen that many of these have been appropriated from the repertory of popular music in general, until they have become recognized by the public as essentially “college” songs. A special feature of student life which has given rise to many songs has been the amateur theatricals conducted by the various societies and fraternities; for in many of these productions, which often are written by the students themselves, and given elaborate presentations…

The Instrumental Song in America
oldblackjoePopular instrumental music in America dates practically from the period following the Civil War. True, the dance tunes of England, Ireland and Scotland previously had been used to display the musical attainments of the maiden of the period, but it was not until recent years that any effort was made to satisfy the growing demand for instrumental music of a popular style. As piano playing became more general (for the piano is the true “home” instrument, following the cabinet organ, which was not adapted to music of a showy character) several writers came forward with compositions gauged to appeal to the average musical intelligence. This music usually is formed of a simple and pleasing melody set to elemental harmony and brightened with arpeggios and similar stock passages, the whole capable of being performed, or executed, by players of small attainment. The variation pieces by A. P. Wyman, T. P. Ryder, and Chas. L. Blake, together with the operatic arrangements of James Bellak and ethers, are representative of this class of music. Well-known melodies such as Old Oaken Bucket, Nearer My God to Thee, Old Black Joe, Suwanee River, Sweet Bye and Bye and others of like character were arranged with variations. There were again other pieces, of which Silvery Waves and Maiden’s Prayer are typical of the class, which had an immense sale and which went to form the repertory of many an amateur pianist. At a later date came the various waltzes and marches and still later the two-step and pieces of the intermezzo character.



Foremost among the successful American writers of popular instrumental music stands the name of John Philip Sousa, the “March King.” It has been said that Sousa writes with the metronome at his elbow running at one hundred and twenty clicks to the minute. Sousa’s marches never have been surpassed and rarely equaled. They are without doubt the most typical music which this country has yet produced, for they are indeed deeply imbued with the American spirit.’ Sousa above all others has caught the true martial swing; his music also has the stamp of his own distinct individuality and he practically has revolutionized march music. No other composer, not even Johann Strauss, has attained such world-wide popularity as has Sousa. His music has been sold to thousands of bands in the United States alone and has been heard in all parts of the civilized world. It has been very aptly stated that Sousa’s marches contain all the nuances of military psychology, the long unisonal stride, the grip on the musket, the pride in the regiment and the esprit de corps. They also have served as dance music, and the two-step was directly borne into vogue by them.

John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D. C., on Nov. 6, 1859, his mother being a German and his father a Spanish political exile. At eight years of age Sousa was playing the fiddle in a dancing school and at sixteen led anorchestra in a variety theatre. Two years later he became director of a traveling theatrical troupe, composing music for the members and also appearing in negro minstrel roles. At nineteen he toured the country as a member of Often-bach’s Orchestra, and shortly after he became director of the Pinafore Opera Company. For some years after this he directed the United States Marine Band and in 1892 formed his own Concert Band. His career from this time on is familiar to the American public. Sousa’s chief claim to fame lies in his marches, from which he has derived a princely income. The most popular of these are Washington Post, Liberty Bell, High School Cadets, King Cotton, Manhattan Beach, El Capitan and Stars and Stripes Forever. As will be seen, the titles are derived either from patriotic subjects or from some subject-matter of national import or interest. Sousa’s efforts in the comic opera field receive mention elsewhere in this chapter.

Marked advancement in the public taste for instrumental music has been shown in recent years and many compositions of an artistic nature have been adopted into the repertory of popular music. Pieces such as Handel’s Largo, Rubinstein’s Melody in F, Nevin’s Narcissus and even Schumann’s Traiumerei may now be classed as popular music. The concert bands have done much in familiarizing the public with music of this character, and it is no uncommon thing to find the public making special requests for the works of Wagner and Liszt. Another feature which has tended to elevate the popular taste for instrumental rather than for vocal music is the general study of the piano by the young. The teaching material of necessity is of higher grade than the songs commonly sung and America has gained much from the general introduction of the piano into the home.

Light Opera and Musical Comedy
In light opera and musical comedy is seen the most elaborate phase which popular music has assumed. Of late years the country has been deluged with musical plays until their effect has been felt on the legitimate drama. These productions are the natural sequence of the decadent minstrelshow, and while they lack the dignity, if such a word may here be used, of the comic operas of the European peoples, the American public has wafted them into favor until they have become the most popular form of entertainment presented on the stage.

The better class of American light operas is built somewhat after the style of those of Gilbert and Sullivan, while the “near” operas or musical comedies are simply a series of solos, concerted pieces and choruses held together by a mere thread of a plot. Several of the better sort have become standards and bid fair to remain for some years to come; but the vogue of the vast majority is fleeting, lasting at the best but for a few years.

pinaforeLight opera first sprang into favor with the American public in 1878, in which year James C. Duff, a brother-in-law of Augustin Daly, brought from England Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore and produced it at the Standard Theatre (now the Manhattan) in New York. The success of the charming opera was remarkable, and as there was no copyright on the work different managers at once took it up and within a short time five theatres in New York alone were playing it to full houses. Such was the furore which “Pinafore” created that soon it was being produced in all parts of the country and by all sorts of companies–children’s, church-choir, and even negro.

When the “Pinafore” craze struck Boston a Miss Ober decided to form a company composed of the best church and concert singers of the city in order to produce the popular operetta in the most adequate manner possible. She was successful in bringing together an excellent organization which took the name of the Boston Ideal Pinafore Company. The outcome of this was the famous Bostonians, which survived the “Pinafore” craze and which for so many years maintained undiminished popularity. From this company came many of the best light opera singers which this country has produced, among them being Jessie Bartlett Davis, Adelaide Phillips, Marie Stone, H. C. Barnabee, Myron W. Whitney, Eugene Cowles and Tom Karl. No other company of American singers ever has achieved such lasting success as did the Bostonians. For twelve years they toured the country, season after season, until they became a national institution. Their repertory included all the popular light operas of their day, but DeKoven’s Robin Hood became the especial favorite, this opera receiving over a thousand performances at their hands.

The name of John A. McCaull for many years was associated with the production of light opera in New York. When, in 1880, Pirates of Penzance was brought out by Gilbert and Sullivan, precautionary measures were taken to prevent American pirates from appropriating the score and an alliance with Mr. McCaull was formed to produce the new work at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. About this time Rudolph Aronson instituted the Casino, and for several seasons McCaull supplied the company in which Francis Wilson was the principal comedian. Mr. McCaull then took charge of Wallack’s Theatre, and it was in this house that he made his best productions. The stock company which he formed was of unusual excellence and included De Wolfe Hopper, Jefferson de Angelis, Digby Bell, Laura Joyce, Marion Manola and Eugene Ondine. So successful did the company become that its very success led to its downfall, for the best talent too soon followed Francis Wilson into the world of star productions, and as a result the organization suffered a decline.

The “star” system largely was responsible for the decadence of light opera of the better class, for good general ensemble was allowed to suffer in order to exploit the “star” or “stars.” Instead of the opera being written as an exposition of suitable music and libretto, such as contained in the Gilbert and Sullivan and earlier DeKoven operas, it became merely a vehicle to bring forward this or that “star” with his or her peculiar limitations, vocally or histrionically skil-fully concealed. Thus it was that light opera degenerated into musical comedy, for undoubtedly it is a degeneration, and the productions of recent years are no longer properly to be classed with light opera.

The musical comedy of today partakes of the character of the old German singspiel or song-play, in which the spoken dialogue was interspersed with musical numbers. As before stated, it is a decadent form of comic or light opera and its forte is dramatic rather than musical, for the music is brought in rather as incidental than as an integral part of the performance. Many of the popular musical comedies were first brought out by organizations or clubs connected with well-known societies and colleges prominent among which are the “Cadets of Boston,” the “Hasty Pudding Club” at Harvard, “Monk and Wig” at University of Pennsylvania, and “The Strollers” at Columbia. The Boston “Cadets” particularly have placed many hits to their credit, 1492 and Jack and the Beanstock being especially successful.

DeKoven in 1904


Among all the American light operas those of DeKoven and Herbert are intrinsically the best, for they are cleverly put together and show the evidence of musicianly treatment. America. however, has never produced a writer of librettos to at all compare with W. S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, and without the requisite of a good libretto no opera, no matter what its musical value, can attain to lasting popularity. The operas of Reginald DeKoven, of which he has written fifteen, have achieved wide popularity. Robin Hood alone has been enacted more than three thousand times, while The Fencing Master, The Highwayman (which is considered his best work), Foxy Quiller, Red Feather, Maid Marion, The Little Duchess, Rob Roy, and others have all had successful runs. Mr. DeKoven also has written two ballets The Man in the Moon and The Man in the Moon, Jr., as well as many songs which have had a large sale. More than a million copies of Oh, Promise Me alone have been sold. DeKoven now stands at the head of our writers of popular music of the better class. He was born in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1859, and now is a resident of New York.

Victor Herbert, an American by adoption, is another writer who has made a reputation for himself in the light opera field. Although he has composed more serious works and has been associated with musical matters of a higher order he is best known by his lighter creations. Mr. Herbert is a native of Ireland and first came to this country in 1886, when he joined the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. He for several seasons was first cellist of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, later became the conductor of the Symphony Orchestra in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, which position he held for a number of years, and then formed an orchestra of his own in New York. His operas and musical comedies, while possibly not of quite as high an order as those of DeKoven, are extremely tuneful and pleasing and always show the touch of the musician. Among the most popular are The Wizard of the Nile, Serenade, The Idol’s Eye, The Fortune Teller, Babes in Toyland, Babette, It Happened in Nordland, The Red Mill, Mdlle. Modiste, which latter has served to perfect the establishing of Fritzi Scheft as a light opera singer.

Three American teams of light opera and musical comedy writers, Smith & DeKoven, Barnet & Stone, and Pixley & Luders, have become well known; for the joint works which they have produced have been among the best of their class. With the work of the librettists we are not especially concerned, notwithstanding the fact that on the libretto depends to a large extent the success of an opera. The music of DeKoven as well as that of Victor Herbert, who perhaps is his nearest competitor, already has been noted. R. A. Barnet’s best works undoubtedly are 1492 and Jack and the Beanstock, which latter work developed into one of the best extravaganzas ever produced on the American stage. Gustave Luders has many successes placed to his credit, such as Prince of Pilsen, King Dodo and Grand Mogul.

George M. Cohan in 1908


Edgar Stillman Kelley wrote a comic opera Puritania,which was excellent musically, but which suffered through the libretto. Sousa has brought out several operas, El Capitan, The Charlatan, The Bride Elect and The Free Lance, as well as an extravaganza, Chris and the Wonderful Lamp, each of which had some success. The youngest and one of the most typical of musical comedy writers is Geo. M. Cohan. Mr. Cohan was born at Providence, Rhode Island, on July 4, 1878, and it is most fitting that his contributions to popular music should catch the American spirit. The “Yankee Doodle Boy,” as he has been called, very aptly describes both him and his music. Little Johnny Jones, Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, George Washington, Jr. and Fifty Miles from Boston have won fame and fortune for him while he is still under thirty.

It is almost impossible to judge of the composer of our current musical comedies, for so many songs by writers other than the originator are interpolated that the name of the initiatory writer becomes lost in the hodge-podge finally produced. The musical comedies of today recall the “Ballad Operas” of more than a century ago, and it is seen that we thus have reverted to the tastes of our forefathers. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. The only difference to be seen is in the character and make-up of the music itself, for the structure of musical comedy is very similar to that of the Beggar’s Opera.

In the true comic or light opera the librettist aims to form either a consistent farcical story or a clever satire, but in musical comedy this unfortunately is hardly considered necessary. So long as there are two or three acts of more or less amusing dialogue, striking stage pictures and taking music, nothing more is regarded as of importance. Although not an American production Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow, which has taken the world by storm, may be cited as a typical light opera of today, while Victor Herbert’s Red Mill is characteristic of musical comedy. The difference in general make-up easily may be noted and compared.

Edna May


The enumeration of the musical comedies, writers of such works, and singers and players appearing in the same within recent years, is out of the question, for new writers and performers are continually coming forward and the existence of the works themselves at the best is but a matter of a few years. As representative writers of musical comedy, beside those already spoken of may be cited Richard Carle, Gus Edwards, Raymond Hubbell, Joe Howard, A. B. Sloane, Jean Schwartz, Alfred Robyn and M. Klein. Numbers of adaptations of English, French and German musical comedies and’ extravaganzas” as well as our own products have been successfully exploited in this country within the last few years. From the time when Francis Wilson first was brought forward as a star there has been a steady stream of singers of the lighter musical works who have won fame for themselves in this field. Some, such as Alice Nielsen, have used the light opera roles as stepping stones to more ambitious achievements, while there are again others who have reversed the process. There are many names beside those already enumerated which have become closely associated with the more popular musical productions of the American stage. It will suffice to mention the following as representative of their class: Lillian Russell, Virginia Earle, Fay Templeton, Madge Lessing, Marie Cahill, Camille D’Arville, Marie Tempest, Edna Wallace Hopper, Lulu Glaser, Edna May, Jeff De Angelis, De Wolfe Hopper, Richard Carle and Frank Daniels. It will be seen that the laurels in its field rest with the fair sex. Williams and Walker occupy a unique place through their excellent presentation of musical plays by a company composed wholly of negroes.

What will be the next phase to be assumed by popular music in this country is impossible to state. However, it appears highly probable that within a few years there will come a revulsion of feeling against the inanities of musical comedy, and the more legitimate forms of light opera again will assume their place in public favor. Despite the outcry heard in some quarters against the popular music of the day, it is serving its purpose in educating the public to desire something better. Popular music in its various forms alwayswill have a place, for it is music which the musically uncultured can enjoy. Just as art music continually is changing its character and structure, so is popular music undergoing the same evolution, and the last word has not been said in either field. From the fact that musical culture ever is becoming more general, it is but natural to assume that the increased familiarity of the public with music of the better class must have its effect on the popular productions. An unbiased investigator will find marked improvement in the general trend of popular music produced in the last twenty-five years, and we still are advancing.