back to guide

song index

home


A New " Music Of The People ".....

Popular music has been defined as that which has been written or performed primarily for profit, setting it apart from folk music - the original "music of the people" - which, strictly speaking, has no commercial element to it. Folk music can be traced back to well before the Dark Ages in Europe, and far longer in many other parts of the world, whereas the story of popular music really begins as recently as the middle decades of the 19th century. This is the story we are going to follow, with a brief look at the music's deeper roots, which lie in the pre-commercial era.

Commercialised popular music as we know it today grew up alongside the new mechanised industries of the Industrial Revolution. In Europe and North America this resulted in an exodus of workers and their families from the land to the cities in such vast numbers that it brought about the possibility of, perhaps we could even say the necessity, for live entertainment on an unprecedented scale. For the first time entrepreneurs realised it was possible to make really big money out of music, turning it into a commodity to be bought and sold.

The most important of these new mass entertainments were the music halls of Victorian England, which mixed musical entertainment with comedy and novelty acts, the minstrel shows, which first appeared in North America just prior to the Civil War, and vaudeville, burlesque and variety, all of which fed into American musical theatre based around New York's Broadway.

Such was the popularity of these shows on both sides of the Atlantic that they initiated a new profession - the songwriter - often employed under exclusive contract to provide a steady supply of new material for particular shows, theatre owners, or even individual artists. And in an era before the gramophone had become widely available, when family musical entertainment was the norm among the middle classes, they led to the first mass sales of sheet music, the economic force which fed the growth of the famed Tin Pan Alley.

The latter years of the 19th century saw breakthrough developments in the technologies of music recording and broadcasting ( for example, Thomas Edison invented sound recording in 1877 - on a cylinder, and Emile Berliner created the first gramophone in 1887 - playing flat shellac discs revolving at 78 rpm ). These enabled recorded music to be sold for a profit for the first time. The resultant mushrooming of record sales finally broke the weakening bond between an increasingly urbanised population and it's "roots" music - the traditional folk song. Popular music had, in effect, become the new "music of the people". Folk-based music was pushed to one side and has remained largely sidelined ever since, forced out by the commercial forces of the modern world, surviving as a minority interest or as a branch of popular music in a modified form.

The development of popular music and the popular song is a fascinating tale, reflecting as it does the staggering changes that have taken place during the 19th and 20th centuries. But before we follow those developments, let's first take a glance back at the music of the pre-commercial era, and discover the various strands which were to influence what came later.

{back}      {next}