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Popular music, popular art

Before the advent of radio, music was much more of a participant's activity than merely something to listen passively to. Without today's ubiquitous TV, Internet, radio and MP3 players, families made their own entertainment - often through collective music. Families gathered round the piano in the parlour, and sometimes played along with guitar, fiddle and other instruments.

It started with parlour music. The invention of the gas lamp in the mid-1800s greatly improved sales of all sorts of printed publications, including sheet music. People moved from candle-power to gas rapidly and reading took an upsurge.

In the mid-19th century, the middle class was well enough off to have some disposable income, and owning a piano was a sign of prosperity and culture. Playing (and reading) music was a sign of a good, rounded education. The only way to learn how a song was played was to be able to read the music - and maybe hear it at a live concert. Sheet music and songbooks were how most people learned the music and there was a thriving business in publishing them. Most of the material published before 1900 seems to have been classical music and operetta. It seems surprising today how many people could read music.

Things began to change in the early 20th century with the arrival of the phonograph - also known as Gramophones and Victorolas. This invention created what today we call popular culture: a cultural environment shared by thousands, driven by sales and marketing.

The Gramophone brought more music into homes than ever before. You didn't have to go to a concert to hear the great performers of the time: you could hear them in your own living room. And everyone heard the same version! I can't begin to stress the importance of this new technology on the creation of popular culture.

People bought phonographs and 78s instead of more expensive pianos. Popular music exploded. Sheet music changed, too and the business grew more competitive as publishers vied to print works by popular recording artists. A new industry of songwriters grew up - Tin Pan Alley was its most famous component.

Covers became more artistic, and often advertised the performers by name, and photograph. Even songwriters got headline status. Publishers pursued the markets opened by the widening availability of popular performers now on 78 rpm records. Colour printing was popular, too, and covers became more and more elaborate; some were even exquisite works of art.

Electricity changed everything again, much like gas had done 50 years earlier. While electricity had been generated since the late 1880s, usage grew substantially in the early 20th century when entrepreneurs created power generation and distribution companies. In the 1910s-20s, the development of convenient appliances like we use today, hand-in-hand with the invention of the socket encouraged people to bring electricity into their homes.

In the USA, federal and state governments got involved early on, and in 1930, the federal government became the regulator of all power companies. The widespread growth of electric power in the post-WWI years created the platform from which radio was able to launch.

Radio was a tsunami of change for popular culture. It was immediate, live and reached across entire nations into every home. A performer in New York could also have an audience in Los Angeles by getting his or her music played on the radio. There was no lag for word of mouth to spread interest. People gathered in their living rooms or community halls to listen to live radio shows and performances. You didn't need to buy a stack of 78s to hear your favourite artists: you just needed a radio.

The first commercial radio station opened in 1920, and the first network began in 1926, quickly spreading across North America and a little later into Western Europe. This helped create new markets for both records and for sheet music. Radio was a thousand-fold blossoming for pop culture, as well as a cross-pollinator across different cultures and nationalities.

Riding this wave was the ukulele. First introduced to mainland USA in 1915, it had exploded in popularity after WWI as an inexpensive, fun, and highly portable instrument. A fad for things Hawaiian at that time also helped promote sales. People still played a lot of music for themselves and the uke was less intimidating and easier to learn than a piano. Not to mention much less expensive for a new generation looking for its own ways to express itself.

Radio helped make baseball very popular in this time, too - and even its biggest star, Babe Ruth, played the ukulele (and was a close personal friend of May Singhi Breen). Other baseball players took up the uke and for a while in the 1920s, the term "ukulele hitter" was used to describe a batter who mostly hit one-base runs.

Literally millions of ukes were sold between WWI and WWII. Music publishers were quick to pick up on the trend and add ukulele arrangements to their songs after WWI. By the early 1920s, almost all song sheets of popular music had ukulele chords on them.

This in turn created a feedback loop that made the uke even more popular. When fans bought song sheets for their favourite crooners - like Rudy Vallee and Johnny Marvin - they got ukulele arrangements they could play along with. And if they didn't own a uke, why they were everywhere and inexpensive to own.

In the 1920s we also saw the creation of the first pop culture superstars - popular performers who got widespread airplay and whose pictures graced the covers of many song sheets to help boost sales. The concept of fans as a collective body dedicated to a particular performer developed at this time. The first fan clubs were created at this time, and many quickly developed international reach.

Covers for the song sheets became vehicles for increasingly creative design and art. For many collectors today, the covers of the mid-late 1920s were the high water mark of sheet music - thus popular, commercial - art.

By 1930, radio was the main medium for popular culture because it was inexpensive and widespread, but movies had also become popular and rapidly becoming the premiere media for pop culture. With the development of sound in film - the talkies - in 1927, a whole new stage was opened for music. Many of the stars of the radio era made a successful transition to the new sound films, helped in part by the inclusion of songs in many of the popular films of the day, especially by the huge popularity of musicals and musical numbers in most films. Song sheets offering the tunes heard in the movies became popular for fans to collect. Song books collected pieces made famous by singers like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Dick Powell, and added photographs and flattering biographies between the songs - which in turn became highly sought after by fans.

Competing with the song sheets and books were the song magazines which combined articles about the performers and composers, with pages of music. For those who didn't play an instrument, the magazines offered many songs with lyrics only.

Cliff Edwards - Ukulele Ike - was a popular American Vaudeville performer and recording artist who developed his career in radio and in the movies. He started on radio in 1932 and at one time was so popular his show was heard on 400 different stations in the 1930s. He helped maintain the popularity of the ukulele through his various radio and movie appearances, until late 1940s, when he had a short series of TV shows. George Formby, another Vaudeville veteran, did the same for the banjo uke in the UK, with his popular movies, radio and stage shows, and numerous recordings.

Since musicians and composers did not get paid for broadcasts on radio, they depended on royalties from sales of sheet music for some of their income. Song sheets were published in such prodigious quantities that even today, 80-90 years later, they are still relatively common and inexpensive to buy (high prices seen on such items online are usually inflated examples of wishful thinking or mere greed).

Sheet music was a vehicle for intense competition among the prolific writers and composers of Tin Pan Alley. Popular songwriters might be featured on the cover, along with or even instead of a performer. Since their income derived from sales of sheet music, these composers cranked out a vast number of songs, often publishing within days of a popular event or activity. May Singhi Breen - The Ukulele Lady - developed her career as a ukulele arranger for several publishers, and was one of the best of what was often a sorry lot of arrangers.

There were many songs published about the ukulele itself, riding on the popularity wave, many with a Hawaiian focus, but others simply acknowledging how many people played the uke. Several covers featured ukuleles, too, even when the song was not implicitly about the uke.

By the mid-1930s, popular tastes had shifted again. Electric amplification for guitars appeared in the early 1930s, quickly allowing guitars to be featured in the popular orchestras of the day (driving out the banjo). Within a few years, the guitar had replaced the uke as the most popular musical instrument, and by 1936, guitar arrangements had replaced ukulele arrangements in many song sheets.

Another factor that played into the shift was the Depression. Many ukulele manufacturers either reduced production or closed shop when sales plummeted. When prosperity returned, in the mid-1930s, other instruments came to the fore to fill the space. The Hawaiian craze didn't last through the Depression, either. The uke was the instrument of the Flapper days and a new generation was turning to different sounds and styles: the Swing Era began in 1935 and ukuleles weren't part of those orchestras.

There was a change in musical tastes from the mid-late 1930s on, towards jazz, big band and other more complex musical styles; music that didn't suit the diminutive ukulele as well. Songs tended to heavier, denser arrangements, not the simple ditties that were popular the 20s.  The popular stars of the 20s and 30s were aging, soon replaced by a new generation of dynamic performers and a new group of inspired instrumentalists and arrangers like Glenn Miller and Django Reinhart.

Ukulele arrangements continued to be printed on popular music until at least as late as 1961. The brief post-WWII resurgence of the uke's popularity saw more uke chords in song sheets in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but overall they became less and less common after 1936. Song sheets also became less ornate after WWII, often reverting to one or two-colour covers with simple designs and focused on photographs of the performers rather than elaborate art. The brilliance and beauty of the covers seen in the 1920s gave way to more utilitarian designs and basic portrait photos.

As tastes changed, a lot of those song sheets got relegated to piano benches, attics and basements. The music was mostly forgotten, the stars just memories. Until, that is, the Internet came along, and opened new markets for collectors and players. Many are collected solely for their elaborate covers, but others end up with people like me who still try to play that music. Today you can listen to thousands of MP3s of old 78s or watch decades-old performances on YouTube, and capture some of that era for yourself.

Or, if you are a ukulele or tenor guitar player, you can start playing those songs and help keep the music of a bygone era alive.