A Window to Our History

(Originally posted July, 2006.)

This July 4th, we’re celebrating our 230th year as an independent nation. Thinking of that, I looked around and found a fascinating song of Stephen Foster (1826-1864), “Song of All Songs,” giving a unique look at our history through popular music. It’s a song about the songs that were popular in Foster’s day, so its lyrics list then widely-known titles of sheet music and broadsides.

I love finding obscure windows to the past, including music, so this song excited me! What a unique view of mid 19th-century America! It’s a little treasure of pathways to so many aspects of our history, and could be a great way for music teachers to link historic American music with general “history” studies (past wars), poetry, social studies, and of course, current issues today’s young adults can relate to.

All sorts of topics are referenced in the titles this song lists, from flirtation to scandal, heroism to tragedy, discrimination to triumph.

A few examples:

“Let Me Kiss Him For His Mother” poignantly depicts a nurse embracing a soldier as he dies, ending with:

Then kiss him for his Mother:
   'Twill soothe her after years;
Farewell, dear stranger, brother,
   Our requiem, our tears.

In contrast, the broadside “If Your Foot Is Pretty, Show It” seems like a long ode to foot fetishes, beginning with:

If your foot is pretty, show it,
   No matter where, or when;
Let all fair maidens know it:
   The foot takes all the men.

Many songs cited have Irish heritage, yet “No Irish Need Apply” alludes to discrimination of the time:

I'm a decent boy just landed
 From the town of Ballyfad;
I want a situation, yes,
 And want it very bad.
I have seen employment advertised,
 "It's just the thing," says I,
"But the dirty spalpeen ended with
 'No Irish Need Apply.' "

Of course, these lyrics have to be seen for what they are: a reflection of what was published in their time, and thus a narrow view of all the commercial, social and political forces at work. (Largely missing in the American montage of this song are reflections of the true African-American experience through their music. And women? Another story of its own.) The titles in “Song of All Songs” represent commonly-accepted views of the day, as proven through commercial success and the common knowledge these lyrics imply.

Here are the lyrics to “Song of All Songs,” with selected links for most titles. (Links, details and ideas will follow.)

As you've walked through the town on a fine summer's day
The subject I've got, you have seen, I dare say
Upon fences and railings, wherever you go
You'll see the penny ballads sticking up, in a row
The titles to read you may stand for a while
And some are so odd, they will cause you to smile
I noted them down as I read them along
And I've put them together to make up my song


Old songs! New songs! Ev'ry kind of song
I noted them down as I read them along
There was "Abraham's Daughter"
   "Going out upon a spree,"
With "Old Uncle Snow"
   "In the Cottage by the sea;"
"If your foot is pretty, show it"
   "At Lanigan's Ball;"
And "Why did she leave him"
   "Oh the raging Canawl?"

There was "Bonnie Annie" with
   "A jockey hat and feather;"
"I don't think much of you"
   "We were boys and girls together."
"Do they think of me at home?"
   "I'll be free and easy still;"
"Give us now a good Commander" with
   "The sword of Bunker Hill."
"When this Cruel War is over,"
    "No Irish need apply,"
"For, every thing is lovely,
    and the Goose hangs high;"
"The Young Gal from New Jersey,"
   "Oh, wilt thou be my bride?"
And "Oft in the Stilly Night"
    "We'll all take a ride."

"Let me kiss him for his Mother,"
    "He's a Gay Young Gambolier;"
"I'm going to fight mit Sigel" and
    "De bully Lager-bier."
"Hunkey Boy is Yankee Doodle"
    "When the Cannons loudly roar,"
"We are coming, Father Abraham, six hundred thousand more!"
"In the days when I was hard up"
    with "My Mary Ann,"
"My Johnny was a Shoemaker," or
    "Any other Man!"
"The Captain with his whiskers" and
    "Annie of the Vale,"
Along with "Old Bob Ridley"
    "A riding on a rail!"

"Rock me to sleep, Mother,"
 "Going round the Horn;"
"I'm not myself at all,"
    "I'm a Bachelor forlorn."
"Mother, is the Battle over?"
    "What are the men about?"
"How are you, Horace Greeley,"
    "Does your Mother know you're out?"
"We won't go home till morning," with
    "The Bold Privateer,"
"Annie Lisle" and "Zouave Johnny"
    "Riding in a Railroad Kerr;"
"We are coming, Sister Mary," with
    "The Folks that put on airs."
"We are marching along" with
    "The Four-and-thirty Stars;"

"On the other side of Jordan"
 "Don't fly your Kite too high!"
"Jenny's coming o'er the Green," to
    "Root Hog or die!"
"Our Union's Starry Banner,"
    "The Flag of Washington,"
Shall float victorious o'er the land
    from Maine to Oregon!

Links and Further Information

“The Song of All Songs” dates from 1863. While some sources attribute the lyrics to Foster, they were actually written by John F. Poole.



Images of original sheet music:


Lyrics, midi, MP3:

A Few Ideas for Study or Projects

The music:
This idea is less about the musical content of the song, and more about the song as a springboard for other studies and projects. However, the song itself has some interesting characteristics (including melodic leaps of octaves and even a 9th, the dactylic rhythmic mode, and simple patterns in the piano part that could form a basis for improvisation studies).

The songs referenced:
Published sheets of these songs, and many like them, are readily available through auctions, antique stores, and of course, Ebay. I’ve given quick links to some song titles, but there’s certainly more information available. A class project might be to select some of them and focus on their features (music, text, topic) as a look at popular music of the time. The ways music became popular before recordings is a subject of its own — for example, the texts known as “broadsides” implied familiarity with the melodies and common participation in group singing.

“Patchwork” songs:
Another example of the same idea is found in “The Patchwork Song,” with lyrics by W. Dexter Smith, Jr. Perhaps some classes could invent their own verses for a song listing titles — whether contemporary music the students know, familiar folk songs, choral repertoire, operas, or whatever else the group has been studying. (It could make a fun, original piece for inclusion on a program.)


As one example of the songs’ familiarity, Mark Twain mentioned “Old Bob Ridley” in his story, “Those Extraordinary Twins:”

"Now, ma, honor bright, did you ever hear 'Greenland's Icy Mountains'
sung sweeter--now did you?"

"If it had been sung by itself, it would have been uncommon sweet, I
don't deny it; but what they wanted to mix it up with 'Old Bob Ridley'
for, I can't make out. Why, they don't go together, at all. They are
not of the same nature. 'Bob Ridley' is a common rackety slam-bang
secular song, one of the rippingest and rantingest and noisiest there is.
I am no judge of music, and I don't claim it, but in my opinion nobody
can make those two songs go together right."