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The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts > Vaudeville Nation

The Songs of Vaudeville

After the Ball
"After the Ball"

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
"Take Me Out to the
Ball Game"

Marie Cahill, uncredited photograph crop marked for rotogravurer
Marie Cahill, uncredited
photograph crop marked
for rotogravurer

Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixic Melody
"Rock-a-bye Your Baby
with a Dixie Melody"


19th-century songs were often plotted ballads.  This genre had been popularized by mid-19th century advisory songs, whether direct campaigns for reform, such as "Pity Poor Mary, the Drunkard's Daughter" or post-civil war laments.   Expert lyricists could compact the plot of a family saga into 4 verses and a chorus.   The songs, like "After the Ball," are now remembered for their refrain melodies, but were appreciated at the time for their knowledge of social mores.  In that ballad, for example, a man dooms himself to loneliness by failing to trust his fiancée when she is seen talking to her brother.
Many of the songs that are still sung from the vaudeville era were depictions of courtship.  These were also advisory, but generally ended in successful romance, not a tragedy.  These up-tempo songs reflect changes in society due to such new inventions as the telephone, automobile, record player, and airplane.  The gender roles were much more balanced since more young women worked and had discretionary income – it is Katie who insists that her beau should "take her out to the ballgame." Most of these songs, which also include "Row, Row, Row," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Shine on Harvest Moon," are now known without the verses that set up the plot.

Many of the most popular female vocalists combined contralto voices with a mastery of the newly popular raggy rhythms.  Sophie Tucker, Marie Cahill, Belle Baker and others commissioned songs from the African-American songwriters, such as Shelton Brooks and Chris Smith, or from Irving Berlin and those of his younger generation.  They often brought their vaudeville specialties with them for Broadway appearances.  Marie Cahill interpolated Smith's "He's a Cousin of Mine" into Marrying Mary, where it acted as an anti-After the Ball.  Each time her character was caught kissing another man, she sang "he's a cousin of mine."  When she returned to vaudeville, she commissioned a follow-up song – "He's My Cousin (if she's your niece), which continued "What's good for the gander is good for the geese."

Novelty songs were extremely popular in vaudeville.  At the request of performers, songwriters picked up on each others' jokes.  The popularity of "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle (When Rip van Winkle was asleep)" gave rise to "who Played Pocker with Pocohontas," "What did Robinson Crusoe do with Friday on Saturday Night?" and similar "literary" pattern songs. 

Fanny Brice popularized a series of songs about "Becky" and "Sadie," first generation immigrant girls becoming Americanized and getting jobs.    Other comics and songwriters picked up on these themes and they soon became songs about "Bridgit Maloney," doing Salome, "Rosie Riccoola doing the Moola-Ma-Boola," "Margarette" becoming a Suffragette, and similiar immigrants from other cultures. 

Many men and women included gender impersonation in their acts.  Some impersonated other performers or used an occasional "other' character in the acts, but others focused entirely on performing in the opposite gender.  The most famous men appearing as women were Karyl Norman, "the Creole Belle," and Julian Eltinge, who left vaudeville and commissioned Broadway musicals by Jerome Kern.  Among the women who appeared consistently as men were the British music hall star Vesta Tilley and American Kitty Doner.

A typical act included 4 songs – generally 1 standard, 1 specialty and 2 new numbers, so there was a constant demand for material.  Most Tin Pan Alley songwriters learned how to work in many styles and to pick up on every fad.  Characters and situations developed lives of their own, moving from songwriter to songwriter.  There were standard characters, such as the British soldier Tommy Atkins and his American love interest Dolly Gray and Alexander, the rag-time band leader, and his love interest Dinah Lee.  The major performers developed relationships to songwriters who could provide material tailored to their abilities and vocal ranges.  But when a star stayed with a specialty for multiple seasons, as Al Jolson did with Minstrel nostalgia, it took everyone in Tin Pan Alley to feed his need for a new song a week.

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