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The period before the Civil War is widely recognized as the period of the torch song and minstrelsy. The Negro exploitation was well under way in 1827 when Thomas A. Rice established the type of black face characterization that later became the mainstay of the minstrel show: "The Jim Crow." These shows provided a new outlet for songwriters to expose the general public to their music. Before printed sheet music was available, music was passed by word of mouth. Minstrel shows, however, showcased each song individually and credited the songwriter for the music. And as the shows traveled, more American regions were exposed to the songs.

In 1844, Stephen Foster's first song, "Open Thy Latice, Love" was published. Foster, who is widely considered as America's first songwriter to write down both the words and music into published sheet music, wrote in a simple folk-like manner from the perspective of Negro life and culture. He is considered the sympathetic interpreter of the Negro in song and he is often credited with exposing the American public to the serious Negro spirituals and rich musical culture.

Toward the end of the 1850s, sheet music distribution started the music industry. Sheet music brought the music to the family and fan. It allowed families to play and hear the music anywhere, not just at a minstrel show or concert, or by word of mouth, but right in their homes. Parlor pianos became the source and center of household entertainment. Sheet music distribution would remain the main outlet for songwriters until the invention of the phonograph in the late 1890s.

With the start of the Civil War, American songwriting once again voiced the patriotism and sentiment of a torn and grieving country. The 1860s began with the publishing of "Dixie" or "Dixie's Land" by Daniel Decatur Emmett, and each year thereafter songwriters produced patriotic hits that would eventually become the historic soundtrack for the Civil War.

During the Age of Reconstruction, American music reverted to the old themes of sentimentality, comedy and religion. During this time, the music publishing and songwriting business was finding its epicenter in New York. All regional melodies and genres converged: the western plains cowboy "trail" songs; the Southern ballads of desperadoes and honky-tonk versions of minstrel songs; the sentimentality and sophistication of the East's amusing songs that reflected the pleasures of the rich; and the Midwest folk hymns and transportation songs. The stage was also ending its longstanding love affair with minstrel shows by adding more variety and glamour. The new shows would be known as vaudeville and burlesque.

American life had become simpler and more dependable, and this new simplicity and straightforwardness translated into song.