I Thru Q (Pre 1900 Songs)
- I've Been Working On The Railroad (c.1894)
Along with Casey Jones and the Wreck of the Old 97 this is among the most popular "railroad songs" ever written. It has been credited to Irish immigrants or Negro laborers who worked on the rails, though it's origins are unclear. The lyrics vary somewhat, though it almost always includes, "rising early in the morn," and "Diana blow your horn." The section where "someone's in the kitchen with Dinah, stummin' on the ole banjo" didn't come into play till 1894. This, by the way, is a signal for lunch. Mitch Miller, Pete Seeger and John Denver have recorded this song.
- Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair (1854)
Stephen Foster's most beloved ballad, it is kind of odd for him. It doesn't rely on his usual southern dialects or rural sentiment to achieve its power. According to Foster he wrote the song to his wife Jane when they separated. Although they later reconciled, Jane was changed to Janey than later Jeanie. Like most of Foster's songs he saw only about $200 from it. In an era where songwriters achieved very little money for his efforts this song goes down to a testament to that. Strangely enough in 1941 when ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and the radio networks fought over royalties the song, in public domain, achieved success again. It became the most played song of 1941 because of this. Bing Crosby and Glen Miller had the biggest covers of this song.
- Jimmy Crack Corn (1846)
Often listed as Blue Tail Fly it was the second most popular song during the Civil War (After Dixie). Daniel Decatur Emmett (who also wrote Dixie) wrote this song about a "merry" old slave who brushed away the flies from this master. Both Southerners and Northerners liked and hated the song often using it for social commentary at the time. Burl Ives, Kate Smith, and the Andrew Sisters recorded covers of this song.
- Jingle Bells (1857)
This song most sung at Christmas, was originally written not about Christmas but instead, simply about winter. S.J. Pierpont (I think that is a cool name) wrote the song for Sunday school in Boston. And it was published as One Horse Open Sleigh. In 1935 Benny Goodman had a hit with it. In 1941 Glen Miller took the song to the upper end of the charts, but it was in 1943 when the Andrew Sisters teamed up with Bing Crosby to sell well over a million copies of the record.
- John Henry (c.1873)
Traditional American Folk song, of unknown authorship, it is about an African American laborer. He is a giant of a man, and as strong as four men. Then he challenges the "new" technology of the steam shovel and "dies with a hammer in his hand." Jo Stafford features the song on her lp Ballad of The Blues. Lena Horne also covered this song.
- Just Before The Battle Mother (1863)
This song was extremely popular song during the Civil War. It is almost anti-war in it's sentiment. George Frederick Root wrote the song in which a soldier, who, just before the battle starts, says farewell to his faraway mother, hoping she'll remember him with love if he should be numbered among the slain. Though quite melodramatic, it is unadorned and sincere. First published in The Song Messenger, a Chicago Magazine, at Christmas time, it was embraced immediately by the public in both the North and the South. Though records for the time are inaccurate it is estimated to have sold over a million copies for sheet music, a record high for that era. It is also noteworthy to my generation as the song Linus from the Peanuts comic strip sings a lot. Charles Schulz creator of the strip must've liked the song.
- Listen To The Mockingbird (1855)
Reportedly one of Abraham Lincoln's favourite songs Septimus Winner,(cool name huh?) under the pseudonym Alice Hawthorne, wrote the lyric about a dearly beloved Hallie who lies buried in the valley, where a mockingbird serenades her nightly. Winner is believed to be African-American in origin and possibly a barber by trade, though this can't be confirmed. What is known is he sold the lyric for $50.00 and over the years and amazing 20 million copies of the sheet music has been sold. For a song that's 150 years old, that is impressive. That would be 133,333 copies per year. And 365 copies per day.
- Little Brown Jug (1869)
One of the earliest drinking songs in America Joseph E. Winner under the pseudonym R.A. Eastburn because he feared a tribute to inebriation would ruin his reputation. It remained a drinking song until 1939 when Glen Miller recorded a million seller record of it in the "Tin Pan Alley" style.
- My Old Kentucky Home (1853)
Another Stephen Foster song it is the state song of Kentucky. It shows an idyllic picture of life in the south. Visiting his cousin's house called "the Rowan Mansion" he awoke one morning to the mockingbirds and was inspired to write the song. (The Rowan House has since been designated as a state memorial to the song). While the music is often played, the lyrics being rather politically incorrect, are rarely sung. Most notibly objective is the line "the darkies are gay." Can you imagine that today? Unless you are an African American homosexual.
- Niagara Falls (1841)
Though long forgotten this song almost single handedly popularized Niagara Falls as a honeymooner's paradise. Credited to Mrs. W. Winchell sheet music sales were estimated between one half to one million copies. The song relates to a trip from Buffalo (then one of the largest cities in the United States) to Niagara Falls. They homey lyric compares this natural wonder to Aunt Deborah's washing day.
- Nobody's Known The Trouble I've Seen (c. 1865)
A traditional Negro spiritual that became popular at the Civil War's end. This song has unknown origins. It's lyrics change as well depending on whether it's gospel, pop, jazz or whatever style music.
Jo Stafford features it on her great lp Ballad Of The Blues and other artists like Louis Armstrong, Kay Starr, and Mahalia Jackson have had moderate successful covers with it.
- O' Promise Me (1889)
The wedding song of choice for decades, this song was written by Clement Scott (lyric) and Reginald DeKoven (music), when the temperamental starlet Jessie Bartlett Davis insisted on a brand new number if she were to continue to star in the operetta Robin Hood. And even though Davis got her song, she didn't think much of it, but it still became her signature song.
- Oh Susanna (1847)
One of Stephan Foster's first hits and the first song he received money for, was the favourite song of California prospectors. Foster received the amazing sum (for the time) of $100.00. Though Foster refers to Alabama and the south as usual in his songs, California prospectors known as "49'ers" made it their own. Often changing "the banjo on my knee" to "going to Californy with the washbowl on my knee"
- Old Folks At Home (1851)
Also known as Swanee River, this song is Stephen Foster's best known work. Writing about the South, he needed a river with a melodic name. He changed Suwannee to Swanee (losing one syllable) and wrote the unforgettable song about "the old folks at home." Foster never saw the Suwannee River in his lifetime and never saw much money for this, which is arguably the biggest seller of the 1800s. Edward Christy paid Foster $500.00 for this song but insisted his name be credited as the author. Two publishing companies worked around the clock to keep up with the demand for the sheet music, and this is estimated as the biggest selling song of the 1800s. It was so popular that is sparked other songs written to capitalize on it, the most successful of these being Swanee by George Gershwin.
- On Top Of Old Smokey (c.1800)
This song probably dates back even earlier. So it's authorship and origins are unknown. But it was definitely written down by 1800. Various versions of this song have been sung but the biggest hit came in 1951 by an adaptation by Pete Seeger selling over one million records.
- Polly Wolly Doodle (c.1883)
One of the earliest and most popular novelty songs, it's a farewell song about leaving for the south to see a gal who sings "Polly Wolly Doodle," all day long. A traditional number it's author is unknown, but is most often associated with minstrel "Billy Emerson," before the Civil War. It was published for the first time around 1883. Shirley Temple popularized it as a children's number in 1935 film, The Littlest Rebel. Burl Ives and Boxcar Willie have also covered this tune.
- Pop Goes The Weasel (1853)
A bit of a nonsense song sung as early as 1600, originating in England and brought over by the Pilgrims. Though there have been many versions Charles Twiggs's version published in 1853 remains the best selling. The silly lyric contains many verses about money disappearing when it is needed for necessities. And it has become a novelty song today. But in England "pop" was slang for "pawn" and "weasels" are "tools of one's trade." So it is really about pawning your tools of your trade. Deanna Durbin popularized the song in film in "Lady On The Train," in 1945