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Music and Mobility
 

The National Museum of American History’s Archives Center has a wonderful and extensive collection of sheet music. This tour shows you just a small sample of the sheet music that has a transportation theme. When I did my research at the Archives Center, I was looking for automobile-related imagery, so the covers you see together here are weighted toward the car. But all forms of transportation were widely used on sheet-music covers.

By the end of the 19th century, as theater, vaudeville, and the music circuit centralized, the stage was set for 20th-century show business to become a big commercial enterprise.

Publishing songs was a part of that business. A lot of America’s popular-music publishing industry was centered in New York City, on Tin Pan Alley. One 1890s Tin Pan Alley song, After the Ball, sold millions of copies. Others sold more modestly, but sheet music was widely available. Although performers used professional sheet music, scores sold to the public had lively and colorful covers. Sometimes they featured a performer’s photo, as well as an illustration. The covers can be used as historical evidence of what ideas and images were circulating in popular culture in the early 20th century.

Transportation played an important role in the spread of popular music. Performers traveled by trains, using the extensive rail network to perform in cities and towns around the country. And, as the covers and lyrical content of sheet music marketed for home use suggest, trains, automobiles, trolleys, bicycles, and mobility were featured in the music that the railroads helped disseminate.

In the 1890s, bicycling became a popular craze among those who could afford the new personal mechanical form of transportation. Both men and women rode bikes, and for women, they were often seen as providing the rider personal freedom. This sheet music cover links cycling to Coney Island, a site of opulent hotels and recreation since the 1870s.

Seeing Race and Gender in Song

In the beginning decades of the 20th century, racial stereotyping and ideas of African American inferiority were deeply rooted in American culture. The cover of All Aboard for Heaven depicts an African American man in a way that is actually far less sterotypical than many examples from the era. Nonetheless, the contemporary purchaser of this sheet music would have likely “read” the inclusion of the porter as a reflection of an African American's supposedly innate propensity for servitude, and as a marker of the luxuriousness of train travel for the rich.

All Aboard For Heaven, 1925
All Aboard For Heaven, 1925
The Trolley Car Swing Song, 1912
The Trolley Car Swing Song, 1912

The Trolley Car Swing Song, from 1912, can be seen as a window into how gender played a role in people’s understandings of public conveyances. The cover shows men and women in close proximity aboard a streetcar—something that doesn’t seem shocking to a modern audience. But in the late 19th and early 20th century, as American cities grew by leaps and bounds, urban heterosocial public spaces were the cause of a great deal of social comment and consternation as they threw men and women of different classes (and although the image doesn’t show it, of different races) together, creating the potential for impropriety. The lyrics of the song reflected the anxiety that mixed-sex interactions created in the minds of some Americans.

Charting Change

In My Merry Oldsmobile, 1905
In My Merry Oldsmobile, 1905
Trailing Along in a Trailer, 1936
Trailing Along in a Trailer, 1936

Between 1905 and 1936, when these two songs were written, the numbers of cars on American roads rose from a little over 77,000 to just over 24 million. The covers of these pieces of sheet music can be read as a reflection of that change: in In My Merry Oldsmobile, the automobile is front and center, dominating the picture. In Trailing Along In A Trailer, the title suggests the trailer moves itself. And it, as well as the numbered road system, are much more visually dominant than the automobile.

Gasoline, 1913
Gasoline, 1913


As cars became a dominant force in American culture—and a dominant form of transportation—even the fuel they used became the stuff of song. The sheet music for Gasoline was available with a number of different colored covers. Its lyrics extolled the virtues (and bemoaned the cost) of a product that, in the 19th century, was essentially a by-product of the petroluem distilling process.

 
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