Sheet music began to have cars on the cover almost as soon as the automobile was invented. Some songs, like The Swagger Two-Step, didnt have lyrics, and so the car on the front, along with the opulently dressed couple, seem to have been part of the illustrators attempt to make the tune symbolize wealth and class privilege. In Up Broadway, another song without lyrics, published in 1900, the well-dressed urban couple on the front shares the limelight with a car and a trolley. Despite the fact that there were only about 8,000 cars in the United States at the time, the illustrator made the automobile more visually prominent than the trolley, perhaps to suggest that the song was modern and urbane. (Most early automobiles were owned by the urban rich.) Early automobile songs with lyrics, like The Auto Man, often reflected a sense that automobile ownership was prestigious and fashionable.
Bad Roads and Breakdowns
Although some sheet music covers portrayed owning a car as glamorous, in reality, it was a lot of work. Mechanical breakdowns were a fact of life, and they happened often. Roads were also a problemoutside of the nations cities, the state of the countrys roads was poor, and road surfaces were not designed to cope with the automobiles speed. These two songs humorously depict the travails of early roads and breakdowns. They are also a part of the genre of car songs that made much of the unsupervised courting opportunities a car provided couples.
Cars and Courting
As more and more Americans owned cars8 million were on the road by 1920car songs reflected the changes to personal mobility that cars gave their owners and passengers. One common theme in songs was the way that cars could create private, unchaperoned spaces for courting couples. During the beginning of the 20th century, new ideas about sexuality, human development, and gendergenerated by the popularization and bastardization of Sigmund Freuds ideas of human sexuality, as well as by the growing currency of the idea of adolescence as a stage in human developmentgained circulation in society. Still, ideas about respectability, and the importance of female chastity in particular, remained an important part of American culture. Songs where courting couples, and sometimes even male predators, used the car to be intimate and private reflected social anxieties about the relationships between unmarried men and women.
Makes and Models
But automobile songs werent all about sex. They were also about manufacturers. Along with the many generic automobile songs, there were songs that referenced particular makes and models of car. In My Merry Oldsmobile was a very popular song, and so, too, was the famous curved-dash Oldsmobile of the early part of the century. Other songs, like the Cole 30 Flyer, where the unnamed woman tells Billy ONeal You will win me, Bill, heart and soul, if you buy a Cole, seem to be early examples of product-placement advertising techniques.
The Ford Motor Company, using mass production techniques, made and sold more than 15 million Fort Model Ts. The Ford company produced more than half of the new cars in many of the years that it was in production. There were Model T postcards and joke books, and Fords had widely known nicknamesincluding the Flivver and the Tin Lizzie. Not surprisingly, Fords were the subject of many a song. Henrys Made a Lady out of Lizzie even marked the end of the Model T era and the launch of the Model A line in 1928.
As this tour suggests, there are many ways to see history in the covers and lyrics of early-20th-century sheet music. Please use the links below to explore the subject more fully.