For Valentine’s Day, let’s examine love songs in the light of historical changes of the early twentieth century, through the new presentation The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, love underwent many changes: young people wanted relationships without much involvement from parents and elders, women’s self-image changed as they sought expanded opportunities and the vote, and the innovations of the age transformed American culture. New immigrants came to the United States, and the country expanded. Emile Berliner’s gramophone, invented in 1897, made possible the first widely accessible published recordings. This meant that recordings of beloved songs by performers of various ethnic groups could be distributed around the country and beyond. In 1911, John McCormack, the internationally famous Irish tenor who had immigrated to the United States, recorded the favorite love song “Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms.” Not long after Hawai’i was annexed to the United States, Hawaiian performers began recording too. “Ninipo” (Making Love), a song thought to have been composed by Queen Lili’uokalani, was recorded by Toots Paka Hawaiian Troupe in 1914.
By the advent of recorded sound, ideas about love, courtship, and marriage were changing. Expressions of these changes can often be found in humorous songs about love. Swedish comedy included rustic characters who got into predicaments as a result of modernization, as in “Fotograferingen,” a song by the Swedish comic Lars Bondeson, here sung by a Swedish immigrant to the U.S., Joel Mossburg, in 1906. In the song, a country boy and his girl go to the big city to have their pictures taken, and some bawdy humor ensues, leading to the girl happily agreeing to be photographed on her boyfriend’s lap. Vaudeville’s offensive caricatures of Jews led to some funny songs by Jewish performers, who redirected the humor to make fun of themselves. Irving Berlin, who rarely wrote Yiddish character pieces, did compose “The Yiddisha Nightengale,” performed by Maurice Burkhart for a Victor recording in 1911. The song concerns a star-struck man who offers an endearingly clumsy proposal to his beloved in which he promises her a lavish wedding and “moneymoon” (in English).
As women sought the vote, their egalitarian ideas were often seen as interfering in romance and marriage, as in the comic complaint song, “Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette” (1912). Women were becoming liberated in other ways, too; their love songs were beginning to become more openly passionate, and to push the boundaries of acceptable language. Though it seems tame by today’s standards, “Please Keep Out of My Dreams,” by Elsa Maxwell and Nora Bayes, recorded by Bayes in 1916, was a bold expression of a woman’s love at the time.
Speculation about new technology was reflected in songs about love and romance. In 1880, “Love by Telephone” by C. R. Hodge addressed romantic conversations using this new device, but fell short of predicting its real impact. In Gus Edwards’s 1906 song “Up in My Aeroplane,” a rich young man uses his automobile, yacht, and plane to impress his girl. In “Come Josephine in my Flying Machine” (1910), Josephine is talked into a ride in a plane with her boyfriend. At first she is afraid that they will hit the moon, but when her beau asks if she is a “shy queen” she replies that she is a “sky queen,” so the adventure is clearly a success. In the mildly suggestive song, “An Automobile and a Man at the Wheel,” by Joseph G. Scoville (1909), a young woman declares she will only settle for a beau with wheels.
World War I brought opportunities for American encounters with new romantic situations, which helped lead to modern American ideas of love and courtship. It was also the first war where recorded music played a role in propaganda, morale, and commentary on love in war and peace. In “Goodbye Alexander, Goodbye Honeyboy,” by African American composers Henry Creamer and Turner Layton, a woman says goodbye to a young man going off the war. It’s a humorous song, but also urges respect for African American soldiers. Recorded by a white singer, Marion Harris, it could reach a wide audience. [Some time after I wrote this blog, I realized that the lyrics indicate that the woman singing to Alexander in the song is his mother. So a love of a mother for a son, rather than a sweetheart. 2/13/2019]
“Oh, Frenchy,” sung by Arthur Fields, is about love in changing times, and concerns an Army nurse who falls for a French soldier.
After the war, things had clearly changed, and young men and women were no longer willing to accept monitored courtship. “Take Your Girlie to the Movies (if you can’t make love at home),” sung by Billy Murray and recorded in 1919, explains on how to get out from under Mother’s “eagle eye”: go to the movies. Also by now, the telephone had fully become a technology for courtship, as explained in “Whenever You’re Lonesome Just Telephone Me,” sung as a duet by Aileen Stanley and Billy Murray in 1922.
In the roaring twenties, language about courtship and love was becoming more open, especially for women. Influences from African American songs provided new language for expressing passion, both in love songs and in out-of-love blues. The recording industry was segregated, producing music for separate audiences. Nevertheless, all audiences wanted to hear jazz and blues, and these styles caught on and profoundly influenced American culture. “Midnight Blues” (1923), by the African American singer Rosa Henderson, is an example. The date of the composition of “Desert Blues,” by the African American composer and former moonshiner, Hattie Ellis, is not known, but it is a powerful expression of a woman’s grief and passion for a lost love. It was sung by the composer and recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939. One way that Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle made their compositions available to white audiences was by having them recorded by white singers. Vaughn De Leath recorded their famous love song “I’m Just Wild About Harry” in 1922. A similarly passionate blues song written before World War I came to the United States from France: in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, comedian and singer Fanny Brice famously took center stage and sang, “My Man,” which was a great hit and a triumph of her career. 
Finally, let’s hear “Old Fashioned Love,” written by the African American composer James P. Johnson and performed by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. As it explains, no matter what changes time may bring, some aspects of love remain the same.
- This was the English translation of a French song, “Mon Homme,” composed by Jacques Charles, Channing Pollock, Albert Willemetz, and Maurice Yvain in 1916.
Resources from The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America