Tin pan opera

During the ragtime era hundreds of humorous Tin Pan Alley songs centered on operatic subjects—either directly quoting operas or alluding to operatic characters and vocal stars of the time. These songs brilliantly captured the moment when popular music in America transitioned away from its European operatic heritage, and when the distinction between low- and high-brow popular musical forms was free to develop, with all its attendant cultural snobbery and rebellion.

In the early 20th century, when new social forces were undermining the view that our European heritage was intrinsically superior to our native vernacular culture, opera—that great inheritance from our European forebears—functioned in popular discourse as a signifier for elite culture.

These operatic novelty songs availed this connection to a humorous and critical end. Combining European operatic melodies with the new and American rhythmic verve of ragtime, these songs painted vivid images of immigrant Americans, liberated women, and upwardly striving African Americans, striking emblems of the profound transformations that shook the U.S. at the beginning of the American century.

This according to Tin pan opera: Operatic novelty songs in the ragtime era by Larry Hamberlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Below, “When Priscilla tries to hit high C” by Jack Mahoney and Harry Von Tilzer.

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