February 14, 2001

Popular Songs of the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: Chart Detail & Encyclopedia, 1900-1949.  By Edward Foote Gardner.  St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2000.  513 pages.  ISBN: 1-55778-789-1. $22.95.  Publisher’s website: www.paragonhouse.com.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

In this era of fascination with charts, rankings and “being number one,” it is inevitable that some would be frustrated with the fact that prior eras were not so relentlessly measured.  Today we know, with numbing speed, the movie that had the number one box office revenue last weekend, the TV show that was number one in the Nielsen ratings, the record that was number one on “the charts.”  (Or at least we think we do; some of these surveys are seriously flawed, but that’s another story.)

Articles about recording artists, particularly those of the rock era, frequently recite chart positions as if they were some sort of easily digested quantification of their subject’s worth.  Artist “A” scored three number ones, but artist “B” never cracked the top ten, so “A” is greater than “B,” right?  But what are we do about eras before there were any charts?  Billboard magazine’s record charts began in 1940, and radio’s “Your Hit Parade,” the first systematic listing of song hits, in 1935.  Neither was particularly accurate, but they at least provided a general idea of what was popular, and for what precise period of time.

In 1986 Billboard chart maven Joel Whitburn published a book called Pop Memories which claimed to contain record popularity charts dating back to the year 1890.  It misrepresented its sources, and did a poor job of documenting what was really popular in the early years (where actual record company production figures have been found, they often contradict Whitburn’s rankings).  But it looked authentic, so it became widely quoted by those who don’t care where the numbers come from, as long as they have numbers.

Now, fourteen years later, mathematician and musicologist Edward Foote Gardner has produced a similar book of charts for songs, called Popular Songs of the Twentieth Century.  Gardner is refreshingly candid about his methodology, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of his source material, which varies according to the period being covered.  For example, for the years 1900-1929 he describes how he compiled a list of songs mentioned in the well-known history books of Mattfeld, Spaeth and Kinkle.[i]  He then turned to the weekly trade papers of the time (Music Trades, Variety and others) and located contemporary accounts of those songs, as well as other songs that were missed by Mattfeld, Spaeth and Kinkle.  The performers who featured each song were noted, and recordings were documented through Talking Machine World.  The number of mentions of each song, as well what was said about it, formed the basis for assigning rankings, a process that the author admits was necessarily somewhat subjective.  For later periods, he consulted published song rankings in  Variety, Billboard and “Your Hit Parade.”

Gardner’s methodology can be criticized, but it is not illogical.  Mattfeld, Spaeth and Kinkle are not very reliable sources of popularity information, but here they were used only to establish a “starting list,” which was then modified according to the information found in contemporary publications.  Contemporary publications are of variable reliability too, but at least the author seems to understand their limitations, and account for it when possible (unlike Whitburn, who, for example, misread release lists as popularity lists, and assumed that publicity equaled popularity).  The author recognizes nuances such as the fact that in the early 1900s recordings were not generally released until a song had already achieved wide popularity through sheet music and public performance, and thus cannot be used to date song popularity.

How accurate are the rankings in Popular Songs?  It’s hard to say with certainty, since there is little solid data with which to compare the book’s listings.  However I have done my own primary research on a number of songs, and in those cases my findings and those of Popular Songs match up pretty well.  For example I recently researched songs from the Broadway musical Florodora (1900-1901), and found that it took several months after the show’s opening for the well-remembered “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” to catch on.  Even then, while the song was very popular, it was by no means the biggest seller of the season.  That is what Popular Songs reports as well.  (Unfortunately the book misspells the name of the show “Floradora“–a common mistake–and lists the best-selling Columbia cylinder of the song as by “the Floradora Girls with male quartet,” which it was not.)  From a later era, I consulted a file listing the number of radio plays for every ASCAP-licensed song during 1937, and identified the top eight most played songs on radio that year, according to ASCAP’s own records.  All eight were shown as major hits in Popular Songs.  Their relative rankings even matched (approximately) the relative rankings shown in Popular Songs.  Impressive.

Recorded versions are mentioned under most song listings.  This is harmless enough, as the records are not ranked or sales cited, however it is probably one of the weaker aspects of the book.  Releases on the major labels (Victor, Columbia, Edison, Brunswick) are heavily favored, because those are the labels that advertised in Talking Machine World.  It is likely that budget labels such as Little Wonder in the 1910s, Cameo, Grey Gull, Banner, Velvet Tone, etc. in the 1920s, and Hit-of-the-Week and the ARC labels in the 1930s, sold at least as many copies of hit titles as did full-priced Victor or Columbia.  But they are only occasionally mentioned here.

The book is organized into four sections.  Section one, which will be frequently consulted, is an alphabetical index of all songs found in the book.  Roughly 3,500 titles are shown, with the highest chart rank for each, and the month and year it reached that position.

Section two contains the monthly top 20 song charts.  (In case you’re wondering, #1 in January 1900 was “I’d Leave My Happy Home For You,” while #1 in December 1949 was “Mule Train.”  Ah, but can you whistle the song that ranked #11 in January 1900, “Impecunious Davis”?)  Next to each title is the song’s current rank, its rank during the prior month, and the number of months it had been in the top 20 up to that time.

Section three is a little less intuitive, but nevertheless useful.  It presents the same chart data but now in spreadsheet form.  Listed down the side of the page are song titles, while across the top are months (broken down into half-month periods).  Next to each title appears its rank in each half-monthly period.  Thus the progress of a song up and down the charts can be visually scanned.  For example, the chart career of “Impecunious Davis,” is as follows.

1899              1900

Dc       Dc       Ja         Ja         Fb        Fb        Ma       Ma

==       20        13        9          12        14        17        ==

The song entered the chart at no. 20 during the second half of December, 1899.  During January it moved up to no. 13 and then no. 9, then down to 12, 14, and 17 before dropping off the “chart” in the second half of March.

Section four contains detailed information about each song.  Organized by year, it shows each song’s original publisher and year of publication, composer and author, and the show or movie in which it was featured (with opening or release date).  Artists “connected with” the song are also listed, including vaudeville singers, show singers, movie singers, radio singers, bandleaders and recording artists (with record numbers and release dates).  This is a treasure trove of information and constitutes a broader overview of what drove a song’s popularity than is usually found in one place.  Because the book is organized by year of popularity, it also highlights the difference between year of popularity and year of publication.  Most books give only the latter.  Songs popular in more than one year are repeated under each of those years, with appropriate changes in the list of popularizers.  For example, “Heartaches” is listed under 1931 with recorded versions by Guy Lombardo, Bert Lown and Will Osborne, and again under 1947 with recordings by Ted Weems, Harry James, Eddy Howard and Jimmy Dorsey.  The author recognizes that while Weems recorded the song in 1933, his version did not become popular until the song’s revival fourteen years later.  Likewise, “As Time Goes By” (from Casablanca) is correctly listed under 1943, even though the song was published in 1931 and the most popular recorded versions in 1943 (by Rudy Vallee and Jacques Renard) had been made many years earlier.  A nice touch is that Dooley Wilson is listed as singing the song in the film, with a note that he later recorded it, in 1946.

Songs and records of exceptional popularity are denoted by small circular symbols, either one, two or three of them, according to the song’s sales at the time of its original popularity (not its long-term sales).  What basis the author uses for this information is unclear.

As an approximation of the popularity of individual songs during the first half of the twentieth century, Popular Songs of the Twentieth Century is a worthwhile volume.  It is carefully researched, well organized and reasonably priced.  (A second volume is planned to cover 1950-1999.)  It would have been nice to have had indexes of performers and composers as well as songs, but that is a minor quibble.  While it may not achieve the sales of the heavily-promoted  Pop Memories, this is a better researched book and is well worth obtaining by those interested in what song popularity charts of its era might have looked like.


[i]. Julius Mattfeld, Variety Music Cavalcade (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962); Sigmund Spaeth, A History of Popular Music in America (New York: Random House, 1948); Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974).

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