Popular songs can be defined as those intended to reach a broad audience via some form of distribution such as broadsides, sheet music, song collections, touring musicians or musical production and later on commercial recordings.
Much music of the 17th and 18th centuries was broadly popular and enjoyed by everyone. Songs of composers such as Handel and Haydn were widely heard and performed in private homes and public settings. In the mid-19th century, the American popular songs styles emerged. Americans living before and after the Revolution were willing consumers of British music, theatre and literature. Many people of the day, including America's first notable composers, were fortunate enough to be exposed to a broad mixture of art music, folk music, hymnody, and a wide range of song.
Stephen Foster was proficient in both the sentimental style of the mid-19th century and the lively new minstrel styles. One of his early success, “Old Folks at Home” was sung in the voice of an aging African American of the day who is pining for his home on the old plantation. Foster’s flourishes of literary eloquence made the singer a character of depth with whom a wide audience could empathize in an era of great changes and little certainty.
The civil war inspired literally thousands of songs. George F Root’s composition reflected a new native musical confidence that carried over onto the post-war era. One of the biggest hits of the war was "The Battle Cry of Freedom,” by Root, which sold some 350,000 copies in sheet music form and was still being sung and recorded more than fifty years after its publication.
In 1892, “After the Ball,” a sentimental song launched in a Broadway show the year before, sold two million copies of sheet music, strong evidence that music publishing was a well-established business, and songwriting a genuine and potentially lucrative profession.
Popular music would soon reflect many sources and influences, and offer Americans an ever-changing mix of music in the coming 20th Century.
Source: Popular Songs of the Day
Library of Congress