Popular songs reach a broad audience through different forms of distribution such as sheet music, song collections, touring musicians, musical productions, and commercial recordings. Much music of the 17th and 18th centuries was broadly popular and enjoyed by everyone. Songs of European composers such as Handel and Haydn were widely heard and performed in private homes and public settings. In the mid-19th century, American popular songs emerged. Americans living both before and after the Revolution enjoyed British music, theater, and literature. People were exposed to a broad mixture of art music, folk music, and hymns.
Stephen Foster wrote music in both the sentimental style of the mid-19th century and the lively new minstrel styles. One of his early successes, “Old Folks at Home” was sung in the voice of an aging African American who longs 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 thousands of songs. George F. Root’s compositions 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 350,000 copies in sheet music form and was still being sung and recorded more than fifty years after its publication.
In 1892, a sentimental song “After the Ball” sold two million copies of sheet music, showing that music publishing was a well-established business. Songwriting could be a genuine and potentially profitable profession.
Popular music would soon reflect many sources and influences, offering Americans an ever-changing mix of music in the 20th century.
Source: Popular Songs of the Day
Library of Congress