Young Folks: Youth In Early Us Popular Music
Youth as it pertains to popular music tends to connote post-World War II genres and their descendants. Often used synonymously with “teen,” the concept is linked to 1950s consumer culture and attendant notions of rebellion, trouble, and triviality. This paper offers instead an account of the long history of youth in US popular music; indeed, youth featured importantly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, too.
In the late eighteenth century, songsters such as The Young Mason’s Monitor (New York, 1789) addressed youthful male singing members of Masonic societies. From the mid-nineteenth century, music education texts suggest their intended audience as in Artemus N. Johnson’s The Young Minstrel (Boston, 1843) and Charles Jarvis’s The Young Folk’s Glee Book (Philadelphia, 1854). Sentimental song lyrics glance longingly backwards, referring to youth as a nostalgic phase. Examples include the protagonist of Henry Russell’s “Woodman, Spare That Tree” (1837) and the aged couple in James Austin Butterfield’s “When You and I Were Young, Maggie” (1866). Stephen Foster’s minstrel song “Old Folks at Home” sparked an answer song entitled “Young Folks at Home” (New York, 1852) by Miss Hattie Livingston, written and composed expressly for Wood’s Minstrels. And, from 1865 to 1873, the US children’s periodical Our Young Folks published articles and music aimed at an audience of 10-18 year olds and circulated to over 75,000 readers at its peak.
These examples force critical questions about youth and its relationship to race, gender, class, and power. This paper considers whose youth was celebrated, whose was repressed, and whose was brutally denied altogether within the shifting historical context of chattel slavery, settler colonialism, patriarchal domination, and segregation. It looks back to the era when the popular music industry was in its youth, allowing us to better understand changing definitions of youth in contemporary pop music.
Emily Gale is Lecturer in Popular Music Studies at University College Cork. Sentimental Songs for Sentimental People–her book in progress–explores intersections between sentimentalism, gender, class, and race with chapters on: nineteenth-century sentimental ballads; The National Barn Dance, an early Chicago radio program; Mitch Miller’s 1960s television show Sing Along with Mitch; and 1970s soft rock. Dr. Gale earned her PhD from the University of Virginia’s Critical and Comparative Studies program in 2014. She hosts a radio show about her research on Threads*/sub_ʇxǝʇ and her feminist music column History Witch appears in Berlin’s Schmutz zine. Find her on twitter @Sentimentemily.