Friday, June 3, 2011
The Wildly Popular Hit from 1892, "After the Ball"
[Sentimental: (of a work of literature, music, or art). Dealing with feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way.]
“After the Ball” is a very sentimental song. Sentimental 19th century song lovers had hundreds to chose from, so why did this particular song debut to a standing ovation in 1892, find a permanent home among John Phillip Sousa’s repertoire (after he played it at the 1893 Columbian Exposition), and sell over five million copies of sheet music (the 19th century equivalent to CD’s)?
Here are the lyrics:
A little maiden climbed an old man's knee,
Begged for a story – "Do, Uncle, please.
Why are you single; why live alone?
Have you no babies; have you no home?"
"I had a sweetheart years, years ago;
Where she is now pet, you will soon know.
List to the story, I'll tell it all,
I believed her faithless after the ball."
After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers' leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.
Bright lights were flashing in the grand ballroom,
Softly the music playing sweet tunes.
There came my sweetheart, my love, my own –
"I wish some water; leave me alone."
When I returned dear there stood a man,
Kissing my sweetheart as lovers can.
Down fell the glass pet, broken, that's all,
Just as my heart was after the ball.
Long years have passed child, I've never wed.
True to my lost love though she is dead.
She tried to tell me, tried to explain;
I would not listen, pleadings were vain.
One day a letter came from that man,
He was her brother – the letter ran.
That's why I'm lonely, no home at all;
I broke her heart pet, after the ball.
When we perform it now, as part of our “Greatest Hits of the 19th and 20th Century” program, although the song is quite lengthy, audiences stay with us to the end because the tune – especially that of the chorus -- is extremely catchy. There is a sharp divide among audience members, however, when it come to lyrics-listening on this one. Those who have been paying attention give us “ah-ha” smiles during the last verse while those who zoned out sometime after the first chorus give us only vacant ones. This is a powerful contrast to the song’s official debut (during the actual debut, the singer forgot his lines!)which composer Charles K. Harris memorialized in his memoir:
“[Libbey] went through the second verse and chorus, and again complete silence reigned. I was making ready to bolt, but my friends . . . held me tightly by the arms. Then came the third verse and chorus. For a full minute (really??) the audience remained quiet, and then broke lose with applause . . . The entire audience arose and, standing, wildly applauded for five minutes” (again, really??). Harris may have exaggerated the time involved but there was no exaggerating the cold hard facts of five million copies sold. He never again would write something so wildly popular.