Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Silver Threads Among the Gold," mega hit of 1873 and 1907

When I began researching our “Greatest Hits of the 20th Century” program a few years ago, I came across an old song called “Silver Threads among the Gold” that was apparently a mega hit during the late 19th century and was revived to nearly-similar success in the early 20th.

While performing this song to groups of seniors, we’ve discovered that “Silver Threads” must have had an extremely long shelf life: most of the audience members -- the eldest of them having been born no earlier than 1920 and so having coming into musical congnizance no earlier than 1930 – all sing the song with us from memory.

In other words, this is one of those songs that, in the form of sheet music, must have graced every piano in every parlor in every home in America at one point in our nation’s cultural history. Even at the initial selling price of 3 ½ cents per sheet music, this song made someone a lot of money but that someone was neither the lyricist nor the composer.

Eben E. Rexford published the poem in a Wisconsin farm journal where it was seen by composer Hart Pease Danks who purchased it – with several other Rexford poems – from its grateful author for three dollars. Danks set it to music in 1872 and in turn sold it for a few dollars more to a publisher who made much more than a few dollars on it, money that he didn’t share with Danks who died in abject poverty a few decades later. “Silver Threads” sold two million copies of sheet music – the 19th century measure for a song’s popularity -- beginning in 1873 and then one million more when it was revived in 1907.

When encountering songs from the past, one can nearly get inside the collective soul of a culture, accessing its values and yearnings. I believe this particular song caught on when it did because this particular culture obviously wasn't youth obsessed (why else would a song that holds forth poetically on white hair and dull cheeks become a mega-hit?) and because 19th century marriages didn't end as much from divorce as from disease, making the notion of growing old together a particularly romantic one.


“All the Years of American Popular Music” by David Ewen

“The Book of World Famous Music” by James J. Fuld