10 Candidates for the World's First Pop Song
Pop songs. They're the fast food of the music world. But if you think pop is a relatively recent invention, then you've got it wrong. The first pop song? Well"¦ that's not so easy. Here are ten candidates.
1. "Summer is Icumen In" (c.1239)
Why it might be the one: It didn't tell a story, or sing praise to God. Like most pop songs, it was about"¦ nothing, really. Welcome to the Seinfeld of mediaeval music.
In medieval times, courts employed minstrels (or "jongleurs") to sing sagas or legends, as much to pass on information as for entertainment. These guys would bring their songs on the road, spreading them through the villages. But musical notation (in the West, at least) wasn't invented until around 1020, to make sure that every church parish was chanting the same tune. In the early days, most notated songs were hymns.
Possibly the first major piece of non-hymnal music to find a mass audience was "Summer is Icumen In," which predates the printing press by at least 150 years. After Johannes Gutenberg's invention came to England, however, it was published in all its glory. Here was a song in six parts (unheard of at the time), sung in an endless "round." Rather than praising God, it simply extolled the joys of summer, like so many later pop songs. "Summer is icumen in," it began. "lhude sing cuccu." (Or "Summer has arrived, loud sing the cuckoo.") Was it popular enough to be the first "pop" song? Maybe"¦ but if we said "yes," this would be a really short list.
2. "Greensleeves" (c.1580)
Why it might be the one: One of the first songs to be printed as sheet music.
A few centuries before it was cheapened by ice-cream vans and endless reruns of the Lassie TV series, this was possibly the first widely-heard song in the English language, a love ballad with a melody as catchy as anything by the Beatles or Sara Bareilles. Strangely, it probably began life as a vigorous dance tune. It is often credited to Henry VIII, but while he was supposedly an accomplished musician, he probably can't claim this one. The words were first published around 1580 (some years after they were written).
3. "A Frog He Would a-Wooing Go" (c.1580)
Why it might be the one: See #2. (We're not sure which one came first.)
This very different song has lasted as long as "Greensleeves," and (like so many early songs) has a simplicity that has turned it into children's song. Its lyrics are nonsense, obviously not written for worship or information, but for pure entertainment value. (In fact, the words were possibly racist, referring to Elizabeth I's French suitor, the Duke of Anjou.) A "pop song" by almost any definition.
4. "Home, Sweet Home" (1823)
Why it might be the one: Another new invention called the gramophone.
Written by John Howard Payne, the simple lyrics and hummable melody made this opera song a hit with the masses. But what really might give it the "first pop song" title is that, some 80 years later, it was one of the first songs to win major success on the gramophone, famously performed by at least three of the earliest recording stars: Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba, Italian "Queen of Song" Adelina Patti, and the "Swedish Nightingale", Jenny Lind.
When gramophone records were invented, short songs were slow to catch on "“ which is surprising, because they were ideal: early discs could hold only a few minutes of music. Yet even as late as 1910, over three-quarters of records sold were classical pieces. Still, recorded music allowed a greater audience for music than ever before, no longer limited to households with a piano or a sight-reading singer.
5. "O, Susanna!" (1848)
Why it might be the one: A big hit (but we're not sure exactly how big).
If you thought that pop music was an American invention"¦ you may be right. Pennsylvania-born Stephen Collins Foster's songs were inspired by (and often mistaken for) Negro spirituals, with their smoother and more accessible melodies than the intricate, opera-inspired tunes of the time. Though he published his first song, "Open They Lattice, Love," at age 18, "O, Susanna!" was his first major hit. Exactly how successful is difficult to say, because song piracy was an issue even in the mid-19th century. Over 20 editions of the sheet music, mostly illegal, had spread all over the U.S. within three years. But despite the piracy, the publisher still made $10,000. (As a mere writer, Foster himself was given $100 for his troubles.)
6. "Old Folks at Home" (1851)
Why it might be the one: An even bigger hit (but it depends: how popular is "popular"?)
In 1852, "Old Folks at Home" had unprecedented sales of 130,000 (in legal copies), back when 10,000 was considered a good sale and 50,000 a major hit. Like "Home Sweet Home," "Old Folks at Home" was a sentimental ballad of homesickness. During the Civil War, it was sung by soldiers on both sides. Foster still didn't become wealthy from his success. Before the war was over, he had died in New York at age 38, reportedly suicide.
7. "After the Ball" (1892)
Why it might be the one: The first million-seller—and this was before records!
The success of "After the Ball" was truly amazing. Before it was published, million-selling songs were unheard of. "After the Ball" sold five million copies within a year—as sheet music. The secret: a new(ish) concept called PR. Charles K Harris, one of America's first songwriter-publishers, cannily promoted his song. In the U.S., baritone J. Aldrich Libbey performed it at beer halls and theaters, in return for a share in the royalties. In Britain, it was a music-hall favorite. The mournful ballad also established Tin Pan Alley (a group of music publishers clustered around New York's Broadway) as the Mecca of popular song. Despite the detailed story told by the lyrics, the tune itself was simple enough. Harris couldn't even read music. "After the Ball" is his only song that anyone remembers, but that was enough for him to retire.
8. "My Gal is a High Born Lady" (1896)
Why it might be the one: It signaled the birth of modern pop music"¦ eventually.
The touring minstrel shows of the 19th-century, in which white singers would perform popular songs in blackface, are now dismissed as racist. But in a way, they were a compliment to black music. Despite their low social status, African-Americans were considered good musicians, partly due to their "sense of rhythm." Foster's black-inspired songs were, fittingly, made popular by minstrel groups. Even "After the Ball," inspired more by English ballads, was written for a minstrel show.
With Barney Fagan's now-forgotten "My Gal is a High Born Lady," black (as opposed to black-inspired) music finally filtered into the mainstream, introducing a new, 'boppier' style: ragtime. At the time, nobody knew how important this would be. But ragtime was the forerunner of jazz, rock and roll, and almost every other major style of popular music in the next century. To an extent, the ragtime composers invented pop music as we know it. A Jewish composer, Irving Berlin, made his songwriting debut in 1911 by selling four songs in this style, all with "rag" or "ragtime" in the title (including the mega-hit "Alexander's Ragtime Band"). Not for the first time, a white man was spreading "black" music to the masses.
9. "I'll Never Smile Again" (1940)
Why it might be the one: The first #1 song on the Billboard charts—and it introduced the first pop star who drove his fans wild.
Irving Berlin once suggested that it's the audience, rather than the melody, that makes the pop song. Even though a lot of early recording stars had their fans, none of them really inspired the idolatry and mass hysteria equated with a true pop star—until Frank Sinatra. "Ol' blue eyes" (as he'd later be known) hit the big time as a vocalist with bandleader Tommy Dorsey on "I'll Never Smile Again," composed by Ruth Lowe. Sinatra was not credited on this song, but in college surveys, he still displaced his own hero, Bing Crosby, as the most popular male vocalist.
In October 1944, as a headliner, it became clear what he had that even the ever-popular Crosby didn't. At the so-called 'Columbus Day Riot' in New York, Sinatra's fans went slightly wild. Desperate to see him, 25,000 teenagers blocked Times Square. Shop windows were smashed, the ticket booth was destroyed, and many fans were too busy screaming or fainting to know whether his singing was any good. Sinatra himself would modestly blame this behavior on the loneliness of the war years, but fans of the Beatles, Guns N Roses and others would provide similar chaos in peacetime concerts. Arguably, this nuttiness is a crucial element of pop music, separating its followers from the more reserved groupies of classical or jazz music.
"I'll Never Smile Again" has another claim: it was the first number one song in Billboard magazine's "Music Popularity Chart," the model for the countless pop sales charts that have ruled the music industry ever since.
10. "To Know Him is to Love Him" (1958)
Why it might be the one: Well, it depends on your definition"¦
Though the word "pop" was first used as an abbreviation for "popular" as early as 1926 (and adopted by orchestras like the Boston Pops), the term "pop song" did not become widely-used until after the birth of "pop art" in 1957, when it was vaguely used to describe any youth-oriented music that wasn't rock-and-roll."To Know Him is to Love Him" was for teens, but it was "anti-rock". It was haunting and soothing, and its writer-producer, 17-year-old Phil Spector, introduced his "wall of sound" style—packing musicians into a small studio, making a sound that could not be reproduced in live performance. Also, while rock music rebelled against the older generations, this was a love song for Spector's father (but with Annette Bard's vocals, it sounded like a romantic teenage song). Spector would become one of pop music's most successful producers, often trying rock-and-roll with songs like "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Rock and Roll High School," but also producing sweeter pop songs "“ like the Beatles' Let It Be album.
Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia, with books, scripts and countless articles to his credit. Learn more at markjuddery.com.