Widely hailed as “the father of popular music” and the founder of Tin Pan Alley, Charles K. Harris had a profound influence on America’s culture, both in his own day and in the years to come.
Harris was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1867 and as a young boy came to Saginaw where his father opened a tailor shop on Water Street. Years later, Charles Harris remembered lumbermen coming into town wearing “large boots with cleats, sashes round their waists and wide white hats.” He also recalled swimming at a spot they called “The Bend” and ice skating on the frozen river, Little Jake’s store and Academy of Music manager Sam Clay. One day, a pair of travelling vaudeville performers stopped into the tailor shop and, for some reason, put on an impromptu rehearsal of their banjo act. Harris watched every move and then cobbled together a banjo from an empty oyster can, a broomstick and some strands of wire and taught himself to play it. Impressed, one of the actors gave him a real banjo and Charles soon became an expert on it.
The family moved to Milwaukee when he was sixteen and he set himself up in business giving banjo lessons. His little shop also boasted a sign that read, “Songs Written to Order” and he composed original songs for all occasions: births, deaths, weddings and anniversaries. The top price was $20. Although he couldn’t read music, he taught himself to play by ear, using only the black keys.
After seeing an amateur production of a musical called “A Trip to Chinatown,” Harris thought he could do better and persuaded the producer to insert a song of his—even though it had nothing at all to do with Chinatown. It told the story of a man who had caught his fiancee kissing another man after a dance. Refusing to listen to her explanations, he broke up with her and broke both their hearts. Years later, after her death, he found that the man was her brother.
The song was called “After the Ball.”
According to Ian Whitcomb who titled his history of popular American music After the Ball, the song was a hit right from the start. John Philip Sousa and his world-famous band played it at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and by the end of the year, every man, woman and child in the country was whistling, playing or singing it. Within a year, “After the Ball” was bringing in $25,000 a week; within twenty years, sheet sales topped 10 million. It was America’s first major hit and started a trend. It was translated into just about every language and is still being played.
There is some question about the setting of “After the Ball”: Saginawians like to think that Harris witnessed a lovers’ quarrel when he was a bellboy at the Bancroft Hotel. Others—probably more accurately—place the famous spat in Milwaukee or Chicago. Tearful story ballads became immensely popular with Victorian audiences. Whitcomb explained, “Tearful songs were next in popularity to hymns in those days. Tears were considered good and right and natural.” Harris himself cried whenever he sang “After the Ball.”
He wrote several other sad “story ballads” which became popular, including “Break the News to Mother” and “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven.”
However, nothing equalled the success of “After the Ball.”
Harris was also a go-getting businessman, another Victorian ideal. As a young songwriter, he had trouble getting in to see the actors and actresses who might be interested in using his ballads. He got a job as correspondent for a New York dramatic publication and found that opened doors for him. Opera diva Adelina Patti was just one of the stars who performed his works: a song called “Her Last Farewell” written for her farewell tour.
He had trouble getting his music published and discovered that unscrupulous printers took advantage of composers. Harris founded his own company to publish and promote not only his songs but the music of other composers.
He wrote a book, full of rules and secrets, for would-be composers. It was called How to Write a Popular Song and he told his eager readers to:
1) Find storylines in the daily newspapers.
2) Acquaint yourself with the style in vogue.
3) Avoid slang.
4) Know the copyright laws.
After he established a highly successful office in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, Harris worked hard to write and pass effective copyright laws. He was credited with getting the support of President Theodore Roosevelt to enact laws in 1909 to protect songwriters from piracy. He was also a founding member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, better known as ASCAP and still a power today.
Harris and his wife had two daughters, Mrs. Richard Well of Chicago and Miss Mildred Harris of New York. He died in 1930.
Despite his enormous fame and fortune, Charles K. Harris never forgot the town he called “dear old Saginaw” and credited “all my success to the Saginaw schools.” On the occasion of the Saginaw Semi-Centennial in 1907, he wrote, “They laid the foundation of a good, common sense, practical education which has never left me and which has stood me in good stead all these years.”
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