Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

MUSIC HALL

The British variety circuit. Live music was enjoyed outdoors in the pleasure gardens every day for over a century; the most famous was Vauxhall in London (celebrating the Prince of Wales's birthday there in 1799, 20,000 lanterns were lit and 1,200 chickens and 1,680 bottles of port consumed). Then it began moving indoors: Vauxhall closed in 1859 and the new format became a national institution when Charles Morton converted his Lambeth pub into a music hall and invested 35,000 (a fortune then) in the Oxford Music Hall in London's Oxford Street (now one of the busiest shopping streets in Europe), which opened in 1861. Morton was known as the 'father of the halls'; there had always been pub entertainment, but during this period the urban population had become prosperous and homogeneous enough to buy tickets, and there were over 200 halls in London alone by 1868. Music hall influenced American sentimental ballads and vaudeville, and was itself infl. by ragtime c'12. In a nation which still clings to its class distinctions, popular entertainment was curiously classless: the upper class were fans, as well as artists, literati and politicians: music hall songs are said to have infl. the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The cult of the star began immediately, as in American vaudeville at about the same time, and a few music hall artists became well-known in the USA: Vesta Victoria sang 'There I Was Waiting At The Church' and Scottish dialect singer Harry Lauder was a huge international star, but Marie Lloyd, Gracie Fields and George Formby Jr were big British stars who meant less overseas. An important difference between British and American popular music has been that rural and ethnic Americans preserved their own music until it entered the mainstream, whereas the British left their folk music behind when they flocked to the cities; as Ian Whitcomb put it in After The Ball '72, 'There was no Welsh hillbilly, no Cornish ragtime, no Highland jazz.' Also, songs in music hall were sold to individual artists, rather than being common property as in vaudeville; thus Charles Coburn (1852--1945; no relation to the American actor) was famous for 'The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo', but the result was that British songs did not travel in the same way Tin Pan Alley's did; though in the ragtime era 'It's A Long Way To Tipperary', 'Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag', 'Roses Of Picardy', 'McNamara's Band' etc (all '14--17) crossed over and probably infl. American songwriters like Irving Berlin. A difference in entertainment generally was the attitude to sex, which in music hall songs and comedy was funny; Americans took it too seriously and created a distinction between vaudeville (more or less family entertainment) and burlesque (definitely not). The golden age of the halls ended with WWI, but it survives in British workingmen's clubs (especially in Northern England), on TV variety shows and in pop music: the cheekiness of the Beatles (and some of their songs) smacked of British variety, and was a large part of their appeal.