Many of my older Friday Songs – notably, ‘Shine’, ‘The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, ‘Hong Kong Blues’ – have moved with the times. They have been adapted to our fretfully changing world by each new musical generation.
This week’s song is an exception. It is firmly of its time. ‘After the Ball’ defies modernisation.
That would have disappointed the man who wrote it, Charles K Harris.
By all accounts, Harris was a man who saw music as business. He noticed early in his career that publishers made more out of songs than composers, and so he set up a his own company and became one of the most successful music publishers on Tin Pan Alley.
He pioneered the business of writing songs to suit (and exploit) the moment. When in 1897, the Spanish American War (one of our lesser-known wars) broke out, he wanted to catch the moment. He didn’t have a soldier’s dying-words song but then he remembered that he had written, back in 1891, a song about a brave fireman killed in a fire called ‘Break The News to Mother’.
It had been a floperoo but, once the fireman had been replaced with a soldier, it became a wartime hit.
Then as now, the culture preferred their artists to be unworldly and hopeless with money and Harris (a consummate professional, in my view) was widely seen as cynical.
The sneery musicologist Sigmund Spaeth, who made a good living from deconstructing popular songs and showing them to be sentimental and ungrammatical (a classic case of shooting fish in a barrel ) wrote:
‘The career of Charles K. Harris remains a convincing proof that one can become an enormously popular songwriter without ever writing a really good song.’
What nonsense. Today, few remember Sigmund Spaeth – although I’ve just read his rather feeble The Facts of Life in Popular Song (1934) – while at least one of Harris’s songs is still alive and well in a dusty corner of our culture.
The titles of a few of Charles Harris’ songs will explain why he became known as ‘the King of the Tearjerker’:
To give you a fair idea of the tone of his lyrics, here are the opening lines of ‘Always in the Way’.
‘Please, mister, take me in your car
I want to see Mama
They say she lives in heaven
Is it very, very far?’
But Harris had a knack for writing songs that lasted. His 1901 song, with the great Harris title of ‘Hello Central, Give Me Heaven’, was covered 33 years later by the Carter Family, who also sang his ‘Mid the Green Fields of Virginia’. In spite of its queasy-making lyrics, ‘Always in the Way’ has a good tune to it.
‘After the Ball’, released in 1892, sold an astonishing five million copies in sheet-music and was the biggest hit of the decade. The song may not have aged well but its success and longevity are well-deserved.
I like songs that tell a story. This one, the tale of a terrible (and ridiculous) romantic misunderstanding, is seen though the eyes of a child, a clever framing device which Spaeth characteristically and wrongly concludes was to allow the composer to use the word ‘pet’ now and then to help make the lines scan.
The theme of the song, carried in its title and chorus, transcends the undeniable silliness of the verse:
‘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.’
It’s rather brilliant, this idea of real life intruding as dawn breaks, and that is probably why the phrase and the tune have echoed down the years. Ian Whitcomb used as the title for his 1972 history of pop music and it has been the subject of many spoofs and parodies.
It’s the tune that makes ‘After the Ball’ memorable. The verses (now often sung incorrectly) give a slightly different melody to the two voices, and the chorus is irresistible.
The song has been bashed about down the years – there’s a peculiarly execrable version by Nat King Cole – and it’s not easy to find a version that’s faithful to the original. This treatment by Joan Morris is clear and unfussy but my favourite contemporary version is by the great Irish singer Maura O’Connell.
Most fascinating of all – a real wonder of YouTube – is this version sung by Charles K Harris himself in 1930, a few months before he died.
His voice isn’t great and this is a truncated version, but it captures his bounderish personality. The way, almost 40 years after the sung was written, he still felt the need to emphasis that he wrote the words and the music in his introduction makes me smile (and wonder whether he was protesting too much.
So here it is, a timeless song, written almost 130 years ago, sung by the man who wrote.