Baseball’s Greatest Song

… illuminated by the hand-tinted slides that helped make it a hit

ONE NIGHT in 1888, from the stage of a Broadway theater, the actor DeWolf Hopper recited for the first time a poem about a ballplayer, known only as the Mighty Casey, who struck out. Though Hopper had added the epic to his show as a one-time performance honoring the presence of the baseball great “Cap” Anson, the ovation that followed should have warned him he would be stuck with Casey for the rest of his life. Read more »

Fair Comment

Americans don’t hesitate to say anything they please about a public performance. But the right to do so wasn’t established until the Cherry Sisters sued a critic who didn’t like their appalling vaudeville act.

The year 1896 found Oscar Hammerstein in trouble. He was in debt, and the acts he had brought to Broadway weren’t doing well. He was desperate. “I’ve tried the best,” he is reported to have said. “Now I’ll try the worst.” So he sent for the Cherry Sisters. Effie, Addie, Jessie, Lizzie, and Ella Cherry clearly were the worst act of the day. They couldn’t dance, and they couldn’t sing. In fact, they couldn’t do anything at all. Except draw crowds. Read more »

Whistling Women

How a young New York society matron named Alice Shaw dazzled English royalty with her extraordinary embouchure

Whistling women and crowing hens Always come to some bad ends. —American folk-saying Read more »

Congo Square

An Inquiry Into the Origins of Jazz

Jazz endures in a special sort of American reserve. Accepted as a part of our national heritage, still it is as if the interior sound of this music prevents most of us from embracing it as fully as we have its derivatives, pop music and rock. We hear in that interior sound an intensity of purpose and also a frustration that fends off our casual familiarity and makes us content with the image of the music rather than its reality.Read more »

Chopin Called Him “The King Of Pianists”

But was Louis Moreau Gottschalk America’s first musical genius or simply the purveyor of sentimental claptrap?

Even for a city that prided itself on being a preeminent center of European musical activity, the Parisian concert debut of Louis Moreau Gottschalk on April 2, 1845, was a singular occasion. Startlingly, the pianist was a youthful American, and, of course, it was well understood in Paris that Americans were devoid of cultural refinement.Read more »

Arkansas Encounter

The Story Behind a Legend

For reasons best known to the muse of history—or to the gremlin of tradition—the state of Arkansas has contributed more than its share to that agglomeration of legend, myth, tall tale, music, raucous humor, bawdry, and regional peculiarity known as American folklore. Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most durable, of those contributions is a story-song inspired by the encounter celebrated here in a painting by “C. Gear” in 1899. The song is “The Arkansas Traveler,” and the encounter was real. Read more »

Benny Goodman

An Interview With the King of Swing

Benny Goodman strolled down New York’s Second Avenue one recent morning, covering the nine blocks between his apartment and a health club, where he swims each day, in about ten minutes. During that time no fewer than four strangers recognized him and vigorously shook his hand. They varied in age from near-contemporaries to youngsters clearly born long after Goodman’s glory days. But all had much the same thing to say. “I just want to thank you,” said one, who appeared to be in his late forties.Read more »

Roll Around

The roller skate was born centuries ago in Europe when small boys tied wooden spools to their shoes. An eighteenth-century Belgian showman named Joseph Merlin is said to have fashioned the first metal-wheeled skates, though he never entirely mastered them: once, while simultaneously skating and playing the violin for a London party he “impelled himself against a mirror … and wounded himself most severely.” But it was an American, James L.Read more »

Grand Ole Opry

The story of the world’s longest-running radio program and the extraordinary American music it helped make popular

The Nashville winter of 1974 was the Grand Ole Opry’s last season at the Ryman Auditorium, its home for thirty-three years.Read more »

Selling The Swedish Nightingale

Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum

When it comes to the performing arts, Americans have often suffered from a sense of cultural inferiority. Foreign artists are considered somehow better—more glamorous, more gifted, more refined—than our own. We have lavished our applause on the likes of Bernhardt, Burton, and Garbo, reserved our stormiest bravos for Paderewski, Chaliapin, and Nureyev, and lost our national composure over Lola Montez, Anna Held, and the Beatles.Read more »