|After the Ball|
The beauty and the success of this one song symbolizes the real start of the Tin Pan Alley tradition. The three verses describe an older man as he tells his niece why he has never married: at a ball, he saw his sweetheart kissing another man and refused to listen to her explanation. Only years later -- too late! -- he discovered it was her brother.
The graceful, melancholy waltz-refrain, however, is the best-loved part of the song. It stands independently of the story told in the verses.
This song reportedly sold millions of copies of sheet music in a few years' time — unprecedented! This success spurred the growth of the Tin Pan Alley industry. On stage, singer J. Aldrich Libbey sang it as he toured the country (earning himself a hefty fee from the publishers). Appropriately, one of the forums in which he sang it was the hugely successful A Trip to Chinatown, which has been called the first American musical comedy. At the Chicago World's Fair, John Philip Sousa's band played it, popularizing it with audiences who gathered there from all around the country. This song has retained familiarity — at least for older adults — partly because it is catchy and evocative and partly because it was revived and reused in later musicals.
Charles Harris wrote the song after being in the big city, at a ball (accompanying his sister). A man and woman, engaged to be married, quarreled during the dance. The man escorted home another woman, and his jilted lover tried to laugh it off, but tears were in her eyes. "Many a heart is aching after the ball," came into Harris' head, and this idea inspired the song (although the song's story is quite different). It is nice to know that Harris heard that the real-life quarreling couple reconciled and reunited (unlike the tragic pair described in the lyric).
"After the Ball" is used in the often-revived musical Show Boat (1927). Show Boat's composer, Jerome Kern, chose this and several other period songs to evoke and represent the historical influences on American popular music. In the middle of the second act, the heroine Magnolia has been deserted by her husband and gets a job in nightclub's New Year's Eve performance. She can barely face the noisy crowds, who ignore her at first. Then her father, who is coincidentally in the audience, begins to encourage and coach her. She improves and her performance (as well as the mini-drama of her father's coaching) hushes the crowd. Then she gets them all to join in on a repeat of the refrain. As a song of loss, it is appropriate for Magnolia's situation in the show's narrative.
In a manner similar to that depicted in Show Boat, a crowd loves to join in on the refrain of "After the Ball" — which makes it useful for music outreach. Partly because of the 1935 and 1951 movie musical versions of Show Boat, as well as the many stage revivals, the song retains some familiarity — although the verse (which is drowned out amidst the throng's noise in Show Boat) is not well known.
"After the Ball" is also prominently featured in the 1940 movie musical which headlines Alice Faye as 1890s star Lillian Russell. Faye-as-Russell sings it twice. First, it is depicted as being sung in a historic telephone experiment. Thus the song symbolizes the ascent of the new — technology, industry, the modern age. Second, it is sung in the grand finale. Here it perhaps is more a symbol of nostalgia for the past, connoting the loss of love that Russell has by then experienced.
Several things make this song typical of early Tin Pan Alley. First is the fact it is told as a story — in fact, as a story-in-a-story. Second is the sentimental nature of the tale — very sad! Third is the non-rhyme of "morn" and "gone." Harris could just easily have written "after the break of dawn," which would at least have created a consonant near-rhyme. (Indeed, for years I had been singing "after the break of dawn" — I could hardly believe a scholar-friend of mine when he pointed out my mistake!) Fourth is the difficult fit between musical emphasis and verbal emphasis, particularly in some of the verses, as in "grand ballroom." Fifth is the memorability of the refrain. (Jon Finson writes a nice analysis of the means that Harris uses to make it catchy.)
What is transcendant, however, is harder to describe or pinpoint (although Mark Booth come close to doing so): the song's evocation of an atmosphere. It is this that makes the song the forerunner of the poignant lyricism of the later Tin Pan Alley songs — it is this that made Jerome Kern choose the song for inclusion in Show Boat.
After the Ball
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.
A little maiden climbed an old man’s knee,
Begged for a story, “Do, uncle, please.
Why are you single? Why live alone?
Have you no babies? Have you no home?”
“I had a sweetheart, years, years ago.
Where she is now, pet, you will soon know.
List to the story. I’ll tell it all.
I believed her faithless, after the ball.”
Bright lights were flashing in a grand ballroom,
Softly the music, playing sweet tunes,
There came my sweetheart, my love, my own:
“I wish some water. Leave me alone.”
When I returned, dear, there stood a man
Kissing my sweetheart, as lovers can.
Down fell the glass, pet, broken, that’s all,
Just as my heart was after the ball.
Long years have passed, child, I’ve never wed.
True to my lost love, though she is dead.
She tried to tell me, tried to explain.
I would not listen, pleadings were vain.
One day a letter came from that man.
He was her brother, the letter ran.
That’s why I’m lonely, no home at all.
I broke her heart, pet, after the ball.
"After the Ball" is in the public domain. Sheet music can be obtained at most of the online collections.
Sheet music for songs that are no longer in copright in the USA and therefore are in the public domain can be obtained at several helpful sites.
Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection (John Hopkins University)
UCLA Music Library Digital Archive Popular American Music
Indiana University Sheet Music
Charles H. Templeton Music Museum (Mississippi State University)
Historic American Sheet Music (Duke University)
The Duke University collection is also accessible through the Library of Congress:
National Library of Australia Digital Collections
A midi files can be found at the site of Parlor Songs:
Parlor Songs — 1800s to 1920s
Harris himself helped co-write a comic parody of this song, inspired by the revelry of the Chicago World's Fair and the use there of "After the Ball" in the Sousa orchestra's concerts: "After the Fair" (which describes, in essence, a time of free-spending and good times followed by ... the opposite).
Also in 1893, two other songwriters put together a comedy song, "I'm the Man Who Wrote 'After the Ball'."
So many songs of the era were sad, sentimental story songs in waltz-time. One, however, is particularly close in spirit to "After the Ball": "Two Little Girls in Blue" (Charles Graham, 1893). In the latter, an uncle reminisces to his nephew how he parted from his sweetheart. (See Sigmund Spaeth, pp. 269-270.) "Two Little Girls in Blue," in turn, was the favorite song of Edith Day (I believe I am right in this, although I have lost the citation). When the songwriters for her starring vehicle, Irene (1919), wrote her solo for act one, they modeled their song after the old favorite and came up with a new hit: "Alice Blue Gown."
I first heard this song as part of the 1936 film version of Show Boat, followed by other movie, recording, and stage versions of that show.
I did not really learn it, however, until I realized its use in getting people singing during music outreaches. I first observed this in London, because the British so adopted the song that many probably consider it their own. I have not yet memorized the verses (even the first one leaves gaps in my memory near the end!), but I'm still in their trying!
I have heard a New Orleans jazz recording of "After the Ball," but otherwise it remains in the repertoire of singalongs (and sometimes of barbershop quartet singers) — and those who love Show Boat and (particularly since the DVD reissue) Lillian Russell!
The origins and background for "After the Ball" can be found in various sources, starting with the songwriter's autobiography:
Charles K. Harris. After the Ball. NY: Frank Maurice, 1926; p. 50; and passant.
Harris seems to be the main source for other historians:
Isaac Goldberg. Tin Pan Alley: A Chronicle of American Popular Music. New York: Frederick Ungar, , 1961;pp. 90-98; and passant.
Charles Hamm. Yesterdays: Popular Song in America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979; pp. 285-286; 297-300; and passant.
Sigmund Spaeth. A History of Popular Music in America. New York: Random House, , 1958; pp. 259-261; and passant.
Ian Whitcomb. After the Ball: Pop Music from Rag to Rock. New York: Limelight Edition, , 1986; 3-7; and passant.
More analytic approaches are offered by other writers:
Mark W. Booth. The Experience of Songs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981; pp. 159-172.
Booth's is the most extensive discussion of "After the Ball" and its connotations. I highly recommend it.
Jon Finson. The Voices That Are Gone: Themes in 19th-Century American Popular Song. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994; pp. 69-72; 153-154.
Nicholas E. Tawa. The Way to Tin Pan Alley: American Popular Song, 1866-1910. New York: Schirmer Books, 1990; various pages (see index).
Peter van der Merwe. Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press, , 1992; pp. 258-261 (discussing only a cadence in the verse).
These images can be found online at the various sheet music collections listed under "Find the song online."
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