Writing for Vaudeville (B)
by Brett Page

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter XXIII - Writing the Popular Song

In the preceding chapters we saw how the elements of a popular song are nearly identical in music and in lyrics, no matter how the styles of songs may differ. In this chapter we shall see how these elements may be combined–irrespective of styles–into a song that the boy on the street will whistle, and the hand organs grind out until you nearly go mad with the repetition of its rhythm.

Not only because it will be interesting, but because such an insight will help to a clear understanding of methods I shall ask you to glance into a popular song publisher’s professional department.


A very large room–an entire floor, usually–is divided into a reception room, where vaudeville and cabaret performers are waiting their turns to rehearse, and half-a-dozen little rooms, each containing a piano. As the walls of these rooms are never very thick, and often are mere partitions running only two-thirds of the way to the ceiling, the discord of conflicting songs is sometimes appalling. Every once in a while some performer comes to the manager of the department and insists on being rehearsed by the writers of the latest song-hit themselves. And as often as not the performer is informed that the writers are out. In reality, perhaps, they are working on a new song in a back room. Being especially privileged, let us go into that back room and watch them at work.

All there is in the room is a piano and a few chairs. One of the chairs has a broad arm, or there may be a tiny table or a desk. With this slender equipment two persons are working as though the salvation of the world depended on their efforts. One of them is at the piano and the other is frowning over a piece of paper covered with pencil marks.

Perhaps the composer had the original idea–a theme for a melody. Perhaps the lyric writer had one line–an idea for a song. It does not matter at all which had the idea originally, both are obsessed by it now.

“Play the chorus over, will you?” growls the writer. Obediently the composer pounds away, with the soft pedal on, and the writer sings his words so that the composer can hear them. There comes a line that doesn’t fit. “No good!” they say together.

“Can’t you change that bar?” inquires the writer.

“I’ll try,” says the composer. “Gimme the sheet.”

They prop it up on the piano and sing it together.

“Shut up!” says the composer. And the writer keeps still until the other has pounded the offending bar to fit.

Or perhaps the writer gets a new line that fits the music. “How’s this?” he cries with the intonation Columbus must have used when he discovered the new world.

“Punk!” comments the composer. “You can’t rhyme ’man’ with ’grand’ and get away with it these days.”

“Oh, all right,” grumbles the harassed song-poet, and changes both lines to a better rhyme. “I don’t like that part,” he gets back at the composer, “it sounds like ’Waiting at the Church.’”

“How’s this, then?” inquires the composer, changing two notes.

“Fine,” says the lyric writer, for the new variation has a hauntingly familiar sound, too elusive to label–is amazingly catchy.

For hours, perhaps, they go on in this way–changing a note here, a whole bar there, revising the lyric every few lines, substituting a better rhyme for a bad one, and building the whole song into a close-knit unity.

At last the song is in pretty good shape. As yet there is no second verse, but the “Boss” is called in and the boys sing him the new song. “Change ’dream’ to ’vision’–it sounds better,” he says; or he may have a dozen suggestions–perhaps he gives the song a new punch line. He does his part in building it up, and then the arranger is called in.

With a pad of manuscript music paper, and a flying pencil, he jots down the melody nearly as fast as the composer can pound it out on tne piano. “Get a ’lead-sheet’ ready as quick as you can, commands the Boss. “We’ll try it out tonight.”

“Right!” grunts the arranger, and rushes away to give the melody a touch here and there. As often as not, he comes back to tell the composer how little that worthy knows about music and to demand that a note be changed or a whole bar recast to make it easier to play, but at last he appears with a “lead-sheet"–a mere suggestion of the song to be played, with all the discretion the pianist commands–and the composer, the lyric writer and the “Boss” go across the street to some cabaret and try out the new song.

Here, before an audience, they can tell how much of a song they really have. They may have something that is a “winner,” and they may see that their first judgment was wrong–they may have only the first idea of a hit.

But let us suppose that the song is a “knock ’em off their seats" kind, that we may get down to the moral of this little narrative of actual happenings. The “pluggers” are called in and bidden to memorize the song. They spend the afternoon singing it over and over again–and then they go out at night and sing it in a dozen different places all over the city. On their reports and on what the “Boss” sees himself as he visits place after place, the decision is made to publish immediately or to work the song over again. It is the final test before an audience that determines the fate of any song. The new song may never be sung again, or tomorrow the whole city may be whistling it.

And now permit me to indicate a point that lies in the past of the song we have seen in process of manufacture: From somewhere the composer gets an idea for a melody–from somewhere the lyric writer gets an idea for a lyric.

But we must put the music of a song to one side and devote our attention to the lyric.


1. Sources of Ideas for Song Lyrics

As a popular song becomes popular because it fits into the life of the day and is the individual expression of the spirit of the moment, Charles K. Harris was doubtless right when he said:

“The biggest secret of success, according to my own system, is the following out in songs of ideas current in the national brain at the moment. My biggest song successes have always reflected the favorite emotion–if I may use the word–of the people of the day. How do I gauge this? Through the drama! The drama moves in irregular cycles, and changes in character according to the specific tastes of the public. The yearly mood of the nation is reflected by the drama and the theatrical entertainment of the year. At least, I figure it out this way, and compose my songs accordingly.

“Here are just two instances of my old successes built on this plan: When ’The Old Homestead’ and ’In Old Kentucky’ were playing to crowded houses, I wrote ’’Midst the Green Fields of Virginia’ and ’In the Hills of Old Carolina,’ and won. Then when Gillette’s war plays, ’Held by the Enemy’ and ’Secret Service’ caught the national eye, I caught the national ear with ’Just Break the News to Mother.’ But these are examples enough to show you how the system works.”

Irving Berlin said, “You can get a song idea from anywhere. I have studied the times and produced such songs as ’In My Harem’ when the Greeks were fleeing from the Turks and the harem was a humorous topic in the daily newspapers. And I have got ideas from chance remarks of my friends. For instance:

“I wrote ’My Wife’s Gone to the Country’ from the remark made to me by a friend when I asked him what time he was going home. ’I don’t have to go home,’ he said, ’my wife’s gone to the country.’ It struck me as a great idea for a title for a song, but I needed a note of jubilation, so I added ’Hooray, Hooray!’ The song almost wrote itself. I had the chorus done in a few minutes, then I dug into the verse, and it was finished in a few hours.”

L. Wolfe Gilbert wrote “Robert E. Lee” from the “picture lines" in one of his older songs, “Mammy’s Shuffiing Dance” and a good old-fashioned argument that he and I had about the famous old Mississippi steamboat. That night when I came back to the office we shared, Gilbert read me his lyric. From the first the original novelty of the song was apparent, and in a few days the country was whistling the levee dance of ’Daddy’ and ’Mammy,’ and ’Ephram’ and ’Sammy,’ as they waited for the Robert E. Lee. Had Gilbert ever seen a levee? No–but out of his genius grew a song that sold into the millions.

“Most of our songs come from imagination,” said Joe McCarthy. “A song-writer’s mind is ever alert for something new. What might pass as a casual remark to an outsider, might be a great idea to a writer. For instance, a very dear young lady friend might have said, ’You made me love you–I didn’t want to do it.’ Of course no young lady friend said that to me–I just imagined it. And then I went right on and imagined what that young lady would have said if she had followed that line of thought to a climax.”

“It’s the chance remark that counts a lot to the lyric writer," said Ballard MacDonald. “You might say something that you would forget the next minute–while I might seize that phrase and work over it until I had made it a lyric.”

But, however the original idea comes–whether it creeps up in a chance remark of a friend, or the national mood of the moment is carefully appraised and expressed, or seized “out of the air,” let us suppose you have an idea, and are ready to write your song. The very first thing you do, nine chances out of ten, is to follow the usual method of song-writers:

2. Write Your Chorus First

The popular song is only as good as its chorus. For whistling purposes there might just as well be no verses at all. But of course you must have a first verse to set your scene and lead up to your chorus, and a second verse to finish your effect and give you the opportunity to pound your chorus home. Therefore you begin to write your chorus around your big idea.

This idea is expressed in one line–your title, your catchy line, your “idea line,” if you like–and if you will turn to the verses of the songs reproduced in these chapters you will be able to determine about what percentage of times the idea line is used to introduce the chorus. But do not rest content with this examination; carry your investigation to all the songs on your piano. Establish for yourself, by this laboratory method, how often the idea line is used as a chorus introduction.

Whether your idea line is used to introduce your chorus or not, it is usually wise to end your chorus with it. Most choruses–but not all, as “Put on your Old Grey Bonnet,” would suggest–end with the idea line, on the theory that the emphatic spots in any form of writing are at the beginning and the end–and of these the more emphatic is the end. Therefore, you must now concentrate your chorus to bring in that idea line as the very last line.

3. Make the Chorus Convey Emotion

As we saw in the previous chapter, a lyric is a set of verses that conveys emotion. The purpose of the first verse is to lead up to the emotion–which the chorus expresses. While, as I shall demonstrate later, a story may be proper to the verses, a story is rarely told in the chorus. I mean, of course, a story conveyed by pure narrative, for emotion may convey a story by sheer lyrical effect. Narrative is what you must strive to forget in a chorus–in your chorus you must convey emotion swiftly–that is, with a punch.

While it is impossible for anyone to tell you how to convey emotion, one can point out one of the inherent qualities of emotional speech.

4. Convey Emotion by Broad Strokes

When a man rushes through the corridors of a doomed liner he does not stop to say, “The ship has struck an iceberg–or has been torpedoed–and is sinking, you’d better get dressed quickly and get on deck and jump into the boats.” He hasn’t time. He cries, “The ship’s sinking! To the boats!”

This is precisely the way the song-writer conveys his effect. He not only cuts out the “thes” and the “ands” and the “ofs” and “its" and “perhapses"–he shaves his very thoughts down–as the lyrics printed in these chapters so plainly show–until even logic of construction seems engulfed by the flood of emotion. Pare down your sentences until you convey the dramatic meaning of your deep emotion, not by a logical sequence of sentences, but by revealing flashes.

5. Put Your Punch in Clear Words Near the End

And now you must centre all your thoughts on your punch lines. Punch lines, as we saw, are sometimes the entire point of a song–they are what makes a “popular” lyric get over the footlights when a performer sings the song and they are the big factor–together with the music punches–that make a song popular. However lyrical you have been in the beginning of your chorus, you must now summon all your lyrical ability to your aid to write these, the fate-deciding lines.

But note that emotion, however condensed the words may be that express it, must not be so condensed that it is incoherent. You must make your punch lines as clear in words as though you were drawing a diagram to explain a problem in geometry. The effect you must secure is that of revealing clearness.

Be very careful not to anticipate your punch lines. For instance, if Mr. Gilbert had used “All day I sigh, all night I cry,” before “I’d sigh for, I’d cry for, sweet dreams forever” in his “My Little Dream Girl,” the whole effect would have been lost. As your punch lines must be the most attractive lines, keep them new and fresh, by excluding from the rest of your song anything like them.

If you can put your punch in the very last lines, fine. If you wish to put your punch lines just before the last two lines–in the third and fourth lines from the last–well and good. But it is never wise to put your punch so far from the end that your audience will forget it before you finish and expect something more. It is a good rule to write your punch lines and then end your song.

Having constructed your chorus from a beginning that uses or does not use your idea line, and having by broad strokes that convey emotion developed it into your punch lines, you end your chorus, usually, but not invariably, with your idea line–your title line.

Now you are ready to write your first verse.

6. Make the First Verse the Introduction of the Chorus

If you have characters in your song, introduce them instantly. If you are drawing a picture of a scene, locate it in your first line. If your song is written in the first person–the “you and I" kind–you must still establish your location and your “you and I" characters at once. If you keep in mind all the time you are writing that your first verse is merely an introduction, you will not be likely to drag it out.

(a) Write in impersonal mood–that is, make your song such that it does not matter whether a man or a woman sings it. Thus you will not restrict the wide use of your song. Anyone and everyone can sing it on the stage. Furthermore, it will be apt to sell more readily.

(b) “Tell a complete story” is a rule that is sometimes laid down for popular song-writers. But it depends entirely upon what kind of song you are writing whether it is necessary to tell a story or not. “A story is not necessary,” Berlin says, and an examination of the lyrics in the preceding chapter, and all the lyrics on your piano, will bear him out in this assertion.

All you need remember is that your song must express emotion in a catchy way. If you can do this best by telling a story, compress your narrative into your verses, making your chorus entirely emotional.

(c) “Make your verses short” seems to be the law of the popular song today. In other years it was the custom to write long verses and short choruses. Today the reverse seems to be the fashion. But whether you decide on a short verse or a long verse–and reference to the latest songs will show you what is best for you to write–you must use as few words as possible to begin your story and–with all the information necessary to carry over the points of your chorus–to lead it up to the joining lines.

7. Make Your Second Verse Round Out the Story

You have introduced your chorus in your first verse, and the chorus has conveyed the emotion to which the first verse gave the setting. Now in your second verse round out the story so that the repetition of the chorus may complete the total effect of your song.

More than upon either the first verse or the chorus, unity of effect depends upon the second verse. In it you must keep to the key of emotion expressed in the chorus and to the general trend of feeling of the first verse. If your first verse tells a love-story of two characters, it is sometimes well to change the relations of the characters in the second verse and make the repetition of the chorus come as an answer. But, whatever you make of your second verse, you must not give it a different story. Don’t attempt to do more than round out your first-verse story to a satisfying conclusion, of which the chorus is the completing end.

And now we have come to

8. The Punch Lines in the Verses

Toward the end of each verse it is customary to place punch lines which are strong enough pictorially to sum up the contents of the verse and round it out into the chorus. In humorous songs, these punch lines are often used as the very last lines, and the first line of the chorus is depended on to develop the snicker into a laugh, which is made to grow into a roar with the punch lines of the chorus. In other words, there are in every song three places where punch lines must be used. The most important is toward the end of the chorus, and the other places are toward the end of the verses.

9. Don’ts for Verse Last-Lines

Don’t end your lines with words that are hard to enunciate–there are dozens of them, of which are “met,” and most of the dental sounds. Experience alone can teach you what to avoid. But it may be said that precisely the same reason that dictates the use of open vowels on rising notes, dictates that open sounds are safest with which to end lines, because the last notes of a song are often rising notes. This applies with emphatic force, also, to your chorus. Never use such unrhetorical and laugh-provoking lines as the grotesquely familiar “and then to him I did say.”

Don’t always feel that it is necessary to tell the audience “here is the chorus.” Imagination is common to all, and the chorus is predicted by the turn of thought and the “coming to it” feeling of the melody.


Having gone over your verses and made sure that you have punch lines that rise out of the narrative effect into revealing flashes, and are completed and punched home by the punch lines of the chorus, and having made sure that your lyrics as a whole are the best you can write, you must give thought to the music.

1. The “One Finger Composer’s” Aid

If you are the sort of modern minstrel who has tunes buzzing in his head, it is likely that you will have composed a melody to fit your lyrics. The chances are that you know only enough about music to play the piano rather indifferently. Or, you may be an accomplished pianist without possessing a knowledge of harmony sufficient to admit of your setting down your melody in the form of a good piano score. But even if you are only able to play the piano with one finger, you need not despair. There are dozens of well-known popular song composers who are little better off. You may do precisely what they do–you can call to your aid an arranger. This is the first moral I shall draw from the true story with which this chapter begins.

As the composer played over his melody for the arranger to take down in musical notes, you may sing, whistle or play your melody on the piano with one finger, for the arranger to take down your song. All you need give him is the bare outline of your melody. At best it will be but a forecasting shadow of what he will make out of it. From it he will make you a “lead-sheet,” the first record of your melody. Then, if you desire, he will arrange your melody into a piano part, precisely identical in form with any copy of a song you have seen. With this piano version–into which the words have been carefully written in their proper places–you may seek your publisher.

For taking down the melody and making an “ink lead-sheet,” the arranger will charge you from one to two dollars. For a piano copy he will charge you anywhere from three to ten dollars–the average price is about five dollars.

2. Be Sure Your Words and Music Fit Exactly

Here we may draw the second moral from the little scene we witnessed in the song publisher’s room–this is the big lesson of that scene. In a word, successful song-writers consider a song not as a lyric and a melody, but as a composite of both. A successful song is a perfect fusing of both. The melody writer is not averse to having his melody changed, if by changing it a better song can be made. And the successful lyric writer is only too glad to change his words, if a hit can be produced. With the one end in view, they go over their song time after time and change lyrics and melody with ruthless hands until a whistle-making unity rises clear and haunting.

This is what you must now do with your song. You must bend all your energies to making it a perfect blend of words and music–a unity so compressed and so compactly lyrical that to take one little note or one little word away would ruin the total effect.

This is why

3. Purchasing Music for a Song is Seldom Advisable

If you are invited to purchase music for a new song, it is the part of wisdom to refuse–because only in very rare instances has a successful song been the result of such a method. The reason is perfectly plain, when you consider that the composer who offers you a melody for a cash price is interested only in the small lump sum he receives. You are his market. He does not care anything about the market the music must make for itself, first with a publisher and then with the public.

Therefore, no matter how willing a composer may appear to change his melody to fit your song, scan his proposition with a cynical eye. On the surface he will make the music fit, but he would be wasting his time if he worked over your lyric and his music to the extent that a composer who is paid by the ultimate success of a song would have to labor.

It is very much better to take your chances with even an inferior melody maker who is as much interested as you are in a final success. And when you have found a composer, do not quibble about changing your words to fit his music. And don’t fear to ask him to change his melody, wherever constant work on the song proves that a change is necessary. It is only by ceaselessly working over both words and melody that a song is turned into a national whistle.


[1] The matter under this section would seem to be an integral part of the following Chapter, “Manuscripts and Markets,” but it is included in this chapter because some of the points require a discussion too expansive for the general treatment employed in describing the handling of other stage material.

You have written your lyrics, and you have fashioned your melody, or you have found a composer who is anxious to make his melody fit your lyrics so perfectly that they have been fused into a unity so complete that it seems all you have to do to start everybody whistling it is to find a publisher. And so you set about the task.

1. Private Publication Seldom Profitable

While it is perfectly true that there have been many songs that have paid handsome profits from private publication, it is more nearly exact to believe that private publication never pays. Printers and song publishers who make a business of this private trade will often lure the novice by citing the many famous songs “published by their writers.” Whenever you see such an advertisement, or whenever such an argument is used in a sales talk, dig right down to the facts of the case. Nine chances out of ten, you will find that the writers are successful popular song publishers–it is their business to write for their own market. Furthermore–and this is the crux of the matter–they have a carefully maintained sales force and an intricate outlet for all their product, which would take years for a “private publisher” to build up. Really, you cannot expect to make any money by private publication, even at the low cost of song-printing these days–unless you are willing to devote all your energies to pushing your song. And even then, the song must be exceptional to win against the better organized competition.

2. Avoid the “Song Poem” Advertiser

It is never my desire to condemn a class even though a majority of that class may be worthy of reproach. Therefore, instead of inveighing against the “song-poem” fakir with sounding periods of denunciation, permit me to state the facts in this way:

The advertisers for song-poems may be divided into two classes. In the first class are publishers who publish songs privately for individuals who have enough money to indulge a desire to see their songs in print. The writer may not intend his song for public sale. He wishes to have it printed so that he may give copies to his friends and thus satisfy his pride by their plaudits. It is to these song-writers that the honest “private publisher” offers a convenient and often cheap opportunity. His dealings are perfectly honest and fair, because he simply acts as a printer, and not as a publisher, for he does not offer to do more than he can perform.

The second class of song-poem advertisers lure writers by all sorts of glowing promises. They tell you how such and such a song made thousands of dollars for its writer. They offer to furnish music to fit your lyrics. They will supply lyrics to fit your music. They will print your song and push it to success. They will do anything at all–for a fee! And I have heard the most pitiful tales imaginable of high hopes at the beginning and bitter disappointment at the end, from poor people who could ill afford the money lost.

These “publishers” are not fair–they are not honest. They make their living from broken promises, and pocket the change with a grin over their own cleverness. Why these men cannot perform what they promise is perfectly plain in the light of all that has been said about the popular song. It does not need repetition here. If you wish to publish your song privately for distribution among your friends, seek the best and cheapest song printer you can find. But if you hope to make your fortune through publication for which you must pay–in which the publisher has nothing to lose and everything to win–take care! At least consider the proposition as a long shot with the odds against you–then choose the fairest publisher you can find.

3. How to Seek a Market for Your Song

But let us hope that you are the sort of song-writer who is anxious to test his ability against the best. You do not care to have your song published unless it wins publication on its merits–and unless you can be reasonably sure of making some money out of it. You aspire to have your song bear the imprint of one of the publishers whose song-hits are well known. To find the names and addresses of such publishers you have only to turn over the music on your piano. There is no need to print individual names here.

But a few words of direction as to the way you should approach your market may be helpful. I quote here the composite opinion of all the well-known song publishers with whom I have talked:

“To find a great song in the manuscripts that come through the mail–is a dream. It is rare that the mail brings one worthy of publication. If I were a song-writer I should not submit my song through the mails. Of course, if I were far from the big markets I should be compelled to. But if I were anywhere near the market I should go right to the publisher and demonstrate the song to him.

“You see, I must be convinced that a song is a winner before I’ll gamble my money on its publication. And the only way I can be easily convinced is to be compelled to listen to the song. Naturally, being a song publisher, I think I know a hit when I hear it–I may ’kid’ myself into believing I can pick winners, but I can be made to see the possibilities by actual demonstration, where I might ’pass a song up’ in manuscript.”

Therefore, it would seem wise to offer a song through the mails only when a personal visit and demonstration are impossible. You need not copyright your song, if you send it to a reputable publisher. All you need do is to submit it with a short letter, offering it on the usual royalty basis, and enclose stamps for return, if it is not available. From two to four weeks is the usual time required for consideration.

If you are near a song publisher, the very best thing you can do is to fortify yourself with unassailable faith in your song and then make the publisher listen to you. If you have a song that shows any promise at all, the chances are that you will come out of the door an hour later with a contract.


Chapter XX - Putting Together the One-Act Musical Comedy With Hints on Making the Burlesque Tab  •  Chapter XXI - The Musical Elements of the Popular Song  •  Chapter XXII - The Elements of a Successful Lyric  •  Chapter XXIII - Writing the Popular Song  •  Chapter XXIV - Manuscripts and Markets  •  Chapter XXV - How a Vaudeville Act is Booked  •  Appendix - Nine Famous Vaudeville Acts Complete  •  Glossary