Sounding Sentimental: American Popular Song From Nineteenth-Century Ballads to 1970's Soft Rock

Gale, Emily, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Will, Richard, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Gordon, Bonnie, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Deveaux, Scott, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia

My dissertation examines the relationship between American popular song and “sentimentality.” While eighteenth-century discussions of sentimentality took it as a positive attribute in which feelings, “refined or elevated,” motivated the actions or dispositions of people, later texts often describe it pejoratively, as an “indulgence in superficial emotion.” This has led an entire corpus of nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural production to be bracketed as “schmaltz” and derided as irrelevant by the academy.

Their critics notwithstanding, sentimental songs have remained at the forefront of popular music production in the United States, where, as my project demonstrates, they have provided some of the country’s most visible and challenging constructions of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and morality. My project recovers the centrality of sentimentalism to American popular music and culture and rethinks our understandings of the relationships between music and the public sphere. In doing so, I add the dimension of sound to the extant discourse of sentimentalism, explore a longer history of popular music in the United States than is typical of most narratives within popular music studies, and offer a critical examination of music that—though wildly successful in its own day—has been all but ignored by scholars.

As a whole, my dissertation takes a long view of sentimentality and music, but each chapter offers a close-reading of a particular moment in sentimental song history, including: sentimental ballads of the long nineteenth century; The National Barn Dance, an early radio show from Chicago; Mitch Miller’s 1960s television show Sing Along with Mitch; and 1970s soft rock. Engaging with literary criticism, histories of technology, feminist theory, and popular music historiography, I move across various media—print, radio, television, and recordings—in order to highlight the relationships between musical amateurs, listeners, and their publics. My project theorizes the idea of sentimental song in the United States over the last two centuries, not necessarily to argue “for” sentimentality, but rather to more fully consider sentimentality as a conspicuous and persistent strain in the history of American popular music and American culture.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
sentimentalism, sentimentality, popular song, mass culture, citizenship, National Barn Dance, Sing Along with Mitch, soft rock, Glee
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