What does music research look like? This is the sixth post in a series that highlights music research by students in a Baylor School of Music class taught by Dr. Laurel Zeiss, a recipient of the 2022 Special Collections Teaching Fellowship. These students worked beyond traditional research and learned how to engage with primary sources in the Baylor Libraries’ Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Sheet Music. Enjoy exploring this unique collection through our new scholars’ works.
I Don’t Care for Life on Broadway, But My Grandma Does by Cheston and Watts
by Mariah Montgomery
Parlor songs, particularly those written by nineteenth-century songwriters like Stephen Foster, were often meant for entertainment in the home. Many of these popular songs were composed to be played by an amateur and convey widely held beliefs, so many people were tempted to buy the sheet music. “I Don’t Care for Life on Broadway, But My Grandma Does!” by Al Cheston and Jack Watts is a prime example of the qualities of popular songs in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Published in 1926, “I Don’t Care for Life on Broadway, But My Grandma Does!” carries a simple tune about how someone’s grandmother is a flapper in the Roaring Twenties. This tongue-in-cheek song conveys a nostalgia for womanhood before World War I. Depicting a 69-year-old woman partying in Manhattan, Jack Watts communicates the frivolousness, promiscuousness, and silliness of the then-modern woman. The grandmother in this song is described as wearing dresses that were each “a flimsy thing,” and flappers are described as having “no age.” These silly descriptions make the listener imagine an older woman acting as a young girl, thus creating the idea that flappers do not act appropriately. Especially because, according to Neal R. O’Hara, a flapper is “the demi-dame who is too young to marry and too old to believe in Santa.”
Also, the juxtaposition of the depicted grandmother and the narrator’s dislike of the “Broadway life” emphasizes the lyricist’s distaste for the progressing world and the culture of the roaring twenties. This progression is clearly seen in the shift in stage music towards tunes with syncopated rhythms and sophistication in lyrics and composition. The transition in culture from “simpler times” and the transition in stage music from “simple tunes” was met with much opposition from the middle and upper classes.
Furthermore, “I Don’t Care for Life on Broadway, But My Grandma Does!” shares many musical similarities to other parlor songs during its time. The song is in strophic form, and the line “I Don’t Care for Life on Broadway, But My Grandma Does!” repeats in between every verse. The song also possesses a simple accompaniment and a vocal line in a narrow range. The musical simplicity of the piece signifies that it was meant for amateur musicians and used for at home entertainment.
Many other parlor songs were written with a sense of nostalgia during this time. Going back to simpler times, before the cultural shock of World War I, was a popular sentiment in the United States in the early twentieth century. Thus, sheet music that conveyed this yearning for simpler times was very marketable. Subjects such as how a woman should work in the home and the dangers of alcohol were rampant in these tunes. The ideas portrayed in the parlor songs reinforced the beliefs held in middle to upper class households. This is a stark opposition to the notion that music simply reflects culture. Instead, based on our study of popular music written in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, music reflects and influences culture.
- Rosenberg, Jennifer. “What Were Flappers like in the Roaring Twenties?” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 25 Mar. 2020, https://www.thoughtco.com/flappers-in-the-roaring-twenties-1779240.
- “The History of Broadway in the 1920s.” The History of Broadway in the 1920s, http://www.1920s-fashion-and-music.com/history-of-broadway-new-york.html.
- National Endowment for the Humanities. “The Evening World. [Volume] (New York, N.Y.) 1887-1931, April 20, 1920, Final Edition, Image 21.” News about Chronicling America RSS, [Publisher Not Identified], https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030193/1920-04-20/ed-1/seq-21/#words=british%20flapper+modern%20girl+flapper%20style+jazz+bob%20haircut.
- Smith, Roger. “1920: The Year Broadway Learned to Syncopate.” The Syncopated Times, 11 Dec. 2020, https://syncopatedtimes.com/1920-the-year-broadway-learned-to-syncopate/.
- Forney, Kristine, et al. The Enjoyment of Music. W. W. Norton & Company, 2022.