Harry Coughlan, ‘Slum Girl’ Song

by Harry Coughlan

For my Independent Study I choose to write and record a song taken from an imaginary Music Hall production titled ‘Classless Society’. The rationale behind writing and performing a song, as a mock primary source from the Victorian era, was the fact that the Music Hall became such a prominent pastime in the nineteenth century. Although we should be aware, as Susie Steinbach notes that “Historians disagree about who went to Music Halls. We once assumed that they were the exclusive province of boisterous working class men. However careful research has revealed that during the music hall’s heyday, between 1850 and 1890 audiences were actually quite mixed.”[1] Moreover historian, William Weber, describes what happened to music as a, ‘cultural explosion’, and that, ‘no other cultural area experienced so remarkable a history’.[3] As a result my song could be understood to be classless; performed for both the middle and working class.

In the nineteenth century, songs often portrayed conditions and problems of an industrial and urbanised society and the hierarchical class structure of Victorian Britain which was the resulted from industrialisation and urbanisation.[2] The title of the song is ‘Slum Girl’. The title chosen because it reflects the titles of songs written in the Victorian period which portray romantic feelings for someone and love at first sight; examples of this are songs titled, ‘The Cigar Girl[4]’ and, ‘My London Gal’.[5] The song depicts a story of two people who would be lovers if thy were not from very different backgrounds. The first two verses and first chorus of the song depict an upper class man walking down the street, only to notice a young slum girl on the corner of the street. Despite her appearance, clad in torn clothes and a muddy face he instantly falls for her expressing the emotions he feels but instantly worrying about what people would think about the fact that he is part of the upper class and she is merely a beggar. The third and fourth verses and the final chorus focus on the female beggar and how she feels as the upper class man hands money over to her. She also feels this connection with the gentleman, leading her to describe how she, unknowingly, feels the same way as he does. Although she does worry about the class divide like the man, she is not as concerned about how people will feel about them but more about herself and how a man of such stature would never fall for someone so much lower than him. This song highlights the class divide which was so prominent in Victorian Britain; theatre was arguably attempting to challenge these class divides.

There was a lot to consider when writing a song for a Victorian theatre production; for instance what instruments were used or prominent in Victorian Britain? What was the music styling of the era? What types of theatre productions were popular in the Victorian era? Although in Victorian Britain the most common and prominent instrument played in these theatres was the piano, I was not able to get a pianist to play on the song and had to use a guitar instead. It should be noted, however, that he guitar was still popular and the chord progression and rhythmic pattern is written in the same way as it would have been played on the piano.

According to Dorak ‘Music in the Victorian Era is synonymous with the music of the Romantic Era.’[6] This was one reason which inspired me to write a song centred around two people falling in love. Nineteenth-century Britain was widely known for its classical music and from 1825 a romantic style of music began to thrive. With this change in music came more freedom in form and design of songs, this produced songs with greater emotion and with this created more intense personnel expressions. Imagination became a key factor in song writing and theatre production. A new characteristic was formed during this period along with the romanticising of music, and that was songs portraying a story, where there is a recurring theme and drama is created.[7] This is evident in the song that I have written as love is the recurring theme throughout the song and drama is created through the class divide.

Comedy was a heavily used tool in a lot of theatre productions during the era, filled with coincidences and usually the characters being puppets of fate. Productions based on love, which this song is taken from, would usually have some sort of obstacle, usually that one is too rich or poor to be with the other. Also, subtle innuendo was commonly used in this period and in my my song there are a few play on word’s such as in the lyrics, ‘For a man to sweep me up and have that special dance’ and, ‘She looked at me and smiled and so I pulled out my reader’. Victorian slang was a vital part of this song as it shows more authenticity and makes it more believable as a primary source. There are different styles of slang used in this song matching the class of the person singing it. For instance the slum girl uses such words as ‘gegor’ (meaning beggar) and ‘don’ (distinguished) which were terms more commonly used by the lower classes in Victorian Britain.

Songs such as the imaginary ‘Slum Girl’ were vital as primary sources supporting our knowledge and understanding of society and conditions of the time. The aim was to write and produce a song which as a primary source with a connection to Music Hall songs. Taking inspiration from the time, my song was an attempt was to create a connection with the past through humour but with a serious overtone and romance.

[1] Steinbach, S, L (2012). Understanding the Victorians; Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Oxon: Routledge. P.191

[3] quoted in Gunn, S (2007). The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Class: Ritual and authority in the English industrial city 1840-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p135-136.

[4] Written and composed by Stanley Sands & Vincent Davies.

[5] Written and composed by John P. Harrington and Sam Mayo.

[6] Dorak, M. T. Romantic (Period) Music. 03 Apr 2006. 28 Oct 2007.

[7] Dorak, M. T. Romantic (Period) Music. 03 Apr 2006. 28 Oct 2007.

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