- When Tin Pan Alley Sang “The Rosary”
Twentieth-century popular music before the era of rock-n-roll included many songs celebrating Irishness, yet contained very few overt references to Catholicism. The imagery that sparsely appeared in songs of this period portrays the same few symbols: chapels and shrines, church bells in faraway lands, and the rosary. The rosary was the most popular symbol used to reference Catholicism between 1898 and 1930, when least seventy songs using rosary as a central image were published in the United States. This surge of interest contrasts strikingly with the previous century, where one is hard-pressed to find any published rosary songs, secular or sacred, popular or artistic.1 Also strikingly, most of these are love songs, using the rosary as an analogy within romantic themes.
Examining these songs as a group reveals the efflorescence of rosary imagery that stemmed from the popularity of a single song published in 1898: “The Rosary” (words by Robert Cameron Rogers and music by Ethelbert Nevin). In response to its popularity, other composers created new music for the same poem. A decade later, when Florence Barclay featured the song in her best-selling novel, The Rosary, commercial songwriters incorporated references to the song itself into new, popular-style songs for the burgeoning sheet music industry—collectively known by the nickname “Tin Pan Alley.”2
Paradoxically, the rosary’s rise as an image of Catholicism in popular music did not exemplify Catholic songwriters expressing their faith in the medium of popular culture. The creators of the original song were not Catholic,3 most songwriters and [End Page 39] publishing firms involved were not Catholic, and the spinoff songs contain almost no Catholic theology. Instead, the story of Tin Pan Alley’s rosary songs is the story of early twentieth-century commercial practices carrying this Catholic image into mainstream consciousness though a matrix of associations within popular media. This journey took it far from its Catholic associations with prayers for Mary’s intercession and meditations on the mysteries of the life of Jesus.
This article will trace the rise in popularity of Rogers’ poem, Nevin’s song, and Barclay’s novel over a decade-and-a-half, explaining how they snowballed into cultural ubiquity by 1910. We will then see how Tin Pan Alley routinely incorporated pre-existent cultural materials into new songs, and show that many spinoff songs demonstrate clear borrowing from the Rogers-Nevin song and Barclay’s novel. The extent of the songs’ religious imagery is considered. Finally, we will look for a Catholic response to the phenomenon, and ask if these rosary songs can be called “Catholic.”
Robert Rogers’ “The Rosary”
Robert Cameron Rogers (1862–1912), an American poet-dilettante, was a Yale-educated man of letters whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. Although he attended Harvard law school for a while, he “never could apply himself to work of a continuous or routine nature and soon gave up any attempt to fit himself to follow the profession of law.”4 He was a local hero in his home town of Buffalo, New York, prominent in the literary Saturn Club and proposed for membership in the prominent New York club, The Century, by none other than Theodore Roosevelt. He is said to have looked down on the profession of poet, and to have had sufficient wealth not to need to develop any skill to a high degree. Largely forgotten today, in his lifetime his poetry won him considerable admiration; notably, the organizers of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo invited him to write the Dedicatory Ode for its opening in 1901.
Rogers published four volumes of poetry, debuting with The Wind in the Clearing and Other Poems (1894). Of his initial effort an anonymous New York Times reviewer wrote:
The verse that he has gathered into this slender little volume gives, certainly, very noble promise of the brightening dawn in our New World art. Exquisite, in the good sense of the word, some of his poems are, and, while others are less perfect, all are animated by a deep and manly sentiment, making pure joy in the mind. [End Page 40]