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Overview:
During the pre-Civil War decades, a musical hierarchy gradually arose in the United States that persists today. A divide began to appear between classical music—music regarded as serious, refined, and morally uplifting—and popular (or what scholars call "vernacular") music, which was simply entertaining.

Classical music was said to be edifying: The objective of New York's Philharmonic Society, formed in 1842, was to "improve musical taste, and gratify those already acquainted with classical musical compositions, by performing the Grand Symphonies and Overtures of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Spohr, Mendelssohn, and other great Masters…." Interestingly, opera—which early in the nineteenth century was regarded as a light and amusing spectacle--was one of the last musical forms to be regarded as fashionable, elite entertainment.

The second quarter of the nineteenth century brought a greater range of music to the United States. Immigrants, music professionals, and touring European companies played a crucial role in broadening American music. Italian opera was first performed in the United States in New York City in 1825. Much of the most influential music of the pre-Civil War era came from the "margins" of society: from enslaved African Americans, frontier women and men, immigrants, and laborers. Immigrant and ethnic groups played a crucial role in expanding American music. Irish immigrants not only brought folk ballads and dance tunes to the United States, but also a note of sentimentality and nostalgia that characterized much of the popular music of the era. An 1841 benefit for a Catholic orphanage marked the first time that Mozart's Magic Flute was performed in the United States.

During the pre-Civil War era, minstrel songs and sentimental ballads dominated American popular music. These were supplemented by a wide variety of hymns, spirituals, work songs, campaign songs, reform songs, and folk songs.The biggest factors contributing to the burgeoning musical marketplace were commercialization and professionalization. Theaters, concert saloons, dance halls, and variety halls provided commercial venues for music. Brass bands flourished from about 1834 to the end of the Civil War.

The first uniquely American entertainment form, the minstrel show provided comedy, music, dance, and novelty acts to audiences hungry for entertainment. Offering humor that ranged from comedy skits to slapstick and one liners often mocking pompous politicians and pretentious professionals the minstrel shows also introduced many of America's most enduring popular songs, including ``Turkey in the Straw'' and ``Dixie.''

Minstrel shows popularized the songs of Stephen Foster (1826 1864), the most popular American composer of the mid nineteenth century. Foster wrote more than 200 songs during his lifetime, mainly sentimental ballads and love songs (such as ``Old Folks at Home,'' ``My Old Kentucky Home,'' and ``Beautiful Dreamer'') and uptempo, rhythmic comic songs (such as ``Camptown Races'' and ``Oh! Susanna''). He died at the age of 37 in the paupers' wing of New York's Bellevue Hospital, with just 37 cents in his pocket.

Reflecting the racism of the broader society, minstrel shows presented a denigrating portrayal of black Americans. Racial stereotypes were the minstrel shows' stock in trade. Actors wore grotesque makeup, spoke in ludicrious dialects, and presented plantation life in a highly romanticized manner. Minstrel shows also offered a critique of class inequities, using black-faced characters to disparage the rich and powerful.

Alongside the minstrel songs were sentimental, often melancholy parlor songs dealing with such themes as homesickness, separation from loved ones, and hopes for reunion in an afterlife. Such songs often strike listeners today as maudlin and overly emotional. But such songs spoke directly to a society in the thralls of disruptive social changes, including the rapid growth of cities and industrial patterns of life and mass immigration.

America (My Country Tis of Thee)
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America (My Country Tis of Thee)
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Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean
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Home, Sweet Home
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Massa's in the Cold, Cold Ground
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Medley: Irish Jigs
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Medley: Irish Songs, 1
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Medley: Irish Songs, 2
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Medley: Plantation Songs
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My Old Kentucky Home
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My Old Kentucky Home
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Nearer My God to Thee
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Oh! Susanna
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Old Black Joe
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Old Black Joe
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Old Folks at Home
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Old Folks at Home
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Rock of Ages
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Rock of Ages
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Rock of Ages
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Turkey in the Straw
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