Music Hall was a form of entertainment in Britain, similar to Vaudeville in America and to Cabaret in France and elsewhere in Europe. It arose initially in the mid-1800s from competition between public bars, who provided food and entertainment to attract and retain customers. Before long dedicated Music Halls were built with a stage at one end, but unlike traditional theatres the floor was filled with tables and chairs for the customers. The entertainment provided consisted mainly of singers and comedians, but included a wide range of variety acts and popular entertainment. Many singers and acts became very popular, essentially the pop stars and celebrities of the day, such that some stars became the main attraction. There was significant demand for new songs, and song-writers were busy meeting that demand. Music Hall Songs were in a sense the forerunner of "Pop Songs", a concept that emerged in the 1950s.
In the early 1800s there was a wide variety of venues for people to eat and drink and socialise. These catered for various classes of customer and might be known as cyder cellars, public houses, supper rooms, taverns, saloon bars and pleasure gardens. Typically these venues provided entertainment, possibly in a separate room requiring an admission fee outwith the main public area. Demand for the entertainment increased and various entrepreneurs spotted the business opportunity and converted or built custom music halls, to which they recruited popular artists from the various Song and Supper Bars. Charles Morton was one of those men and he built the Canterbury Music Hall in 1852 which could initially seat 700 people. The hall was later extended and other similar establishments were built in London and elsewhere.
The biggest Music Halls and some of the best known singers were London-based, and many well-known songs refer to London landmarks and culture. Some famous London venues included "The Eagle Tavern", "The Gaiety Theatre" in the Strand, "The London Pavilion" and "The Alhambra" in Leicester Square. The Eagle Tavern on City Road was frequented by Charles Dickens and immortalised in the song Pop Goes the Weasel whose lyrics mention "In and Out of the Eagle". Many songs originating at the time became strongly associated with London and particularly Cockney culture. Many such examples are of the "Knees Up" variety such as "Any Old Iron" and "Boiled Beef and Carrots" (both popularised by Harry Champion), and "Knees Up Mother Brown" which later became the Sherman Brothers' inspiration for "Step in Time" sung by the Chimney Sweeps in Mary Poppins. A number of songs include local slang words including Cockney Rhyming Slang. However the phenomenon of Music Hall was not just about London which had hundreds of halls, the concept was widespread across the UK with many regional Music Halls in all the major cities.
To take just one other region, the Music Hall style of entertainment was very popular in Scotland. Glasgow in particular with its denser population had a thriving music hall tradition. Comedian Stan Laurel was born in Scotland to a theatrical family, and started out in Music Hall before emigrating to the US. His first puplic appearance was at Glasgow's Britannia Music Hall (then called the "Panopticon") in 1906. Other entertainers sang songs with a Scottish theme both on their home turf but also in various locations across the world. Sir Harry Lauder (1870-1950) started out in Scottish and British theatres singing songs such as "Roamin' in the Gloamin'", "I Love a Lassie", "A Wee Deoch-an-Doris", and "Keep Right on to the End of the Road". His trademark costume consisted of a kilt, tweed jacket, "Tam o'shanter" hat and crooked walking-stick, which defined the popular international image of a Scotsman. Will Fyffe (1885-1947) may have been born in Dundee, but he also became an international star singing the song "I Belong To Glasgow". The Britannia Panopticon still holds events in Glasgow and calls itself "The World's Oldest Surviving Music Hall" since it opened in 1857 (see the Britannia Panopticon website).
The Musical aspect of Music Hall entertainment was a large and far-reaching business, and in many ways it was the forerunner of what we now call the Popular Music Business. The public-facing part of that business were the entertainers and singers themselves. They were the stars and celebrities of the era, with their pictures on posters, people saw them, read about them in the papers, they spread gossip about them, and they generally had a good income. Behind the scenes were the impresarios of Music Hall, often the owners of the music halls themselves or their managers and directors who contracted and organised the entertainment. Then there were the song-writers, composers and lyricists who created the material for the stars. Music Hall started before recording techniques were commonplace, so this was quite different from today's music business. However composers and song-writers made a respectable income from sheet music sales. Most middle class homes at the time had a piano and sheet music sales were much greater than today. Reflecting that, we have used a number of images of original period sheet music to illustrate this article.
Music Halls songs covered a huge variety of subjects, though those that have stayed popular tended to be based on timeless concepts with a memorable chorus where audiences could join in. Many were simple love songs, though sometimes with a twist or an endearing metaphor such as "The Honeysuckle and the Bee", "If you were the only girl in the world" or Daisy Bell with its "Bicycle Built for Two". Some memorable songs had a certain feel-good factor such as I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside which endured far beyond its music hall origins, or Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay with its suggestion of naughty Parisian night-life, and some such as Don't Dilly Dally on the Way told an engaging narrative but included a wealth of social commentary from the period. There were also humorous songs sung by comedians such as the Harry Champion, and songs with a degree of clever innuendo such as Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-Wow.
Of course Music Hall entertainment was heavily influenced by the events of World War I (and later by World War II). Some Music Hall songs were sung by soldiers in the forces, and conversely those songs sung by the troops were included in Music Hall acts. It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary was written in 1912 by Jack Judge (1872-1938) whose grandparents came from Tipperary in Ireland. The song became a favourite with the armed forces during the war, and remained popular in Music Halls for many years. Other war-time favourites included "Keep the Home-Fires Burning" composed in 1914 by Ivor Novello and Lena Gilbert Ford, and "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag" written by brothers George Henry and Felix Powell. Some of these same songs reappeared during World War II, but new songs were popularised by the singer Vera Lynn including "White Cliffs of Dover" and "We'll Meet Again". "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner" was written by Hubert Gregg (1914-2004) in response to the London bombings during WWII, and even the children's song "Run Rabbit Run" was subverted by Flanagan and Allen who changed the lyrics to "Run, Adolf".
This style of song, particularly "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag", seems to have inspired the theme song for TV's "Dad's Army". This series was set during World War II but since it was not about soldiers on the front but about the Home Guard who generally consisted of older men, an older more traditional style of song seemed appropriate. Thus series co-creator Jimmy Perry wrote the lyrics for "Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?" and composed the music with Derek Taverner. The theme song was recorded for the series by popular music hall entertainer Bud Flanagan (1896-1968) shortly before he died. The song was true to the war-time songs sung by Flanagan and Allen (Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen) who helped morale during WWII with songs such as "We're Going To Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line".
The concept of the Royal Variety Performance originated in the Music Hall era. It was initially called the Royal Command Performance, and it soon became an annual event with members of the Royal Family in attendance and the show raising funds for the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund. The first event was held in 1912 with King George V and Queen Mary in attendance at the Palace Theatre in London's West End. (The Palace Theatre had been converted from the failed Royal English Opera House 20 years earlier in 1892.) Although this is a traditional theatre (with all seating facing the stage) many of the artists performing were from a music hall tradition. The first show starred Vesta Tilley, Vesta Victoria, Harry Lauder, Gus Elen, Dan Leno and the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Notably absent was Marie Lloyd because the organisers considered her act to be too risqué for royalty. Instead she staged a rival show on the same night at a nearby theatre, billed as "By Command of the British Public".
There is little real difference between the style of entertainment at a Variety Show and the entertainment provided at Music Halls. Both are likely to feature several singers and comedians, with other performers including magicians, acrobats, dancers, male and female impersonators, ventriloquists, etc. with a master of ceremonies to introduce the acts to the audience. The only real difference between the two is the layout of the venue where the show is held. However, the concept of Variety (and the broader idea of "Light Entertainment") has lasted longer than Music Halls, perhaps because Variety translates more directly from the stage to television. Indeed TV variety shows were broadcast regularly in the latter half of the 20th century, and the Royal Variety Performance is still broadcast annually.
"The Muppet Show" is a TV show using the puppet techniques of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. In many ways the show looks back to the traditions of variety and vaudeville. The series is similar to a sketch show, but is full of songs with a lot of these performed on a stage. Statler and Waldorf are the two old men in the balcony who comment on the acts on stage. Their regular heckling is probably true to life in its portrayal of such variety shows. On the series Miss Piggy performed "Don't Dilly Dally on the Way", "Waiting at the Church" and "The Boy in the Gallery" accompanied by Rowlf on the piano, Fozzie Bear has sung (Wotcher) Knocked 'Em In The Old Kent Road dressed as a "Pearly King", and a guest puppet sang "Burlington Bertie from Bow", and many other actual or similarly-styled music hall songs have also been performed by various puppets. The Muppets also released a vinyl single called "The Muppet Show Music Hall" which included 4 music hall tracks from the series.
One particular show which celebrated the days of Music Hall was "The Good Old Days" which remained on television from 1953 to 1983. The show was presented by the actor Leonard Sachs who had helped to found the "Players' Theatre" in London, and "The Good Old Days" (held in Leeds) continued the same nostalgic tradition that had become popular at the theatre. Everything about the TV show aimed to recreate the sounds and sights of the music hall era. The entertainers wore period costume and so did the audience, since admittance was free to those dressed appropriately and people were eager to join in the spirit of the show. The acts were performed in a Victorian or Edwardian style, sometimes re-creating period acts, and many popular entertainers of the day appeared in the show including Arthur Askey, Rod Hull, Bruce Forsyth, Barry Cryer and Roy Castle. The show helped to introduce many original Music Hall songs to a new audience, with the closing song being "Down at the Old Bull and Bush". In addition to these period songs, the programme also featured a number of show tunes from musicals, particularly if these were close in style to the original songs. So audiences would hear songs like "We're a Couple of Swells" from Easter Parade, or songs from musicals with a London setting including "Half a Sixpence", "Oliver!", "Mary Poppins" or "My Fair Lady" with its Cockney favourite "Get Me To the Church on Time" sung by Stanley Holloway in both stage and film versions.
In the 20th century Music Hall started to decline. Although the World Wars changed the focus of Music Halls, the biggest change was competition from many other forms of entertainment. Music Halls had to compete with the Cinema, with Dance Halls and with Jazz Music, and later Radio and Television reduced audience numbers even further. By 1960 most Music Halls had closed their doors. However "Variety Shows" (essentially the same style of mixed entertainment) continued in theatres and on television. Many singers who started out in Music Halls made a successful transition into other media such as Radio and Television. Indeed for much of the 20th century there was regular cross-over of songs and artists between Music Hall/Vaudeville and stage & film musicals/shows and later with records, radio and television. Performers who started out in Music Hall include Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Arthur Askey, George Formby (with his ukelele) and Gracie Fields. All these artists and more had very successful careers beyond Music Hall.
Since it is set in the East End of London where Cockney traditions arose, the TV show "EastEnders" does from time to time use music hall songs if the series has a pub or party sing-song. Indeed the influence of Cockney Music Hall songs is particularly strong. We've already mentioned that "Knees Up Mother Brown" was the inspiration for Chimney Sweeps' "Step in Time" in Mary Poppins (1964). That song in turn was probably the model for "Me Ol' Bamboo" in another Sherman Brothers' musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The song "Flash, Bang, Wallop!" in the musical Half a Sixpence (1967) also seems to have a Cockney flavour to it. The song's lyrics "Stick it in your fam'ly album" echo the rhythm of the Cockney phrase "How's yer father? Al'right!" which is often sung to the instrumental section following the chorus of "Any Old Iron". The Cockney penchant for short rhythmic phrases was also used by the composer Quincy Jones in his music for the film The Italian Job (1969) with a smattering of Rhyming Slang. Incidentally the phrase "How's your Father?" was popularised by music-hall comedian Harry Tate (1872-1940).
Moving beyond East London, songs such as Daisy Bell and I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside are familiar to millions. Such songs have survived relatively unscathed, long after the tradition of Music Hall has died. In many ways these better known songs have become a form of traditional folk music known and recognised by lots of people. Children may learn the songs in school or from their parents, or hear them on television and films. Another enduring influence is the way that the songs of the music hall period have influenced later songwriters, both those involved in Music Theatre and those writing popular music. As already noted, many songs from musicals have adopted a similar style to these early songs. Paul McCartney's father was a Music Hall entertainer and many people have noted this influence in his songs such as "When I'm Sixty-Four". Chas & Dave were a popular duo recording many hit records in the 1970s and 80s, often in the Cockney style which had its origins in the music hall era, including the song "Rabbit" with its rhyming slang. Some pop acts have even recorded cover versions of Music Hall songs such as Herman Hermit's 1965 version of "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am", Davy Jones' pre-Monkees recording of "Any Old Iron", Blur's covers of "Daisy Bell" and Let's All Go Down the Strand and Bruce Springsteen singing The Flying Trapeze.
As the music business undergoes yet another revolution, it will be interesting to see how music hall traditions will last. The following sections provide a set of references about Music Hall, its Songs, its Songwriters and Singers, with links to Videos, DVDs, CDs, museums and other Websites.
Here is a small selection from the best known music hall songs. This first section with links to the songs, will take you to a dedicated page providing more detailed information about the song, and allow you to download the Piano/Vocal sheet music with lyrics, plus midi and mp3 files.
Here is a further selection of well-known music hall songs. We are unable to provide sheet music for these at the current time, but some of these are candidates to provide sheet music at a later date.
George Leybourne (1842-1884) used the stage name Joe Saunders before reverting back to his own name. He became famous singing "Champagne Charlie" and adopted the persona in real life, only drinking champagne in public. He could certainly afford this celebrity lifestyle, since he was sponsored by Moet and Chandon! He also wrote the lyrics for the song, with the music being composed by Alfred Lee. The song-writing pair also wrote the well-known The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (originally just "The Flying Trapeze") which was inspired by the real life trapeze artist Jules Léotard. Leybourne's arch-rival in the music halls was The Great Vance. They were sponsored at various times by rival drinks brands. Their rivalry was the subject of the 1944 film "Champagne Charlie" where Tommy Trinder played George Leybourne and Stanley Holloway played The Great Vance. Leybourne died at only 42.
Charles Coborn (1852-1945) was a London based Music Hall entertainer. His real name was Charles Whitton McCallum, and he initially used the stage name Charles Laurie before becoming Charles Coborn after a London street called Coborn Road. He wrote some songs himself having his first success with "Two Lovely Black Eyes" but hit the big-time singing Fred Gilbert's The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.
Bessie Bellwood (1856–1896) was one of the earliest female character performers from the Victorian Music Hall. She was born Kathleen Mahoney in Ireland, and initially sang Irish Ballads but on the Music Hall stage she soon developed the persona of a Cockney street-seller. With her famous repartee and ability to charm audiences and put down hecklers, this stage persona wasn't so far removed from her own larger than life personality. Her most famous song was "What Cheer Ria?" which she co-wrote with Will Herbert in 1885. It tells of a working class vegetable seller who uses her savings to buy an upper class ticket for the Music Hall. She was generous to charity, but poor at managing her own finances and facing bankrupcy, became an alcoholic and died at the age of 40. In the film "Champagne Charlie", Bessie Bellwoood was played by Betty Warren.
Albert Chevalier (1861-1923) was a popular Music Hall entertainer who on stage frequently adopted the persona of a "Coster". A Coster was London slang for a street-seller who sold fruit and vegetables, and in the photo you can see Albert Chevalier in his Cockney Coster costume with a basket of vegetables. For a time Albert was managed by his brother Charles Ingle (born Auguste Chevalier). The pair wrote two of Albert's most successful songs Knocked 'Em in the Old Kent Road and "My Old Dutch", both with lyrics by Albert Chevalier and music by Charles Ingle. "My Old Dutch" is Cockney slang for "My Wife" and the song's lyrics are an affectionate poem to Albert's own wife Florrie, who happened to be the daughter of Music Hall entertainer George Leybourne. "Knocked Them in the Old Kent Road" is famous for another Cockney phrase "Wot Cher!". Among Albert's other major hits was another alluding to marriage: "The Future Mrs. Hawkins".
Mark Sheridan (1864-1918), born Frederick Shaw, was a music hall comedian and singer. He generally appeared on stage wearing a coat, widely-flared trousers and a top hat. He had a number of songs in his repertoire including "Who were you with last night?", "Hello, hello, who's your Lady friend?" and the war-time song "Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser". His most popular song by far was I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside which he first performed in 1909 at the Empire Theatre in Glasgow.
Vesta Tilley (1864-1952) born Matilda Alice Powles, was a male impersonator who started performing in male clothes at the age of 5. Several of the songs she sang were composed by Harry B. Norris including "Burlington Bertie", "Seaside Girls" and "The Piccadilly Johnny With The Little Glass Eye" (also called "Algy"). Among other songs she sang were "Following in Father's Footsteps" and "All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor" (also called "Ship Ahoy!") which was first performed by another famous female impersonator, Hetty King. Tilley gave up performing on stage around 1920, in part because her husband went into politics and became an MP.
Lottie Collin (1865-1910) was a physically active entertainer from the very start of her stage career. At a young age she started out in Music Halls performing a skipping routine with her even younger sisters. Later as a solo singer she toured America for the first time and saw a performance of Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay (sometimes spelled "Boom-der-ay") at a Vaudeville show. She took the song back to Britain and it became a big hit for her, where she danced a high kicking Can-Can style dance with the chorus. She continued to perform in London and sometimes in the US and had other songs in her repertoire including "The Little Widow" and "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-wow", but never quite reaching the success (or the notoriety) of her Can-Can act.
Harry Champion (1865-1942) born William Henry Crump, was a singer and comedy entertainer from East London. At the peak of his music hall career he popularised a number of fondly remembered Cockney songs including "Boiled Beef and Carrots" (1909), "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am" (1910), "Any Old Iron" (1911) and "A Little Bit of Cucumber" (1915).
Marie Lloyd (1870-1922) made her first public appearance at The Eagle in 1885 at the age of 15. She became one of the most famous Music Hall entertainers singing songs such as "A Little Of What You Fancy Does You Good!" and "The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery", though her most famous songs were undoubtedly Don't Dilly Dally on the Way and "Oh! Mr Porter". Her performances were considered to be risque at the time, with lots of Double-Entendres, though it was probably aspects of her personal life (at the time she wasn't married to her long-term partner) which meant she wasn't invited to perform at the first Royal Variety Performance. She supported the war effort in a number of ways but now married, her relationship foundered and her health and voice suffered.
Harry Lauder (1870-1950) was a famous Scottish entertainer, born in Edinburgh and later knighted Sir Henry Lauder. His first London appearance was in 1900 and his fame spread internationally, resulting in several tours to Australia and the United States. He is reported to have been the highest paid entertainer of the day and later became the first British artist to sell more than a million records. He did much to support the armed forces during World War I, entertaining the troops and raising funds for charities supporting ex-servicemen. He wrote most of his own songs, and when his own son was killed in action during WWI he wrote "Keep Right on to the End of the Road". Other songs he wrote and performed included "Roamin' in the Gloamin'", "I Love a Lassie" and "A Wee Deoch-an-Doris".
Vesta Victoria (1873-1951) began as a child star appearing on stage with her father as "Baby Victoria" and later as "Little Victoria". She soon found fame when she started singing Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-wow! at the age of 19. She was a comic singer who adopted a Cockney persona on stage (although she came from Leeds) and her performance included some innuendo and comic situations where she seemed to lament various misfortunes. She had misfortunes in real life with marital relationships, but enjoyed much success in British Music Halls and in Vaudeville in the US singing songs such as "Waiting At The Church", "Now I Have To Call Him Father" and "Our Lodger's Such A Nice Young Man". Although she retired after WWI, she later recorded her hit songs and appeared in the Royal Variety Performance in 1932.
Billy Merson (1879–1947) was a music hall entertainer and songwriter. As a comedian he worked with George Formby senior, father of the ukelele playing singer, and in 1922 he starred in the the West End comedy musical "Whirled into Happiness". As a songwriter he wrote "The Photo of the Girl I Left Behind", "Desdemona" and "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life". This latter song was sung regularly by Al Jolson, and became the composer's best known song. Merson became one of the first chairmen who compered the music hall at the Players Theatre in London, and which later gave rise to the BBC TV show "The Good Old Days".
Fred Godfrey (1880-1953), born Llewellyn Williams in Swansea in Wales, was a prolific composer of songs for the music hall. In total he wrote some 800 songs, some by himself and many in collaboration with various lyricists and other songwriters. His most famous songs are "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty" and "Bless 'Em All" both originally written during World War I but enjoying later popularity when sung by artists such as Max Miller and George Formby. There is a website dedicated to the composer at Bless ’Em All: The Songs of Fred Godfrey, maintained by his Canadian based grandson Barry Norris.
Max Miller (1894-1963), born Thomas Henry Sargent, was a music hall and variety comedian often called the "Cheeky Chappie". His acts generally consisted of telling jokes and singing songs such as "My Old Mum", "Twin Sisters", "Mary from the Dairy" and "Let's Have A Ride On Your Bicycle". He wrote or co-wrote some of these songs himself and he featured in a number of films in the 1930s and the 1940s. There is a Max Miller Appreciation Society and a website dedicated to the comedian at www.maxmiller.org.
Noel Gay (1898-1954) was born Reginald Moxon Armitage and used the professional name Stanley Hill in addition to Noel Gay. He was musically gifted from a young age and studied at the Royal College of Music. He became famous as a songwriter for stage musicals and occasionally film. Although his best known musicals were mostly staged in the 1930s when Music Hall was in decline, his songs tapped into music hall traditions. Among his many songs are "There's Something About a Soldier", "We Don't Know Where We're Going", "Hey! Little Hen", "Who's Been Polishing the Sun?", "All Over the Place" and "All the King's Horses". His most famous musical was "Me and My Girl" in 1937 with lyrics by Douglas Furber (1885-1961) and including the songs "The Lambeth Walk", "Leaning on a Lamppost", "The Sun Has Got Its Hat On" and title song "Me and My Girl". The show was successfully revived in 1985.
For more information about Music Hall, the following programmes, DVDs, CDs and websites will be of interest:
There are many other museums, websites and resources that are too numerous to list, but an internet search will help to locate.
Here are some videos related to Music Hall which can be found on YouTube.
Music Hall itself had all but vanished when I was born, but it is impossible to escape the influence of Music Hall even if you are not conscious of it. I suspect that my mother never visited a Music Hall either, but she was familiar with many music hall songs. She sang them at home, and frequently taught me the choruses. We used to watch "The Good Old Days" on television and that was another opportunity to absorb the old songs. It's a fascinating and very big topic, but I've tried to provide a reasonably succinct summary with a focus on those songs that are most familiar to me, and to provide sheet music for those songs which are now in the public domain.