Here, before an audience, they can tell how much of a song they really have. They may have something that is a “winner,” and they may see that their first judgment was wrong—they may have only the first idea of a hit.
But let us suppose that the song is a “knock ’em off their seats” kind, that we may get down to the moral of this little narrative of actual happenings. The “pluggers” are called in and bidden to memorize the song. They spend the afternoon singing it over and over again—and then they go out at night and sing it in a dozen different places all over the city. On their reports and on what the “Boss” sees himself as he visits place after place, the decision is made to publish immediately or to work the song over again. It is the final test before an audience that determines the fate of any song. The new song may never be sung again, or tomorrow the whole city may be whistling it.
And now permit me to indicate a point that lies in the past of the song we have seen in process of manufacture: From somewhere the composer gets an idea for a melody—from somewhere the lyric writer gets an idea for a lyric.
But we must put the music of a song to one side and devote our attention to the lyric.
1. Sources of Ideas for Song Lyrics
As a popular song becomes popular because it fits into the life of the day and is the individual expression of the spirit of the moment, Charles K. Harris was doubtless right when he said:
“The biggest secret of success, according to my own system, is the following out in songs of ideas current in the national brain at the moment. My biggest song successes have always reflected the favorite emotion—if I may use the word—of the people of the day. How do I gauge this? Through the drama! The drama moves in irregular cycles, and changes in character according to the specific tastes of the public. The yearly mood of the nation is reflected by the drama and the theatrical entertainment of the year. At least, I figure it out this way, and compose my songs accordingly.
“Here are just two instances of my old successes built on this plan: When ‘The Old Homestead’ and ‘In Old Kentucky’ were playing to crowded houses, I wrote ‘’Midst the Green Fields of Virginia’ and ‘In the Hills of Old Carolina,’ and won. Then when Gillette’s war plays, ‘Held by the Enemy’ and ‘Secret Service’ caught the national eye, I caught the national ear with ’Just Break the News to Mother.’ But these are examples enough to show you how the system works.”
Irving Berlin said, “You can get a song idea from anywhere. I have studied the times and produced such songs as ‘In My Harem’ when the Greeks were fleeing from the Turks and the harem was a humorous topic in the daily newspapers. And I have got ideas from chance remarks of my friends. For instance: