Before radio, television, and the internet, one of the most important ways Americans shared their interest in the newest fads was to sing about them at the family piano. Sheet music publishing, centred in New York City’s “Tin Pan Alley”, generated a constant stream of easy-to-sing songs on the eternal issues of love and loss and news and events in the early 20th century. While we remember songs linked to significant historical events, such as George Cohan’s “Over There”, written to rally support for America’s entry into the First World War, hundreds of songs written about now obscure events have left little trace in history.
One of these events was the first incarnation of ride-sharing, known as the Jitney Bus, which occurred with the introduction of the personal automobile in the 1910s. Dozens of songs were written, telling funny stories of the new idea of ride-sharing, but they have since faded from memory. Remembering these songs demonstrates parallels between the social function of sheet music in the early 20th century and modern social media, as well as how ideas and memes are recycled for humour.
The Jitney bus
The jitney bus was an unexpected consequence of Henry Ford creating the first mass-produced and affordable car. The production of the Model T coincided with the rapid growth of cities in the United States which overwhelmed the trolley lines used for public transportation. New car owners jumped at the opportunity to pick up waiting trolly passengers and offer them a ride in their new car for 5 cents (or a “Jitney” in the slang of the time). Before safety legislation could catch up with the automobile, riders would stand on the running boards of the Model T—overcrowded jitneys became a common sight in America’s urban landscape before the First World War.
Tin pan alley as social media
Hand-in-hand with the traditions of stage shows (such as vaudeville) and the newest sound recording technology in the early 20th century, sheet music was a dominant entertainment presence in American households. Many of them have become standard love songs constantly performed and re-recorded, such as Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and its many revisions from Frank Sinatra to Willie Nelson. But just as many, if not more, were written to cash in on specific events or trends—such as Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight or the first transcontinental telephone line; these songs are rarely heard today.
The introduction of automobiles in the early 20th century created a flood of new songs, one of the most famous being “In My Merry Oldsmobile”, written in 1903. Almost ninety songs cite Henry Ford and his cars in the lyrics published during his lifetime. His cars were the subject of songs with titles such as “It’s a Rambling Flivver” and “You’re a Good Car, but You Can’t Climb Hills”.
Jitney bus songs, 1915-1917
Of all these songs about Ford and his cars, over 30 are related to the jitney bus. They reflect the traditions of Tin Pan Alley songs of the time: simple melodies in a verse/chorus structure with clever texts that use slang and wordplay (as in the word “Jitney” itself).
The Jitney Bus songs usually tell a funny story in which the car plays a central role—whether it’s a chance for you and your lover to take a ride for only a dime, a chance to ride in a car for the first time in your life, or a chance for everyone to make money, even (shockingly for 1915) women. Some songs state that the Jitney Bus took passengers away from the street car companies (as in “Mister Whitney’s Little Jitney Bus”).
Byron Gay and Charley Brown’s song, “Gasoline Gus and his Jitney Bus”, is a typical example of these songs. The alternative name “Gasoline Gus” was also used in a comic strip and later a movie. The song was presented as a funny story on the newest fad in the country. The cover signals the song’s humour with an extravagant cartoon of an overcrowded Jitney bus. The lyrics tell the story of Gus, who buys a jitney and then proceeds to pack the bus with as many people as possible and to fuel the car with dynamite and gin.
The recording on Victor 17838 adds to the novelty humour with car horns and other effects. While funny at the time, the lyrics make almost no sense today. Instead, it reuses the humour and ideas of when they were written. This is precisely what today’s social media does as we revise and resend memes and GIFs that make funny comments on what is happening now.
Tin Pan Alley songs were a way to share feelings and impressions of contemporary events at the moment they were happening. Singing these songs was a way to share experiences and ideas with like-minded friends and participate in the newest social trends. This maps directly exactly onto the role of contemporary social media.
In this way, early twentieth-century sheet music and early twenty-first-century social media share many of the same functions of advertising an individual’s personal story in many ways—by repeating tropes, memes, and parodies. However, today’s social media humour may seem as entirely incomprehensible to people one hundred years from now as Jitney Bus songs seem to us now.
Balensuela, C. M. (2023). Singing a New Technology of Car Riding: Jitney-Bus Songs, 1915-1917. Popular Music and Society, 46(2), 117-133. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2023.2182963