Music Hall Traditions







Jules Leotard – The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze! (1838-1870)


Music Hall – a dead entertainment or a living tradition?

More often than not, when you introduce the idea of singing a Music Hall song to a young person, you are met with some resistance. It’s unfamiliar territory, maybe considered old-fashioned and the songs too simplistic. Students of Music Theatre are required to sing songs pre-1900 as part of their exams, so it is a subject worth exploring.

With the right introduction, it is clear that much of what we consider entertainment today was fathered in the Victorian Music Hall and the tastes of modern audiences are not too dissimilar to those of the Victorians.

Watching shows like Britain’s Got Talent and other popular entertainment, we see stand-up comedians with a heavy leaning towards social satire, hire-wire gymnasts, performing animals, magicians, male and female impersonators or ‘drag’ artists, mime artists, jugglers, ventriloquists, escapologists….. not to mention our fascination with strong men and women, super star sportsmen, professional wrestling, all presented with lavish stage effects, eccentric and over-the-top costumes. All of this was there in the Music Hall theatres so popular with the Victorians.

Above all they loved a good song, often the sole property of one beloved star singer, who would top the bill and raise the audience’s spirits with a good familiar chorus and sing-a-long.

Famous artists toured the country with their own signature songs – Florrie Ford ( She’s a Lassie from Lancashire, Oh I do like to be beside the sea-side, Down at the old Bull and Bush), Vesta Victoria (Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow, Waiting at the church), Marie Lloyd (My old man said follow the van, The Boy I love is up in the gallery, Oh Mr Porter), George Leybourne (Champagne Charlie), Charlie Coborn (The Man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo) and numerous others.

The Music Halls created a demand for new and catchy popular songs and professional writers were kept busy providing a variety of numbers, mostly comical, often cockney, cheeky, often telling a story poking fun at society figures.

Music Hall in London had its origins in entertainment provided in the saloon bars of public houses during the 1830s. The most famous London saloon of the early days was the Grecian Saloon, established in 1825, at The Eagle (a former tea-garden), 2 Shepherdess Walk, off the City Road in East London. It is still famous because of an English nursery rhyme, with the somewhat mysterious lyrics:

Up and down the City Road
In and out The Eagle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel.

This saloon ‘song and supper’ entertainment, initially popular with the working class, became increasingly popular throughout society, so much so, that during the 1850s, the public houses were demolished and music hall theatres developed in their place. These theatres were designed chiefly so people could consume food and alcohol and smoke tobacco in the auditorium while the entertainment took place. This differed somewhat from the conventional type of theatre, which until then seated the audience in stalls with a separate bar-room.

By the end of the century, London boasted several hundred music halls and there was at least one in most towns and cities throughout the country.

Interesting fact:
• Jules Leotard was a famous trapeze artist who inspired one of George Leybourne’s popular numbers – the Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze: (and incidentally gave his name to the all-in-one suit now used by dancers and athletes)
‘He flies through the air with the greatest of ease, that daring young man on the flying trapeze….’

• Music hall had a profound influence on The Beatles through Paul McCartney, who was himself the son of a Music Hall performer (Jim McCartney, who led Jim Mac’s Jazz Band). Many of McCartney’s songs are indistinguishable from Music Hall except in their instrumentation.
“When I’m Sixty-Four” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” “Oobladee, oobladah”

• Despite the fact that many Music Hall buildings were bombed in the war and/or later demolished, there is now a renewed interest in preserving them. You can see one of the original Music Halls, Wilton’s Music Hall, now restored and functioning as an arts and entertainment centre in Tower Hamlets.

Around 1950, the popularity of Music Hall seemed to have waned, but strangely, certain songs hung on. Amateur companies kept the tradition alive. Music Hall lived on in the BBC series The Good Old Days, Variety shows and period drama. Nowadays it’s quite common to hear these old songs popping up in pub sing-a-longs or other community entertainments .

I would guess they are here to stay!

Guest Blog by Marion Shuster
BA hons (Cambridge) LRSM

Marion Shuster has been teaching music, conducting and performing locally for over 30 years. She currently has two choirs based in East Grinstead, the Greenstede Singers and Choirpower, as well as a busy teaching schedule.


praise-for-childWhen I was young I remember at school that praise was something I very rarely got from my teachers. In fact I would say I was educated in a fairly negative fashion where teachers focused mainly upon mistakes and not upon success. There is a definite idea in some people’s mind that praising children is somehow bad. You could almost say it’s prevalent in certain people’s thinking. They will tell you that children need to somehow learn about the ‘real’ world. Well do they? Won’t that happen soon enough? I wonder if these same people would be happy to work in a company where they were constantly criticised by their boss and very rarely complimented. Continue reading

New Year – New Goals

make-goalsNew Year resolutions apart, it is often really productive to start the new term by agreeing some goals or targets with your child.

I’m not just speaking of academic targets that you, as a parent, would like to see achieved. That may well be part of the process but, more importantly, it is a chance to find out how your child feels about various subjects, where uncertainties or insecurities may lie and even, perhaps, some ambitions of which you are totally unaware.

It never ceases to amaze me what a really young child can come up with and what a light, guided conversation can reveal. The conversation should never be heavy – just something along the lines of ‘I was wondering if there was something you’d like to have as a goal, something you’d like to improve or get better at this year (or term)? Maybe something you’re already really brilliant at but you’d like to do even better or something that is a bit of a problem?’ The wording would depend on the child and on your relationship. But steer clear of statements like ‘Well! We’re going to sort out ALL your times tables so you know them all perfectly!’ Continue reading

Cut To The Chase

detectiveAny action movie has a good chase, usually towards the end. This has filtered into the language as an instruction to stop wordy explanation and get to the meat of the problem.

Writers should probably stick the words up as a big notice on their office wall! The most common structural problem writers face – amateurs and pros alike – is getting bogged down in too much explanatory or repetitive prose or dialogue with no action.

Thus, cut to the chase in writing means GET TO THE ACTION! Continue reading

Christmas Carols

singing-carolsFor many people, singing Christmas songs and carols is their favourite part of Christmas. It is a wonderful way of connecting with centuries of musical history and a great opportunity for a family sing-song.

Some carol facts…

The term ‘carol’ has its roots in an old medieval French word ‘carole’. One thousand years ago this was a lively dance in a ring with people singing, often with one person leading and the rest of the singers answering. One of our most popular carols has come down to us in this form, with its questions and answers and dancing rhythms –

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three?…
Our saviour Christ and his lady…
And whither sailed those ships all three?…
O they sailed into Bethlehem… Continue reading

It’s All About Kindness

christmas-shepherdsIt’s about that time of year when our thoughts turn to Christmas and goodwill to all men. It’s also a favourite time of year for most children for obvious reasons. Traditionally we also seem to relax a little, cut the kids a bit more slack and generally try to be nicer to each other.

I would like to suggest that we also take some time to consider the whole idea of kindness. We might think of kindness as being generous of spirit, being good to another, supporting and nurturing them. Often people have this strange idea that children need to be taught some harsh lessons about the reality of life. You often hear, for example, that life is unkind and that kids should learn that sooner rather than later. Continue reading

Kitchen Timer Homework

robotThis week we had a real crisis on our hands with a grandson in tears and parents completely ‘losing it’ over undone homework on a Sunday night! I was called in to have a chat with a very upset young man.

To sum up – too much homework: why did he have to do it all the time and especially on Sunday, one day before he was back at school again?

One of the main problems – the daily diary! Far from getting done on a daily basis, this (in his view) pointless activity all happened late Sunday afternoon when he couldn’t think or care about a single thing to write. Continue reading

Emotional Impact

emotion-in-storyIn the last of this series comparing writing with the work of a theatre director, let us look at emotional impact. What does this mean? Essentially, it is involving the reader in the character’s story and allowing them to experience that person’s emotional life.

When you tell a story from within your main character’s head, and tell it moment by moment, that is exactly what you are doing. You invite the reader to see with the person’s eyes, hear with his ears and share his reactions. The reader then identifies closely with that character and the story becomes his for the duration. Continue reading

Music and Fireworks

amazing-fireworksHandel’s Fireworks Music, performed at his Grace the Duke of Richmond at Whitehall and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749. A hand-coloured etching.

As the dark nights draw in, our thoughts go to celebrating Bonfire Night and its attendant fireworks.

The familiar explosions of light and sound that go along with bonfires and firework displays have inspired many generations of musicians and artists since the first bonfires were lit around London in the months following the discovery of the infamous gunpowder plot in 1605. We are all familiar with the story – barrels of gunpowder waiting to be lit under the House of Lords, the capture of Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters, King James I and Parliament rescued from a constitutional disaster. Continue reading

Walk A Mile In Their Shoes

walking-shoesI am not sure whether or not, now that we are adults, we pause to consider what it was once like when we were a child. As a teacher or parent our expectations of children are often at odds with each other. In the first instance we don’t want them to grow up too fast because we want them to ‘enjoy their childhood’. But in the second instance we want them to buy into adult values and codes of conduct.

The world of a child is very different to ours in the way they view it. A story I once read concerned a child who was accused of stealing some coins but from his point of view he had seen the shiny coin as symbol of his mother’s heart and he wanted to keep her heart close to him. The adults applying their codes of conduct punished him for stealing but to the child a great injustice had been done to him. Continue reading