Styles & Forms | Music Hall | Popular & Novelty

During its golden years, music hall rivalled European cabaret and American vaudeville. But music hall performers were bawdier than their cabaret counterparts, indulging in more boisterous banter with audiences than their American cousins. It was singalong fun, sprinkled with lewd humour.

The term first entered common usage in 1848, when the Surrey Music Hall opened in London. It was followed over the next few decades by several other ornately designed venues, each capable of holding several hundred drinkers seated at tables. Musical entertainment was at first provided by the character singers who had become known in the taverns in and around London, and would take the eclectic form of ballads, black minstrel acts, extracts from popular operas and comedic routines.

Two Queens Of The Music Hall

Up until the 1880s, music hall was dominated by male performers, and the likes of Dan Leno and George Robey were top draws well into the twentieth century. But Leno and Robey were primarily comedians; the greatest British music hall singer was Marie Lloyd. A diminutive cockney extrovert who trod the boards from 1885 to 1922, Lloyd became known to her thousands of admirers as ‘The Queen of the Music Hall’, or simply ‘Our Marie’. While her cabaret counterparts like Yvette Guilbert railed against political injustice, she was content to employ her trademark repertoire of suggestive winks and gentle innuendo, and poke fun at the folk in the posh seats. Backed by a jaunty piano, she sang rousing, catchy numbers themed around the popular issues of the day. Many, like ‘The Cock Linnet Song’, better known as ‘My Old Man Said Follow The Van’, survive today as old-time favourites.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the English Channel, a more glamorous, cabaret-influenced version of music hall was thriving in the revues of Paris. The accent here was on theatrical style and elaborate costumes, and the master of both was Mistinguett. A spindly woman with much-adored legs and the instincts of a natural comedienne, ‘Le Miss’ made her debut in 1895 in the fabled surrounds of the Moulin Rouge and became a regular onstage partner of her fellow French star, Maurice Chevalier. Her wistful signature tune, ‘Mon Homme’ (‘My Man’), which she recorded in 1920, has become a standard for modern jazz and cabaret singers. This flamboyant scene was given a twenty-first-century spin in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.

The Mass-Media Age

Performing in France from the 1920s until the 1970s, the American-born Josephine Baker ensured that Mistinguett’s legacy did not die. But in Britain, the rise of radio and cinema ensured that live music hall was a fading force after the First World War. However, George Formby, whose father, George Formby Sr., had been one of the most successful music hall comedians of the Edwardian era, made the transition into the mass-media age with huge success. Formby’s unorthodox ukulele playing, allied to goofy humour and chirpy Lancastrian tones, made him a nationwide star...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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