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After the Ball was the first American song to sell one million copies -- although, as it was published in 1892, the copies in question are sheet music. Regardless, it was the hottest hit of its day, and continued to make appearances in pop culture for decades after, from a cameo in Show Boat to covers by Nat King Cole and Guy Lombardo.

In the 1800s, sheet music was big business. In the 1820s the musical publishing industry started to develop properly, and in 1831 American law officially recognized works of music as copyrightable. Hits such as Skip to My Lou (1838) and Oh! Susanna (1848) started making enough money to make songwriting and publishing a viable career path, even for those who were not performers. These works were sold as sheet music, and upper and middle class Americans spent many an evening gathering around the piano to sing popular songs.

One of the stars of the 1890s music scene was Charles Harris, and songwriter who advertised "songs written to order", and who would work up pieces for public events from weddings and funerals to variety reviews. After the Ball was written for one of the latter -- a musical comedy in three acts called A Trip to Chinatown (1891). Chinatown was mostly written by Charles H. Hoyt, but during its two-year run it was common to insert various catchy tunes and see how the audience responded. While Hoyt included some popular tunes of his own, including the blockbuster The Bowery, once Harris' After the Ball was included in the performance it took over as the star of the show.

Sheet music sales of After the Ball totalled $5 million (which works out to something in the range of $130 million in today's money), and infused the popular culture. John Philip Sousa was enamoured of it, and played it daily in the Great Plaza of the 1893 World's Fair; in England the music hall star George Lashwood took it up as a standard. Meanwhile, a number of parody versions were in circulation, which no doubt helped keep it in the public ear, even if they did not increase sales directly.

As mentioned, this the first tune to surpass one million copies in sales, but that understates it a bit. Within one year it had sold two million copies, and eventually sold over five million... in sheet music sales alone. The total sales in all formats may be as high as ten million.

After the Ball is a slow, sad ballad, a song of lost love. It is a waltz in 3/4 time, and is perhaps a bit boring to modern ears. There are many versions available on-line (including an elderly Charles Harris singing it for the TV audience: YouTube). I believe that the lyrics are out of copyright, so if you'd like to sing along, here you go:


After the Ball

A little maiden climbed an old man's knee,
Begged for a story – "Do, Uncle, please.
Why are you single; why live alone?
Have you no babies; have you no home?"
"I had a sweetheart years, years ago;
Where she is now pet, you will soon know.
List to the story, I'll tell it all,
I believed her faithless after the ball."

Refrain
After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers' leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.
End refrain

Bright lights were flashing in the grand ballroom,
Softly the music playing sweet tunes.
There came my sweetheart, my love, my own –
"I wish some water; leave me alone."
When I returned dear there stood a man,
Kissing my sweetheart as lovers can.
Down fell the glass pet, broken, that's all,
Just as my heart was after the ball.

Repeat refrain

Long years have passed child, I've never wed.
True to my lost love though she is dead.
She tried to tell me, tried to explain;
I would not listen, pleadings were vain.
One day a letter came from that man,
He was her brother – the letter ran.
That's why I'm lonely, no home at all;
I broke her heart pet, after the ball.

Repeat refrain

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