Study Guide

Old Mother Leary Technique

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  • Music

    "Old Mother Leary" was built on the music of a slightly older song, "A Hot Time in the Old Town." Whoever wrote the words for "Old Mother Leary" just dropped the older song's verses and borrowed the melody of the chorus, along with its tagline:

    When you hear dem a bells go ding, ling ling
    All join 'round and sweetly you must sing
    When the verse am through, in the chorus all join in,
    There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.

    Written by Theodore August Metz and Joseph Hayden, "A Hot Time in the Old Town" brought together two musical genres—one old and one new. Metz and Hayden were performers in the McIntyre and Heath Minstrels and part of a musical tradition that dated to the 1820s. Minstrel shows featured white performers in blackface who sang and danced in a style believed typical of African-American slaves. The racist parodies unfortunately remained popular in all parts of America into the 20th century, well after slavery was outlawed in the United States during the Civil War.

    While the Metz and Hayden song quickly became a minstrel show standard, it was composed along the more modern lines of ragtime music. Ragtime seems to have been developed by traveling piano performers in the South and Midwest. The center of the musical style was Missouri, and the most famous ragtime composer was Texas-born Scott Joplin. Ragtime attached an uneven, ragged rhythm to more traditional march music. The resulting up-tempo, syncopated music became especially popular during the 1890s; thousands of people heard the music for the first time at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

    Ragtime remained popular well into the 20th century, but during the 1920s, jazz replaced ragtime as America's favorite form of popular music.

  • Setting

    "Old Mother Leary" takes place in both a fictional and a historical setting, and the two are equally important. 

    Within the lyrics, a mischievous cow (owned by an assumed-to-be-mischievous Irish immigrant) knocks over a lamp and literally "kicks off" the Great Chicago Fire. The song implies that the either cow or the owner knows what is about to happen, as one of them—it's not clear which—winks and says, "There'll be a hot time in the old town, tonight." Cows don't usually go around winking and talking, and Irish immigrants don't usually go around setting entire cities on fire, but within the fun and flippant context of the song, it all makes sense.

    Physically, "Old Mother Leary" is set in Chicago, but Chicago in 1871 was a city with a unique history. The city was only a few decades old at that point, yet it was already the fifth largest in America. Founded in 1829, Chicago quickly grew as a transportation hub linking the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.

    Initially, the primary source of transportation was water; the Chicago River allowed boats to travel west from Lake Michigan into the interior, and with the completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal System in 1848, vessels could sail all the way from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and from there to the Mighty Mississippi. Within a decade, however, railroads had begun to replace the waterway as the region's primary source of transportation. With easier access to the large cities of the Northeast, Midwestern farmers expanded production in order to fill the lucrative markets, and East Coast importers and manufacturers flooded the Midwest via Chicago with consumer goods. By 1870, Chicago was a booming city; just a speck on the map in 1830, it now was home to close to 300,000 people.

    Yet the rapidity of the city's growth had a downside. The raw sewage that had earlier filled the streets was now channeled into aboveground pipes, but there was still an impermanent feel to the city. The soggy ground near the river could not support heavy brick buildings, so they were made from wood instead. Wood was also used for the construction of all of the poorer houses, and it was the material chosen for all of the sidewalks and many of the streets. An estimated 560 miles of wooden sidewalks linked the thousands of wooden buildings that made up Chicago. After a hot summer, these dry wooden structures snaked through the city like a giant fuse just waiting for the spark that would set them ablaze.

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