Music by Gussie Lord Davis, lyrics by Arthur Trevelyan, 1896
What is a tenement? Who lived in tenements in the late 1800s and early 1900s?
Is this song a positive or negative portrayal of people who live in tenements? Or is it both?
Compare the portrayal of Kitty in "Down in Poverty Row" to Jeanie in "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," which is a song that portrays an older, traditional view of upper-class white femininity. What attributes of Jeanie does Kitty have?
What statement do you think the song is trying to make by portraying Kitty as possessing traditional characteristics of feminine propriety?
"Down In Poverty Row" performed by Dan W. Quinn. Available on YouTube.
Dan W. Quinn (1860–1938) was one of the first American singers to become popular in the new medium of recorded music. Quinn was a very successful recording artist whose career spanned 1892 to 1918. Quinn recorded many of his hits in the legendary Tin Pan Alley of New York City.
Gussie Lord Davis (1863–99) was refused admission to Nelson Musical College in Cincinnati, Ohio, because of his race, but the tenacious musician arranged to study privately while working as a janitor. His persistence paid off, for he went on to become the first African American to have widespread success in the Tin Pan Alley publishing business. He wrote over three hundred songs, including the immortal "Irene, Good Night."
"Down in Poverty Row," with lyrics by Arthur Trevelyan, was another one of his most successful songs. Little is known about the lyricist other than he was a prolific writer in the late 1890s and early 1900s and performed in London and New York. The sheet music mistakenly lists Trevelyan as composer and Davis as lyricist.
Typical of Tin Pan Alley songs of the 1890s, "Down in Poverty Row" is a waltz song, meaning it is in triple meter with an Oom-pah-pah accompaniment. It is about an admirable girl who lives in a tenement, a type of multi-family urban housing unit where many of the poorest families (including many immigrant families) crowded beginning in the late nineteenth century. While many songs from the era denigrate the inhabitants of tenements, this song sentimentalizes the main character, a sweet, pretty girl who cares for her parents and little brother.