The stereotypical saloon scene in most movies about the Wild West often features ragtime being played on a piano. However, ragtime only appeared at the very end of the century (the first known composition was published in 1896). What was played before that?

I'm mostly interested in the heyday of the "cowboy era", approximately late 1840's to the early 1880's, and piano music typically played in saloons, not songs sung around campfires (which one can find plenty of, if searching for "civil war era songs").

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    There are close votes on this question on the basis of its being about transcribing or finding a particular song. This is puzzling, as the question is not about that at all.
    – user48353
    Mar 29, 2019 at 21:33
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    @ToddWilcox : I'm not searching for either a single or for several particular songs. I'm searching for a genre, for a style. For example, if the question was about saloons in 1900, the answer would have been "ragtime". That's not a particular song.
    – vsz
    Mar 29, 2019 at 22:15
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    @ToddWilcox To me it reads like more of a music history question about style: what kind of music was played? This could be interesting to filmmakers or writers wanting authenticity, for example.
    – user48353
    Mar 29, 2019 at 22:15
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    Identifying genre of given music may be off topic, but identifying genre of unknown music? Unbelievable, I give up. Better luck elsewhere I guess vsz, interesting question.
    – user48353
    Mar 29, 2019 at 22:26
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    @ToddWilcox : Isn't the ban on identifying songs and identifying genres of particular songs to keep away low quality questions like "hey I heard a song which sounds like la-la-la-liiii-lala, what was it?", and "hey, what's this song in the background in this youtube video", and similar cases? What purpose would it serve to also ban questions about asking what styles were common in particular historical periods?
    – vsz
    Mar 29, 2019 at 22:33

1 Answer 1


Those pianist were probably not playing ragtime. They were more likely playing "parlor songs," which were the popular music of the time. Back then, popular songs were sold in the form of sheet music and were meant to be performed by amateurs in their homes, but vaudeville and minstrel performers would have been performing music from the same repertoire.

The most famous of these composers was Stephen Foster. Today, we often think of Foster's songs, like "Oh, Suzanna" and "Camptown Races," as campfire songs, but in fact they were pop songs of the day.

You can learn more about this genre by researching "parlor songs" or "parlour songs."

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