Choosing the right name is a difficult task- at least it is for me.
As a child, the internal debate over what to name our dog forced me to look for outside opinions to finally make a decision.
More recently, it took the threat of an extra night in the hospital to force my husband and I to decide on our son’s middle name. (Who knew they wouldn’t let us leave until his full name was on all of the paperwork?)
While naming fictional characters is not quite as high stakes- you never need to worry about whether your protagonist’s name will sound goofy when you call it across your backyard, or if playground teasing will find a way to rhyme it with anything unfortunate- it’s still a headache.
This is why, as I’ve been slogging through my first NaNoWriMo project, I was delighted to find a name for one main character that not only helped me develop her personality, but ALSO gave me a new historical tidbit to share with you.
Initially, my main female character’s name was Jane. She’d always been called “Janie” by friends and family, but had decided to leave the nickname behind. Then, as I was writing her story, another character started singing a song at her that I’d learned snatches of from my grandma: “I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair.”
This greatly annoyed my character, so much so that I had to incorporate it into the story. Her name morphed to “Jean,” and her backstory expanded…
Before I got too excited and upped that wordcount, I stopped myself. I had to research. Would using this particular song fit in the time period well enough to make it worthwhile?
The answer was more interesting than I’d anticipated.
“I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” was penned in 1854 by Stephen Foster, though the spelling of the name of the lady in the title has changed several times over the years. Some have speculated that Foster was actually penning it to his estranged wife, Jane Denny McDowell, who was nicknamed Jennie.
From what I could find, the song neither won Jane’s heart back, nor earned its composer much money. However, 87 years later, it would become one of the most played songs on the radio.
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (or ASCAP) was responsible for enforcing copyright laws during the early part of the 1900s, making sure that singers were paid when their songs were performed.
This was fairly simple to monitor when these songs were being performed live. However, once radio stations began playing recordings of songs it became trickier to track what songs were played when and by whom.
The ASCAP’s solution was to charge radio stations an annual fee for playing their artists’ music. This formula worked (more or less) during the 30’s, but in 1940 ASCAP tripled its fee.
The radio industry responded by boycotting all songs represented by the ASCAP.
Of course, for radio to function they still needed to find something to play. “Hillbilly” songs, songs from different ethnicities, and older songs that were under public domain were dusted off and filled the airwaves.
As you’ve likely guessed, one of these was “I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair.” In fact, “Jeannie” visited the radio so often during these early days of WW2 that one Time Magazine writer reportedly quipped that Jeannie’s hair must have turned from light brown to gray.*
As a result of its popularity, (or at least availability,) this song has been sung by many, including a certain famous duck.
However, John McCormack’s 1934 more tuneful recording is probably more representative of the songs that would have graced the 1941 airwaves.
Happy listening, and many thanks for visiting!
Writers- how does music inspire your writing? Have songs given you titles, character names, inspiration for scenes?
Note: My information for this article came from the following sources. The reference to the Time Magazine joke was found in the two marked with an *.