In Concert

Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham – quirky, practical, historical, contemporary

Back to the (start of the) 80’s again — August 25, 2021

Back to the (start of the) 80’s again

A while back, we had a look at a random selection of song sheets from the early 1980s, Back to the (start of the) 80’s . In honour of Birmingham’s Gay Village and their ‘Back to the 80’s night’, here’s another, possibly even more random selection from the first half of the decade. Which songs do you know, or even remember from the first time around?

For all the Music Library mostly stopped buying single song sheets in the 1980’s, we still have an intriguing, though limited selection. Let’s start with this one:

Brian May & Queen  Save me  (publ. 1980)

Queen - Save me
Queen – Save me

The Game was Queen’s eighth studio album and is described either as ‘disco’ influenced, or when they turned towards pop rather than rock. The Wikipedia article quotes some responses to its original release. You’re left wondering whether they’re talking about the same music. Continue reading

Revisiting ‘King Kong’, the African jazz opera — June 2, 2021

Revisiting ‘King Kong’, the African jazz opera

A small, battered volume appeared on my desk one day with the title of King Kong – the  African jazz opera. As it was a title completely unknown to me, I went exploring. What I discovered is an eye-opening slice of South Africa’s cultural history.

King Kong the African jazz opera
Front cover of our volume

King Kong?

Not the gorilla of Hollywood fame, but rather a then well-known, Johannesburg African boxer of the 1950s, Ezekiel Dlamini, who liked to call himself ‘King Kong’. The volume we have is the text of the play used for a musical based on his life and times. There is a fascinating introductory essay by Harry Bloom , the author and an active journalist at the time. Part of his description of Dlamini pulls no punches:

He was a popular idol in the townships, yet he was a bully and a braggart who would thrash a man for giving an odd look or smiling at the wrong moment.

Continue reading

‘Look here’ – songs by Leon Rosselson — August 20, 2020

‘Look here’ – songs by Leon Rosselson

For the first time in ages, I’ve had the chance to choose something from our shelves as the basis for a post. The Library of Birmingham is gradually coming back to life. While it’s been great exploring all kinds of other musical topics, what our stock has to offer remains the backbone of this blog. (Information about the current services Birmingham’s libraries offer may be found on the library catalogue page.)

As is often the case, what I’ve chosen comes from our Folk section. It’s also led me on another fascinating journey. Continue reading

Rebel guy – songs and lyrics of Joe Hill — January 9, 2020

Rebel guy – songs and lyrics of Joe Hill

A slim, battered volume in our folk section caught my eye recently. This interest ramped up when I read the following down the long edge of the front cover:

Originally published on the 40th anniversary of his murder at the hands of the authorities on November 19, 1915.

OK… that was the hook. So who exactly was Joe Hill? And why did he merit publication by the radical American folk imprint, Oak Publications? Read on to discover what I found. Continue reading

‘The Colliers’ Rant’ and other miners’ ballads — November 9, 2019

‘The Colliers’ Rant’ and other miners’ ballads

The nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution in the UK was fuelled by coal; lots of it. The work was hard, dangerous, required very long hours, and prior to 1842, could involve the whole family.  Health and safety was far from the minds of those demanding the constant production of coal: no safety equipment, hardly any light, little ventilation or heat regulation, and the ever-present danger from the build-up of gases.

[Images courtesy of the National Coal Mining Museum. Clicking on the images will enlarge them.]

Continue reading

Shopping for music at M&S — October 15, 2019

Shopping for music at M&S

Here in the UK, Marks and Spencer has been part of the high street for well over a hundred years. Institutions have to change to survive though. Nowadays M&S is associated with food, clothing, home wares, and financial services. Back at the start of the twentieth century, the M&S Original Penny Bazaars (both market stalls and shops) sold haberdashery (small scale sewing requirements) and household items. So no food or clothing at all, and everything was a penny (1d).

[Click on an image to enlarge it.]

Another item the original shops sold was sheet music. Continue reading

‘Birmingham Sunday’ – songs of protest from the ‘other’ Birmingham — July 25, 2019

‘Birmingham Sunday’ – songs of protest from the ‘other’ Birmingham

The success of the civil rights movement in the US resulted in many changes during the 1960s. One aspect of the protest took its form in music – songs which both documented abuse and discrimination, and gave voice to demands and hope. It’s far too large a subject for one post, so I decided as a start, to focus on songs associated with Birmingham, Alabama taken from a book in our stock.

Carawan  Freedom is a constant struggle  (publ. 1968)

Freedom is a constant struggle
The front cover

Continue reading

Fly me to the moon! — July 17, 2019

Fly me to the moon!

I wonder how many posts and articles will bear this title over the next week or so? No surprise really, given how jaw-dropping it must have been to see humans walking on the surface of the Moon fifty years ago. I’m too young to remember it as it happened, but most people on Earth have probably seen the blurry, extraordinary footage at one time or another.

In celebration, I did a quick trawl through our songsheet collection. The moon features a lot in songs, either as itself or as moonlight. Here’s my selection. Continue reading

Summertime — June 27, 2019

Summertime

Yes, summer is here, although I couldn’t help wondering where it was hiding this morning when I came to work in torrential rain. Or maybe that’s an expected part of summer in the UK? Anyway, a quick trawl through our song sheet collections produced a slew of songs from the movies with ‘summer’ in the title.

Gershwin and Heyward  Summertime (from Porgy and Bess) (publ. 1959)

Summertime - front cover
The front cover – based on the film publicity poster

To me, Porgy and Bess is an opera. Yet looking around, I quickly learnt it was first a novel, then a stage play. Gershwin took it on as an opera, and finally there was a push to make it into a film. It had a troubled gestation. One unsuccessful bidder for the rights (Harry Cohn) wanted to perform it in blackface. The Gershwin estate was determined that the cast should be African-American but that too had its problems. The story line of drugs, sexual violence, prostitution, and murder set in early twentieth-century South Carolina was problematical. Continue reading

The Cottager’s Complaint: history in song — May 30, 2019

The Cottager’s Complaint: history in song

Single-sheet ballads (of the sort that rolled off presses all over the country) are fascinating. Over the centuries, people have written songs on all sorts of subjects – many commenting on the pressing issues of the time. They appear to be one way of getting a grievance out there, to solicit public support for a cause, or to celebrate something significant.

An earlier post, The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song  looked at some local offerings through the lens of Michael Raven. This time, Roy Palmer is my guide.

Palmer  A Ballad history of England (publ. 1979)

Palmer  A ballad history of England
A different way of looking at England’s history

Our song sheet collections comprise publications aimed at a middle-class clientele, particularly so for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They (mostly) have a composer’s name on them and usually also one of a reputable publisher. This contrasts with ballad production: the words come from the people, with no one person attributed. The tunes are those already around, and the ballad sheets were sold on the street.

Continue reading

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