In Concert

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

Hard-hit People: Songs of the American Great Depression — May 17, 2018

Hard-hit People: Songs of the American Great Depression

If like me, you’ve read any of the Depression era novels by John Steinbeck, you can’t but remember the poverty, the difficulty of obtaining employment, and the world which his characters inhabit. This was the time of the ‘dust bowl’ environmental disaster which affected the marginal Southern Plains area of the United States (parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle), and also the resulting mass migration of people to California in search of jobs.

What I’m going to be looking at this time, is a collection of songs from the era, collected by Alan Lomax and others.

Hard-hittings Songs for Hard-hit People ed. by Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (publ. 1967)

Hard-hitting songs for Hard-hit people
The front cover

It’s a substantial book, containing numerous songs, their context, and a selection of sobering photos. The bulk of its content was ready for publication in the 1940s, but it took twenty years for it to be published. In fact, John Steinbeck provided the foreword for this collection. Here’s a sample: Continue reading

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Souvenirs? — June 1, 2017

Souvenirs?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously said that Music is the universal language of mankind. It’s no surprise then, that we stock music from many countries of the world and in many different languages. However, for some of the scores we have, I do wonder how we came to have them here. My first example led me on a short journey of exploration round the internet, and does deserve the description of being a musical souvenir.

National Musik – The Hals album (publ. 1890s)

 

What caught my eye was the stamp beneath the decorative front cover. It says: Bennett’s Tourist Office with the names of several Norwegian cities and towns surrounding it, including Christiania (now Oslo ) and Trondheim . What, I wondered, was someone called Bennett doing running a tourist service in nineteenth-century Norway?

Thomas Bennett (1814-1898) was secretary to the British consul in Oslo. One of his duties was looking after any British travellers who came to Norway. In the 1850s, the country was new as a tourist destination. Bennett had travelled around Norway so he was in a good position to advise any travellers and answer questions. He could also organise transport for them, sell them maps, food, and anything else they might need. This soon turned into a full-time occupation and signalled the start of the Norwegian tourist industry. Bennett’s Tourist Offices grew rapidly and assumed a dominant position in Norwegian tourism. The company remained in business until the 1990s when it was taken over and the name lost.

The main attraction for tourists then as now, was the country’s natural beauty but as the century progressed, I wonder how much the fame of the composer Edvard Grieg might have contributed to this?  This music volume contains no original works by Grieg but rather a couple of arrangements of folk music. The standard of difficulty is such that it would have been well within the capacity of anyone with a reasonable musical education.

Spring Dance arranged by Grieg

My next example is much less obviously a souvenir but it came to the library as a donation, so I wonder whether its previous owner had bought it on a trip to Canada.

Chansons populaires du Canada (publ. 1880)

Chansons populaires du Canada

This cover is stunning with so much fine detail and depth. Whether it is an idealised or genuine scene of somewhere in Canada, I don’t know. However, this music score is very much more than just a decorative item. When the Canadian folklorist and composer Ernest Gagnon first compiled this collection in 1860s, it was done as a serious, scholarly study of French Canadian folk songs. It was also a way of capturing and promoting the French Canadian way of life and its heritage. He was way ahead of his time in presenting the music just as it was, without any elaborations, or being seen through a western, classical music lens.

A la claire fontaine

He introduced each of the one hundred melodies with a short essay before giving the music and words. His work was so good that it is today still a well-known and authoritative collection of Canadian folk music. Unfortunately, the fact that it is entirely in French, seems to have counted against it once it became part of our stock in 1919. Between then and 1951, it only had four issues.

I’ll leave you with the lovely image of a beaver on the back cover.

IMG_20170523_174232

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In Concert

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