Blogging isn’t something I was taught. Revisiting my first post a few days ago, I winced at the lack of information, and the things I evidently hadn’t got my head round. So here is the new, improved version to mark the first anniversary of this blog …
The Library of Birmingham has extensive music collections. Both printed and audio. One of the least known is our historical collection of song sheets. We have thousands and thousands of them, dating from the start of the C18 through to the 1960s. The main problem in featuring this collection is deciding which individual sheets to look at.
I’ve chosen a couple to look that which have local connections. They’re both from the nineteenth century and have pictorial covers which are wonderful and amusing to look at.
It’s a little short of this blog’s first birthday, but as we’re currently closed for work on our flooring, I thought I’d have a wander through the posts. I have learnt a lot about blogging on the job, and I suspect the earlier posts won’t stand up to much scrutiny. However, I’m going to concentrate on the images I’ve used instead. Perhaps you missed some? Or you’d like to read the post they come from again? I’ll make sure to include all the links, though it would be easy enough to flick back through the archive.
June 2017 Souvenirs
This post was the first one where I really started to explore what was in front of me. I discovered fascinating pieces of information about both items featured.
Song sheets contain masses of information beyond just their musical content. Social commentary, religious, political themes, and yes, matters related to fashion. Three songs from the nineteenth century caught my eye as I was flicking through our collection, looking for inspiration. As we’ll discover, they also give us information about the performers who brought the songs to life.
Burlington Bertie – words and music by Harry B. Norris (publ. 1900)
The first thing you notice is that the men’s clothes are being worn by a woman, Vesta Tilley. Born in Worcester, she was one of the most famous male impersonators of the music hall era. She started performing on the stage when she was still a child, most of the time in male clothes. She’s reported as saying: I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.
Despite spending a lot of my life online, I still look forward at this time of year to getting Christmas cards through the post. It’s hard to make a display of e-cards and decorative emails – only the real, physical thing will do for me. In this post, I’ll be looking at one of our Victorian songs about the postman, and then sampling some of the Victorian Christmas cards which are part of the collections here in Birmingham.
In the UK, what used to be called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ and now more usually referred to as ‘Bonfire Night’ tends to be overshadowed these days by Halloween. If it is commemorated, it is usually billed as nothing more than an excuse to have a bonfire, some fun, and fireworks.
Just as well, really. Given that the story of Guido Fawkes and his fellow conspirators has its origins in religious intolerance, persecution, sedition, and a conspiracy to overthrow the Crown, it’s never seemed a good choice for a named ‘holiday’ in the British calendar. The persecution of anyone solely on the grounds of their religion has very uncomfortable resonances in today’s world. As has the attempt at a forced removal of a country’s head of state, or compromising the workings of democracy.
However, what I’m going to look at was published in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the social and political landscape was rather different. Although, by then, the situation for Catholics was finally starting to improve, after several centuries of either persecution, or being pushed to the margins of society. Catholic emancipation was enshrined in law in 1829, and here, in Birmingham, St. Chad’s Cathedral was the first Roman Catholic cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation, when it was completed in 1841.
Guy Fawkes – Sam Cowell’s Comic Songs (publ. ca. 1850)
I’ve left it as a rather larger illustration than usual, because there is just so much going on. It is a front cover that not only advertises the song within, but also alerts you, the buyer, to everything else in the same series that you might be persuaded to buy. And at the top, is a portrait of the song’s composer and singer. Almost like a trademark or a logo. I’ll look more closely at various elements as I go.
Sam Cowell (1820-1865) was a very famous singer and actor who spent most of his time performing in the early music hall and its forerunners. Obviously, his image on the title page is there to remind the buyer that the sheet contains one of his songs. It also serves as stamp of approval so that the buyer knew they were getting something good, something worth the three pence asking price. It is a promotional tool which is still very much in use today, and which is a powerful recommendation to any prospective buyer. Perhaps it also reminded the buyer to keep on going to hear Cowell singing live in the Song and Supper Rooms which preceded music halls, or indeed in the music halls themselves.
Alonzo the Brave
This is one of the promotional sketches which crowd around the outside of the main illustration. Alonzo the brave and fair Imogine is a Georgian gothic poem by Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. I imagine that Cowell would have vamped up the horror elements, making something more comedic out of the poem, perhaps. That doesn’t offend my sensibilities particularly, but the next item does a little more …
Another of Cowell’s stage acts was apparently to take part in a burlesque version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This form of entertainment was quite common in Victorian Britain – taking ‘serious’ plays or operas, and making parodies of them. Sending them up, essentially, poking fun at things and people which mainstream Victorian society regarded as sacrosanct.
The central illustration brings to mind a pantomime, with Guy Fawkes the villain of the piece being apprehended by a distinctly Victorian-looking officer of the state. The sword hanging off his belt clashes with the nineteenth-century whiskers. The tone of the piece is set by the sub-title: a no-Popery squib.
The use of the word ‘squib’ is quite clever, referring as it does to both a small, unspectacular firework, and a piece of satirical writing. The first line of the lyrics might use the words ‘doleful tragedy’, but the tone of musical writing isn’t – a bright, jaunty rhythm in F major. It’s not hard to imagine this on a stage of some kind, with Cowell in the centre, and a pianist off to the side. He tells the tale with all sorts of asides, jokes, and contemporary references to things like gas lighting, and people such as Daniel Whittle Harvey , the first Commissioner of the City of London Police.
There’s been a lot written and said about World War 1 recently because of the various centenary commemorations, but very little has focussed on the music. By this, I mean popular songs and piano music, not the well-known works by Elgar, Butterworth and others. From the examples we have in our collection, there was no room for doubt about the progress of the war at all in the minds of the composers and publishers. The outcome was certain – it was just a matter of time. Relentlessly upbeat would be a good description of a lot of them and the patriotism was applied by the bucket load.
I’m going to spend most of this blog looking at one sheet with particular Birmingham connections but, as I was looking for it, I came across this, a good example of a music hall song published in 1914.
God bless my soldier Daddy
Although it’s written as a girl talking to her mother, to me, it immediately suggests a male music hall performer. I can just hear him milking the pathos of the chorus:
God bless my soldier Daddy, To war he had to go, Protect him from all danger, Because I love him so, Take care of him when fighting, Don’t let me pray in vain, God bless my soldier Daddy … And bring him safe home again.
The next song sheet is a much more home-grown affair, and also very different in its tone and purpose.
Britannia’s Glorious Flag
Throughout the war, those who remained at home were encouraged to raise money either for the general war effort or for the soldiers at the front. This sheet was the project of two people called Brookes (presumably related) from Birmingham – one composed the music and the other wrote the words. Their objective was to raise money for their named causes:
As The AUTHOR was also the publisher ie a private individual, it was presumably only meant for local distribution and sale. Certainly, there are no other obvious library copies held elsewhere. I’m curious to know how many copies were printed and sold – you’d have to sell a large number to make any significant contribution. Ten percent of the profits on the 6d selling price wasn’t so very much.
I suspect that the printer the Brookes used wasn’t a regular printer of sheet music – the music engraving is decidedly amateur at times:
but again, as private individuals, they wouldn’t have had access to the engravers used by the big London publishing houses. Nor would they have wanted to spend a large amount of money getting it printed if the principal object was to raise money.
The song text is very patriotic (as you’d expect) but interestingly, it isn’t particularly anti-German. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions of the Kaiser and some commentary in the first verse, it concentrates entirely on the people caught up in the war effort, both those fighting and those at home. Here’s a sample:
“England’s in danger” was the cry: a million men replied – “We’ll rally round the good old flag” in life, in death, in pride: Our watchdogs on the sea alert, their eyes turned to the foe, Our airmen in the skies above, our submariners below …
I’ll close with their dedication – it shows the Brookes’ serious intent compared with the first song I looked at.