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-hitting 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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‘Songs of the East’ – Granville Bantock and C19 exoticism — May 3, 2018

‘Songs of the East’ – Granville Bantock and C19 exoticism

I’ve been away on holiday so it’s going to be something quick this time – more visual than anything else. Don’t worry – the images are pretty stunning, and well worth a look.

Granville Bantock (1868-1946)

Granville_Bantock
Bantock as a youngish man (public domain image – artist unknown)

Bantock  is a composer with strong links to Birmingham – he was principal of the forerunner to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and he followed Elgar in holding the Peyton Professorship at the University of Birmingham. Unsurprisingly, we hold a lot of his printed scores, as well as some of his manuscripts. This collection is complemented by the one at the University.

Songs of Arabia

Bantock  Songs of Arabia
Songs of Arabia

These songs were composed and published at the end of the nineteenth century. As such, it’s not difficult to see that Bantock was one of many artists and musicians of that period who were fascinated by the mysterious East. The phenomenon of exoticism , the lure of the ‘otherness’ of far-off places continued in Bantock’s compositions into the next century. The texts of the songs were written by his first wife, Helen.

Continue reading

Flying machines — April 19, 2018

Flying machines

I’m a little late celebrating the centenary of the RAF. Still, here are three items from our collections. Two music sheets illustrating flying before the formation of the RAF, and another small volume published at the end of World War 2.

Lawrence Wright: The Great air race (publ. 1911)

Wright: The great air race
The front cover

The first thing that occurred to me was : What air race? 1911 is early in the history of aeroplanes. It was a competition to see who could fly a set circuit round the UK. The winner, a Frenchman, Jean Conneau, took something over 22 hours to complete the course (including various obligatory stops) at an average speed of 45 mph. Continue reading

The ‘House of the rising sun’ blues … — April 5, 2018

The ‘House of the rising sun’ blues …

No, this isn’t a post about the Animals, or Bob Dylan, but rather one exploring the life of Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly), a small book of ours, and some of the people who knew him.

As ever when I’m in search of something to write about for this blog, I went looking on our shelves for something that might grab my attention. This small American publication was the one that succeeded this time around.

The Leadbelly Songbook ed. Moses Asch and Alan Lomax (originally publ. 1962)

leadbelly songbook
The front cover

Of course, I knew the name Lead Belly (this is the generally preferred way of spelling his nickname), but beyond that my knowledge was very sketchy to say the least. When I mentioned to a colleague that I was featuring this artist, his first response was about Lead Belly’s prison record for murder. Next, the reason for his nickname – again concerning violence. When I went looking, a more complex story emerged about Lead Belly and his music. And yes, the book does contain his version of the House of the Rising Sun.

Continue reading

Learning on the job … — March 22, 2018

Learning on the job …

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.

Continue reading

A Visual Recapitulation — March 8, 2018

A Visual Recapitulation

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

Chansons populaires du Canada
Chansons populaires du Canada – the glorious front cover.

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.

Continue reading

New music, the Birmingham way — February 22, 2018

New music, the Birmingham way

Commissioning new music costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. Given the everyday financial pressures on arts organisations, finding money for commissions can be difficult. New thinking required, perhaps?

This is going to be rather a different post from usual, focussing as it will do on contemporary and avant-garde classical music. And that includes our part in helping people to realise that classical music doesn’t stop somewhere in the early C20, but is a living, breathing art form with much to offer.

Most live contemporary music performances in the city come from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).

bcmg logo
BCMG’s logo

BCMG has been a fixture on the Birmingham musical scene for over thirty years. From its start as an off-shoot of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), it has become one of the premier medium-sized ensembles in the UK. As an ensemble specialising in ‘new’ music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it could possibly have constructed all of its programmes from available, known music. Instead, it has made a name for itself by giving first performances of over 160 pieces of music, and counting.

Some seventy of these pieces were commissioned by BCMG. Which brings me back to my opening paragraph – how to fund these new pieces of music? Back in the 1990s, BCMG came up with a new, innovative scheme to involve ordinary music-lovers in the creation of particular works. Sound Investment is a cleverly-named scheme which invites individuals to donate money towards a particular composer’s work. Their investment allows new sounds to be created and performed. Without it, BCMG would have struggled to commission anything like that number of new pieces.

So, what has this got to do with Music Library? Continue reading

‘Burlington Bertie’: C19 male fashion through song sheet covers — February 8, 2018

‘Burlington Bertie’: C19 male fashion through song sheet covers

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)

Burlington Bertie - Harry Norris
Burlington Bertie – front cover

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.

Continue reading

King Kong – the African jazz opera — January 25, 2018

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 was 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 (book) which was the basis of a musical based on his life and times. There is a fascinating introductory essay by Harry Bloom , the author of the musical’s book and an active journalist at the time. I’ll be regularly quoting from the essay as it is a first-hand record of the musical’s background, development, and its subsequent fame. 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

‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy’ and ‘Shachiapang’- 2 revolutionary operas — January 11, 2018

‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy’ and ‘Shachiapang’- 2 revolutionary operas

As part of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Mao Zedong’s China, only eight approved stage works (operas and ballets) were allowed. The number of these ‘model plays’ (bāgè yàngbǎnxì) did increase over time, but the original eight continued to dominate the few productions allowed. These revolutionary operas were there not to glorify the usual characters of Peking opera (the aristocracy and courtiers). Instead they concentrated on people and happenings from China’s recent revolutionary past. Of course, they also highlighted Mao Zedong’s thoughts. Not that surprising perhaps, given his wife, Jiang Qing was the power behind the new operas.

So why am I writing about this? Continue reading

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