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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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

‘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

‘Remember, remember the fifth of November …’ — November 2, 2017

‘Remember, remember the fifth of November …’

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)

Guy Fawkes - front cover
Front cover

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

Sam Cowell
A portrait of Cowell

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

Alonzo the Brave
Promotional illustration

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 …

Macbeth

Macbeth - promotional illustration
Another promotional illustration

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.

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes - the central illustration
The central illustration

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.

Guy Fawkes - opening bars
The opening bars

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.

If you’re going to a bonfire night, have fun.

Harriet Beecher Stowe in song — September 21, 2017

Harriet Beecher Stowe in song

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published as a complete novel in 1852, it quickly became a sensation. As with any sensation, there are always plenty of people who want their own slice of the action. In the 1850s, one way of jumping on the bandwagon, was to write songs featuring characters from the book. At this period, it was thought no permission was needed from the author, so both people and publishers made free. Whether Harriet Beecher Stowe approved, or even knew, is anyone’s guess.

Both in the pre-civil war USA, and in the UK, the book sold heavily, although the novel’s focus on the abolitionist cause meant it didn’t sell in the Southern states of the USA. There, it tended to be vilified. and also resulted in numerous anti-Tom publications. Today, the novel’s perceived role in promoting stereotypes of its African-American characters, together with its sentimental writing style, has meant that it draws a considerable amount of negative criticism with only some praise for its anti-slavery stance. However, I think it is interesting to look at a couple of items in our collections which are related to the craze which followed the initial publication.

George Linley (1797-1865) was one such lyricist and composer who took the opportunity offered. A composer of fashionable and popular ballads, Linley wrote and composed six songs in all, based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The title illustration, and a quotation from the book, set the scene, but everything else was by Linley.

Back cover of Evangeline
Back cover of ‘Evangeline’ showing all six songs

The title page illustrations were all by John Brandard (1812-1863), a Birmingham-born lithographic artist and designer of sheet music covers. His subjects were usually opera or ballet, so I wonder if he did these as a favour to the composer. That impression is given more weight in my mind, because the illustrations here are only tinted in one colour, rather than the full colour covers he was famous for designing. They’re well produced (going on the two specimens we have), but marred by excessive sentimentality, to my modern eye.

Evangeline – ballad (publ. 1852?)

Evangeline - front cover illustration

Our copy of the songsheet has been cropped at both top and bottom. As far as the image goes, the best thing about it to my mind, is the background. It’s meant to depict a scene where Eva (Evangeline) meets Uncle Tom on a Mississippi steamboat. The excerpt from the novel quoted in the songsheet, is vague:

Evangeline - showing quote from the novel

and could be seen as simply an excuse for a sentimental ballad. The song text starts:

Sportive and free As the summer air, Bright as a ray on the mountain stream, Glides she along, Like a spirit fair, Happy and blest, as in some sweet dream.

I suppose one of the first words is ‘free’, but set to a grazioso waltz, there is nothing to suggest a great involvement in the issues of slavery. The only other thing is perhaps, to compare it to other songs in the collection. Maybe that was what Linley intended?

Emmeline and Cassy – duet (publ. 1852?)

Emmeline and Cassy - decorated front cover

Emmeline and Cassy are two minor figures in the novel, but important ones in that the author uses them to illustrate the sexual exploitation of female slaves. In doing this, Stowe was departing from the sentimental tone of the rest of the novel. None of this subject makes its way into the song setting – that would have been completely beyond the pale for amateur Victorian singers. Instead, the quote from the novel focusses on Cassy’s desire for freedom, and her relationship with Emmeline:

Emmeline and Cassy - showing quote from the novel

And here, Linley makes rather more effort with his words:

Oh! what to me, a careworn slave, Would freedom’s gift now be? Can it my children e’er restore, Or yield past joys to me?

Although, the final 6/8 duet section returns squarely to the realm of Christian sentimentality. In that, of course, it keeps in tune with Stowe’s novel.

It’s not clear at all how popular these songs were. One of the reasons for jumping on the bandwagon must have been for the possibility of making money? Or, at least, that’s how I think. However Linley’s fortunes were changed in the 1850’s by these six songs, the two copies we have are now quite rare in the UK. There’s only one other copy of Evangeline evident, and no other obvious copies of Emmeline and Cassy.

 

‘All for the cause’ – the labour songs of William Morris — September 7, 2017

‘All for the cause’ – the labour songs of William Morris

Hiding amongst the rest of our stock, is a small pamphlet with a faded, almost illegible spine title. Getting it off the shelf, a small front cover label declared: All for the cause, words by W. Morris. This intrigued me, and led me to find another similar publication which has many links with the first.

All for the cause (publ. 1890?) Music: E. Belfort Bax, Words: W. Morris

All for the cause by William Morris

Both William Morris and Ernest Belfort Bax were members of the Socialist League . This organisation (formed in 1885) was a splinter group which split off from another grouping, the Social Democratic Federation of Henry Hyndman . Although Morris and Belfort Bax were active, paying members, the organisation remained very small (well under a thousand members), and was very diverse in its outlook – argumentative and disputatious would perhaps be a better description. Those members who were on a working class wage, were exempted from paying their dues.

William Morris edited the League’s journal, The Commonweal, and also made good its losses out of his own pocket. Of course, Morris is better known now for his design business, and his book decorations. However, his socialism was very important to him. The words he wrote for this song are very stirring, as you might expect:

Hear a word, a word in season, for the day is drawing nigh, When the Cause shall call upon us, some to live, and some to die! (from the start of the first verse.)

Life or death then, who shall heed it, what we gain or what we lose! Fair flies the life amid the struggle, and the Cause for each shall choose, and the Cause for each shall choose.  (from the end of the fourth verse.)

All for the cause - page 4
‘All for the cause’ page 4

Looking at the music, it is not the sort to be sung on a march, or at a demonstration, but more by eager supporters, gathered round the piano in someone’s front room. I can imagine the pianist thumping out the bass line, thoughtfully written in octaves by Belfort Bax, the composer. He was a barrister by profession, with an interest in socialism, and men’s rights. Whoever was expected to buy this publication, it wasn’t going to be the average working man – six pence for four smallish sides of music wouldn’t have been high on the priority list for someone earning less than two pounds a week.

Chants of Labour (5th edition, publ. 1912) Edited by Edward Carpenter

Chants of Labour front cover

This ‘song book of the people’ was first published in 1888 – so, about the same time as All for the Cause.  Edward Carpenter was another associate of Henry Hyndman. He also became a member of the SDF, and then followed Morris into forming the Socialist League. Carpenter was more an anarchist in his outlook, rather than supporting the kind of organised socialism Hyndman was looking for. This individualistic attitude within the Socialist League (together with its many factions) was one of the reasons Morris became disillusioned with it. Carpenter is more known now for his writings, and for openly living his life as a gay man in late Victorian Britain. Walter Crane , the famous children’s book illustrator, was another active socialist. He was a friend of Morris, and provided the illustrations for The Commonweal. Here, he provides the front cover design above, together with a much more idealised frontispiece:

Chants of Labour frontispiece by Walter Crane
Frontispiece by Walter Crane

This is very heavily influenced by William Morris’ book designs. Morris also contributed to the substance of the collection by writing more verses.

The voice of toil, words by William Morris

Perhaps not the best fit for Ye banks and braes, but it works, mostly. The second verse, in particular, focusses on Morris’ dislike of fast-spreading industrialisation, and his yearning for a return to some elements of the mediaeval world:

Where fast and faster our iron master, The thing we made, for ever drives, Bids us grind treasure and fashion pleasure For other hopes and other lives.

And, guess what? All for the Cause makes another appearance, this time set to an English air:

All for the Cause - second settingIMG_20170902_152533

It’s not clear when exactly either item entered our collections, but the stamp on the first All for the Cause makes it likely that it was added soon after publication. Chants of Labour is noted as being bound in 1917. This might be seen as a reflection of Birmingham’s industrial base and its many workers.

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In Concert

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