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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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:
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 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:
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.
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
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.)
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
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:
This is very heavily influenced by William Morris’ book designs. Morris also contributed to the substance of the collection by writing more verses.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Simon Squeers – the undertaker’s man (publ. 1878)
Music: Vincent Davies Words: John Cooke Jnr
If you’d like, you can see the words of the complete song here . The undertaker is lamenting his lot. In taking on his profession, he finds that he suddenly becomes much less attractive to the opposite sex.
I have to wear a suit of black, upon this noble frame, On Sundays as on other days, my clothes are just the same; The girls all laugh and titter as they see me passing by, And say to one another, Oh! My! Isn’t he a guy!
The song is clearly one for the music hall. Sometimes, the covers of music hall songs sheets show the actual performers in costume – it’s not obvious from this cover whether that’s the case. Possibly not, as the performers enjoyed having their names in print as much as the composers and lyricists. Though perhaps his face was so distinctive, he didn’t need his name?
The most obvious local connection is the publisher – listed as H. Beresford of 99 New Street. Whether they had any particular reason for publishing this song, is not known. What is worth noting is the cost of the sheet – four shillings. This was a substantial proportion of the weekly wage for the working poor in late Victorian times, so it was likely that it was bought only by the middle classes.
The Bombardment of Alexandria (publ. 1882)
Music: Harry Fitter Ball Words: Tom Browne
It was quite common for songs or other music to be composed to commemorate British military campaigns abroad – the title of this is self-explanatory to a degree. For more information see this article . What is striking and funny about this, is the illustrator’s attempt to do Egyptian costume. The head wear looks relatively convincing, but, by the time you get to the footwear, the lace-up boots are entirely Victorian.
The bright and highly-coloured front cover must have made it stand out when people were browsing. Interestingly enough, all the colour didn’t increase the price. It too is four shillings.
I can’t find any obvious information about the singer or composer which is a pity, but not uncommon. However, one of the venues listed caught my eye – the Royal Aquarium . Aquarium? The mind boggles.
This place of entertainment in Westminster was designed to be a competitor to the Crystal Palace. And, yes, there were thirteen large tanks designed to take living sea creatures. Which they never did, something that made it a source of ridicule. The separate theatre hosted music hall acts amongst other things. It was demolished in the early 1900s to make way for the Central Methodist Hall
Again, the publisher is Birmingham-based, but the address is missing because of the damage to the sheet. Loose music sheets like these are vulnerable to wear and tear, and were never meant to be long-term possessions. This is probably the main reason why there are apparently no other libraries or collections which hold this particular song.
I’ll be back soon with another selection of songs from the archives.