In Concert

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

A Song and Dance Routine — October 18, 2018

A Song and Dance Routine

You might think a song can’t be a dance, and vice versa, but our song sheet collections show this to be wrong. So here, for your delight and delectation, are some tangos, together with the odd foxtrot and bolero, which are also happen to be songs.

Grosz & Kennedy  Tina – a tango-foxtrot ballad (publ. 1934)

Tina - front cover
The front cover

I’m not sure how a ballad can be both a tango and a foxtrot. The direction at the top of the music is ‘Tempo di tango’ and it certainly appears to be in a basic tango rhythm. The foxtrot was at the height of its popularity in the 1930s, so maybe it’s just there as a hook. The composer, Will (Wilhelm) Grosz fled his native Austria during the 1930s Nazi takeover. When he arrived in England, his avant-garde music didn’t garner much interest. Instead, he turned his hand to composing music for popular songs. His best known hits were Isle of Capri and Harbour Lights, with lyrics also written by Jimmy Kennedy.

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The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song — September 6, 2018

The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song

When thinking about English folk song, it is all too easy to think of classic English folk music as collected by Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, and others. Songs of an agrarian existence, sometimes idyllic, often times not, which harked back to the time when the majority of people made their living from the land. In fact, that was to be the subject of this blog post until I got distracted by a slim, home-made volume of much grittier, urban songs.

Michael Raven: The Jolly Machine (publ. 1974)

Jolly machine by Michael Raven
The front cover of the song book.

Already you get the sense of something completely different from the front cover. Here are no songs about farm labourers and pretty lasses, instead Michael Raven focusses on the ‘songs of industrial protest and social discontent’ from the area all around Birmingham. The photograph used is of four coal miners from Wednesbury, taken in the 1880s. The dirtied work clothes and the coal-blackened faces are testament to the men working in the area of the West Midlands known as the Black Country.

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A Time of Trial: More Songs from the American Great Depression — August 23, 2018

A Time of Trial: More Songs from the American Great Depression

I’m returning to Hard-hitting Songs for Hard-hit People, a song collection about the American Great Depression. Last time , I looked at agricultural workers. This time, working, or more likely, unemployment.

‘You’re dead broke’ 

Destitute_man_vacant_store
Unemployed, destitute man in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Dorothea Lange. Public domain)

In his publisher’s forward, Irwin Silber, sets the picture of the early 1930s American Great Depression brilliantly:

The central fact was mass unemployment. Everything else – the soup kitchens, the home relief lines, the unmitigated misery of the old, the sick, the feeble who had no resources and no place to turn – all these stemmed from the fact that in some basic, incomprehensible way, the system had fallen apart at the seams. Factories, mills, and mines closed down and people were thrown out of work. This began a cycle of business failures, wage-cutting, lockouts, land evictions which … produced … the most massive economic collapse this country has ever known.   

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Pretty as a picture? Songs by Liza Lehmann — May 31, 2018

Pretty as a picture? Songs by Liza Lehmann

Looking through the posts here, I am disheartened but not at all surprised about how little female composers or musicians and singers feature. Must try harder is the note to myself, I think. Although we’ve worked hard to improve the balance in our physical stock, western classical music in particular is still mostly the preserve of dead, white men. This is even more the case when I look at our older material. This post however is the exception, looking as it does at Liza Lehmann.

I’ve had almost no time to work on a new post recently (an upgrade to our computer systems being partly to blame), so instead, I’ve returned to the second post I ever wrote. That also is in need of some improvement. So I’ve reworked it, adding in more content rather than relying on the illustrations alone (nice though they are).

Liza Lehmann (1862 – 1918)

Liza Lehmann
A portrait originally published in the Musical Times

Liza Lehmann was an English opera singer and composer – so it’s no real surprise that the music I discovered are songs. Continue reading

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

‘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.

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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

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.

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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.

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‘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.

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