In Concert

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

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.

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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.

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‘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

Souvenirs? — June 1, 2017

Souvenirs?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously said that Music is the universal language of mankind. It’s no surprise then, that we stock music from many countries of the world and in many different languages. However, for some of the scores we have, I do wonder how we came to have them here. My first example led me on a short journey of exploration round the internet, and does deserve the description of being a musical souvenir.

National Musik – The Hals album (publ. 1890s)

 

What caught my eye was the stamp beneath the decorative front cover. It says: Bennett’s Tourist Office with the names of several Norwegian cities and towns surrounding it, including Christiania (now Oslo ) and Trondheim . What, I wondered, was someone called Bennett doing running a tourist service in nineteenth-century Norway?

Thomas Bennett (1814-1898) was secretary to the British consul in Oslo. One of his duties was looking after any British travellers who came to Norway. In the 1850s, the country was new as a tourist destination. Bennett had travelled around Norway so he was in a good position to advise any travellers and answer questions. He could also organise transport for them, sell them maps, food, and anything else they might need. This soon turned into a full-time occupation and signalled the start of the Norwegian tourist industry. Bennett’s Tourist Offices grew rapidly and assumed a dominant position in Norwegian tourism. The company remained in business until the 1990s when it was taken over and the name lost.

The main attraction for tourists then as now, was the country’s natural beauty but as the century progressed, I wonder how much the fame of the composer Edvard Grieg might have contributed to this?  This music volume contains no original works by Grieg but rather a couple of arrangements of folk music. The standard of difficulty is such that it would have been well within the capacity of anyone with a reasonable musical education.

Spring Dance arranged by Grieg

My next example is much less obviously a souvenir but it came to the library as a donation, so I wonder whether its previous owner had bought it on a trip to Canada.

Chansons populaires du Canada (publ. 1880)

Chansons populaires du Canada

This cover is stunning with so much fine detail and depth. Whether it is an idealised or genuine scene of somewhere in Canada, I don’t know. However, this music score is very much more than just a decorative item. When the Canadian folklorist and composer Ernest Gagnon first compiled this collection in 1860s, it was done as a serious, scholarly study of French Canadian folk songs. It was also a way of capturing and promoting the French Canadian way of life and its heritage. He was way ahead of his time in presenting the music just as it was, without any elaborations, or being seen through a western, classical music lens.

A la claire fontaine

He introduced each of the one hundred melodies with a short essay before giving the music and words. His work was so good that it is today still a well-known and authoritative collection of Canadian folk music. Unfortunately, the fact that it is entirely in French, seems to have counted against it once it became part of our stock in 1919. Between then and 1951, it only had four issues.

I’ll leave you with the lovely image of a beaver on the back cover.

IMG_20170523_174232

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In Concert

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