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Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide

The Music of Americans

The information in this guide is based on a 1993 publication and has not been updated.
Albert Von Tilzer, composer, and Jack Norworth, lyricist. Take Me Out to the Ball Game. 1908. Library of Congress Music Division.

The Library of Congress has perhaps the strongest collection of popular music of any library in the world. It has sheet music for standards ("Someone to Watch over Me"), for tunes so well-known it is hard to imagine them as notes-on-paper ("My Melancholy Baby"), and for thousands of songs that hoped for popularity in vain--"popular" in style, unpopular in fact. Most important to the researcher, it has the many tunes that were once popular and are now little-known. These tunes may be important for conjuring up a time, understanding a reference in a novel (it was in the Music Division that "Seaside Girls," the song Leopold Bloom remembers obsessively in his wanderings around Dublin, in James Joyce's Ulysses, was first found), or documenting the use of a word (the Oxford English Dictionary lists the song "Mr. Jefferson Lord, Play that Barber Shop Chord" as the first use of "barbershop" for a style of harmony).

The Music Division's collection of American popular music is strong from the beginnings (whatever you may define those beginnings to be); for European and Latin American popular music its collection is strong from the 1920s on. Thus, if you are interested in what Josephine Baker sang in Paris--or Charles Trenet, or Jacques Brel--the Library of Congress is your best American source; if you want to find the kind of dance-band arrangements that were really played at the Berlin cabarets between the wars, they are at the Music Division, too. Or if you are interested in the Cuban conjunto music which forms the basis of Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, you will find much of it--ready to slap on the stands and play--in the Music Division.

Because publishers wanted to get music into the Copyright Office as soon as possible, the Music Division has many popular songs in versions which differ from the standard published versions. Often this is disappointing: a handsome song cover that is prized by collectors will not be present in the Library's copy, which will contain either the music only, or the music enclosed in a drab cover listing "Most Recent Instrumental and Vocal Successes." But sometimes these different versions are fascinating and very rare: the songs from Oklahoma!, for instance, in a cover bearing the show's earlier name Away We Go. "My Old Flame" in a cover with Mae West smiling out, advertising her new picture as It Ain't No Sin. (The title was changed to Belle of the Nineties.) Occasionally you can see a popular song taking shape before your eyes. Take, for example, "Sleepy Time Gal," one of those songs so well-known it is hard to imagine them being published. We have the published version, but we also have the first, unpublished copyright of the song. Both versions are about a girl who stays up all night dancing, but the endings are utterly different. In the published version, the singer looks for the time when the girl will change:

You'll learn to cook and to sew,
What's more you'll love it I know
When you're a stay-at-home,
Eight o'clock sleepy-time gal.

But the singer of the first version wants the girl to stay as she is:

The music has played
Because it's you who has stayed
My wonderful,
Dreamy-eyed sleepy-time gal.

All this is published music. The Music Division has popular music also in manuscript form. Much of it came in through copyright--occasionally in the hand of a major musician. (When a researcher called up the copyright for Louis Armstrong's "Gully Low Blues" he found that it was in Armstrong's hand.)

Much of the sound of American popular music is tied up with the dance orchestras that played it. The Music Division has a large collection of published "stocks"--sets of parts for dance orchestras. It also has Ferde Grofé’s own library of parts for his dance orchestra, containing many arrangements in the hand of the writer of the Grand Canyon Suite as well as many commercial "stocks" which Grofé has altered for his orchestra.

Harry von Tilzer, writer of many turn-of-the-century hits ("A Bird in a Gilded Cage," "On a Sunday Afternoon," "Down Where the Wurzburger Flows," "Wait 'Til the Sun Shines, Nellie"), founded his own music publishing firm shortly after 1900. It published his own songs, along with such other hits as "Row, Row, Row." The Music Division has the papers of the firm, which give a glimpse of the business life of Tin Pan Alley at the beginning of the present century.

As other ethnic strains in American popular music become of interest, other sections of the Music Division's collections will be reappraised: Yiddish theater music published on the East Side of New York; Czech polkas published in Chicago; Italian band music published in Brooklyn; German male-chorus (Männerchor) music published in the Midwest; Latin-American popular music published right by Tin Pan Alley; the music of the village-green band published (and in manuscript) from New England to Oskaloosa, Iowa. If it was a music which people enjoyed enough to have it published, chances are it can be found in the Music Division.