Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Sheet Music of World War I

"Over There," words and music by George M. Cohan, 
cover illustration by Norman Rockwell

World War I has recently returned as the subject of books and news reports largely owing to the commemoration of the centennial of the war's end (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month).  One hundred years ago, sentiment about the war was documented in popular culture, in particular through popular song.  Sheet music later collected by librarians of the San Francisco Public Library's Music Department were bound into volumes that present a vast range of these songs.

World War I began without American involvement in 1914.  The earliest songs about the war in our bound sheet music collections came from England.  The famous tune "Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag And Smile, Smile, Smile!" dates from 1915.  But most of the earliest songs are directed to the home front (where the majority of sheet music consumers would reside).  Representative titles include "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers," "Keep the Home-fires Burning: ('Till the Boys Come Home)," "Laddie In Khaki: (The Girl Who Waits At Home) ," and "God Be With Our Boys To-night."

At the war's outset, many Americans saw the conflict as solely a European affair.  This is represented in the 1915 song "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier."  Ambivalence to fighting the war is seen even in 19118 with the comic song "Uncle Sam, Don't Take My Man Away."  But more bellicose sentiments ultimately prevailed in the song market with the new "war edition" (1915) of "Yankee Doodle Boy" (1915) and "Over There" (1917) by George Cohan.  Some songs appealed to the romance of a foreign land like "Come Across, Yankee Boy, Come Across," "Joan of Arc They Are Calling You" and "When Yankee Doodle Learns To Parlez Vous Francais."  This could even turn to romance in songs like "Jerry Mon Cheri," "And He'd Say Oo-la la! Wee-wee," and "Wee wee Marie: Will You Do Zis For Me."

"You Keep Sending 'Em Over And We'll Keep Knocking Them Down," 
words by Sidney D. Mitchell, music by Harry Ruby

Many songs were recruiting posters in sound.  Some songs present American pep and braggadocio like "You Keep Sending 'Em Over And We'll Keep Knocking 'Em Down," "Tell That To The Marines," "We'll Lick The Kaiser If It Takes Us Twenty Years," "We Don't Want The Bacon: What We Want Is A Piece Of The Rhine," "Just Like Washington Crossed The Delaware (General Pershing Will Cross The Rhine)," "The Ragtime Volunteers Are Off to War" and "When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band To France."

There were also plenty of American songs written for families and loved ones of soldiers far from home and in harm's way.  Some reflected domestic support like "Ev'ry Girl Is Doing Her Bit To-day," "We'll Do Our Share: (While You're Over There)," and "Women Of The Homeland: (God Bless You, Every One!)."  Other songs expressed worry and concern for the young soldiers across the ocean, for instance "The Little Grey Mother: Who Waits All Alone," "Just A Baby's Prayer At Twilight: (For Her Daddy Over There)," "Hello Central, Give Me No Man's Land" (the latter being a child's wish for a telephone operator to connect to their father at the front line).

Other songs acknowledged the loss of life of warfare. "If I'm Not At The Roll Call: Kiss Mother Good-bye For Me" expresses this from the soldier's perspective.  But at the war's end many songs acknowledge the loss of life like "A Star Of Gold: A Hero's Gift," "In Flanders' Fields" and "Miserere: In Memory Of The American Soldiers Who Fell On The Battlefields Of The Great Way."

War's end was also a source of joy in songs like "Oh! What A Time For The Girlies When The Boys Come Marching Home." "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On The Farm?: (After They've Seen Paree)" reflects the awakening that many young men from the country had after experiencing the big city, a foreign country, and the wider world.

For those interested in listening to some of these songs, we offer the album The Great War: An American Musical Fantasy (Archeophone, 2006) through the Alexander Street Press American Music streaming audio database.

"Hello Central! Give Me No Man's Land," 
words by Sam M. Lewis & Joe Young, music by Jean Schwartz

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Björk's 34 Scores

Copies of Björk's 34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord and Celeste have just arrived at the San Francisco Public Library.  Properly speaking these are not arrangements of her songs for solo instruments, but for voice accompanied by one of these instruments.  (In one case there is an arrangement for voice and two pianos).

The Biography In Context database entry on Björk describes her as "an Icelandic singer and musician known for her experimental sound and unusual look."  She is difficult to pin down by genre, having performed in diverse styles like pop, rock, electronica and classical music.  34 Scores spans 22 years of her career, including songs from the Debut, Post, Homogenic, Selmasongs, Vespertine, Medúlla, Drawing Restraint 9, Volta and Vulnicura albums.

Björk has always performed her songs with in a variety of settings and with a variety of ensembles, so the some of the unconventionality of this collection is not surprising.  How often do you hear music for the celeste (also called celesta)?

from Music and Musicians by Albert Lavignac (Henry Holt and Company, 1907).

This keyboard instrument is best known from Tchaikovsky's use of it in the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the Nutcracker

Already, there are online celeste versions of Björk's "All Is Full Of Love."

She has written that this collection came about through a self-examination of the meaning of "music documentation."

When cds were slowly becoming obsolete, i was curious about the difference of midi (digital notation) and classical notation and enthusiastic in blurring the lines and at which occasions and how one would share music in these new times.
Popular music songbooks and sheet music long preceded recorded sound.  They have always only provided an incomplete representation of songs.  They especially miss a singers' unique style and inflection.  Naturally Björk's florid vocalizing cannot be adequately captured in musical notation.  Nevertheless these arrangements give us the essential elements of the songs and capture her music in a novel way.

34 Scores for Piano, Organ, Harpsichord and Celeste by Björk (Wise Publications, 2017).

Further reading on Björk and her music:

Björk: There's More to Life Than This: The Stories Behind Every Song by Ian Gittins (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002).

Björk by Nicola Dibben (Indiana University Press,|2009).