Music Had Charms

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I hear America singing,” wrote Walt Whitman in 1860, and on a quantitative basis, at least, the air was as full of quavering voices, scraping fiddles, and tinkling pianos as—in other ways, in different rhythms—it is today. The publishers of the confection at the left, for example, advertised 33,000 different pieces of sheet music in 1867—most of them especially aimed at the family group around the parlor upright. In the days before radio and television and before we developed a special musical form in jazz, this kind of singing was widespread. It was homely and unsophisticated, filled with maidens’ blushes and everyone’s tears, with crude humor and sentiment, and with the same appeals to the headlines which characterize Tin Pan Alley today. And, not to put too fine a point on it, most of this outpouring was as bad as the popular music of our own time—if not a little worse. The era produced Stephen Foster, Dan Emmett, a lew good hymns, and the music of the Civil War; but, in general, America had a tin ear.

What distinguishes the sheet music of a century ago, and spurs collectors on, is the vanished charm of its appearance. Song publishers discovered early that much of the selling power of their product depended on the attractiveness of the cover. Thus they came to work with some of the best lithographers in America at a time when the art of soft-stone engraving was at its peak. Most of the major engraving firms of the period—in particular, Nathaniel Currier, Sarony of New York, and J. H. Builord of Boston—did song “fronts” at one time or other, and occasionally they hired struggling young artists like Alfred Jacob Miller and Winslow Homer. On the following pages some notable examples of the stone engraver’s art are reproduced—and with them, for those who care to experiment, some less memorable examples of the songwriter’s craft. All appear through the courtesy of Lester S. Levy of Baltimore, whose famous American music collection includes more than 25,000 song sheets.

When birds are singing in distress, and nature’s face is fair , Where wild flowers bring the busy bees I often wander there; To meet young Harry in the grove; But where can Harry be! I plac’d a letter to my love, in yonder hollow tree; In yonder hollow tree, In yonder hollow tree , I plac’d a letter to my love, in yonder hollow tree . No “Postman’s knock” or ringing bell, No maids to peep and see; Dear Harry knows this very well, He’s sure to come to me ; Young Cupid ever watches near, The lover’s hollow tree; He’ll see me safe. I’ve nought to fear, While Harry’s true to me ; Dear Harry’s true to me, Dear Harry’s true to me , He’ll see me safe, I’ve nought to fear, While Harry’s true to me .
The headlines, with disaster a specialty

In a day when polkas, waltzes, and quadrilles were the rage of America, music publishers often found that they could push nondescript dance tunes by giving them topical lyrics and colorful “fronts.” The four covers shown at left commemorate subjects as diverse as the 1863 marriage of two of P. T. Barnum’s midgets, Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren; Amelia Bloomer’s innovations in feminine auhe; the laying of the Atlantic Cable in 1858; and the great fire in downtown Boston in 1872.

In 1862 the steamship Golden Gate burned and sank, off the west coast of Mexico. In appropriately heroic terms, the song at right described the rescue of a child from the wreck: