For years now In the Muse has been highlighting digitized sheet music from our collections in our “Sheet Music of the Week” series, sharing with our readers beautiful cover art, quirky titles and lyrics, and musical documentation of America’s cultural history. Because of copyright law, most of the digitized sheet music selections you will find in the Library of Congress online “Historic Sheet Music” presentation were published before 1923. Sheet music makes up a significant portion of the Music Division’s collections, as one would imagine. In fact, the rapid and great accumulation of sheet music that built up after copyright functions were centralized at the Library of Congress in 1870 is what prompted the very creation of a separate Music Division within the Library of Congress. In the late 19th century, pianos were common in middle class homes as economic prosperity made them affordable, and amateur musical performance within the home gained significant social value.
The value of sheet music, however, waned as recording technology developed and consumers were able to enjoy music through a passive experience as opposed to through performance. Popular music continues to be published as sheet music today, though it does not hold the same social and musical significance that it held in the late 19th/early 20th century.
Singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Beck Hansen is experimenting with re-introducing that antiquated significance of sheet music, however, with the publication of his new project, Song Reader. Instead of releasing a new album, Beck’s new collection of songs is disseminated as published sheet music, complete with cover art and advertisements meant to evoke the aesthetic values of 20th-century printing culture. In November Beck published the preface to Song Reader in The New Yorker where he explains his inspiration for the project and considers what recording technology did to our reception and experience of popular song as consumers and as musicians. Beck writes:
The pop of the early twentieth century had a different character. Songs could function as an accompaniment to some action; they could speak to specific parts of life, even as they indulged in fantasy and lyricism. They could be absurd as often as they were sentimental—you could pick up “The Unlucky Velocipedist” along with “Get Off of Cuba’s Toes” and “I’m a Cake-Eating Man.” Motifs repeated—there are thousands of “moon” songs, exotic-locale songs, place-name songs, songs about new inventions, stuttering songs—but even though much of the music was formulaic, there was originality and eccentricity as well. And professional songwriters, remote figures, names on a page, occupied a central place in the lives of millions. The culture was closer to its folk traditions, to the time of songs being passed down. The music felt like it could belong to almost anybody.
Beck’s observations are spot on, and you can see examples of what he describes in the Music Division’s Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800-1922 online presentation. A search in the database will produce 36 results for “moon” songs, songs about Hawaii and Honolulu, as well as five songs from the first decade of the 20th century that feature automobiles in the titles. In fact, a portion of the early 20th-century sheet music we acquired in our collections was organized and cataloged according to topic, ranging widely from songs about animals, to songs about holidays, to songs about sports (see our Baseball Sheet Music online collection). We even have a call number dedicated to sheet music about eyes!
I appreciate Beck’s consideration of how both sheet music and recording technology impacted our experience of popular song, as well as his insights regarding how his songwriting had to change when composing music expressly for others to perform and interpret. I’m personally looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Song Reader, and I hope to gather friends to play through and sing the music in a living room somewhere soon. Check out interpretations of Beck’s new music that people have posted on YouTube, or even post a performance yourself. Then I encourage you to print out some favorite titles and tunes from our Historic Sheet Music online collection, interpret them as you see fit, and post those performances as well (and be sure to let us know if you do) !