The following is a guest post from retired cataloger Sharon McKinley.
With summer and picnic season in full swing, The Library of Congress celebrates this treasured national institution in song, photos, and motion pictures. There are entire books, plays and poems centered around picnics, and the Music Division offers a wealth of musical delights.
A perusal of our online collections turned up a variety of vintage gems, but I found that the word “picnic” doesn’t always take you where you might have thought you were going. For one thing, romance seems to have been much more important than food in the good old days.
Albert von Tilzer wrote “Picnic for Two,” a gem of a romantic song, in 1905. This song features moonlight and ocean. No food, no ants, just a spooning couple. How risqué! As a matter of fact, was moonlight a prerequisite for a picnic back in the day? “Moonlight Picnic,” an 1882 copyright deposit by J.E. Murphy, is really all about a dance. An Irish dance. Much of our popular music of the late 19th century was aimed at, or made fun of, particular ethnic groups. Murphy and Mack was a minstrel troupe, featuring J.E. Murphy, and this song might well have been performed by him. It’s a lightweight, as quality music goes, but the cover advertises Murphy and Mack’s latest songs, and if you’d seen their show, you just HAD to own the latest numbers to play on your own parlor piano.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of music I came across was “Darkies’ Moonlight Picnic” (1881) by Jas. A. Bland. Bland (1854-1911) was a Howard University graduate who wrote more than 700 songs; he was one of the first major African-American popular song composers to come out of the minstrel tradition. Hence the language we find offensive today, but was standard for its time. Bland was as famous as most white minstrels. He toured extensively, and was known for appearing in England without blackface.
From the It’s Showtime database, we have “Picnic in the Sky,” from the 1915 show Alone at Last. You can listen to it here.
The Prints and Photographs Division offers many picnic scenes, like this poster for Hyde & Behman’s 1881 comedy, Muldoon’s Picnic; a stereo card of a Sunday school picnic circa 1900; and, for those who need a kitten fix, whimsical animal photographer Harry Whittier Frees’ 1914 photo of kittens having a picnic. (And I finally found an ant; not actually picnic-related, but scary!)
The great Scottish performer Harry Lauder recorded “The Picnic” in 1911. This is a dialect piece incorporating a song and a monologue. The Library owns one of Lauder’s trademark canes in the Danny Kaye collection.
And, last but definitely not least, here’s a wonderful illustrated video from the Library’s Songs of America site featuring teddy-bear-related objects, with “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” as its sound track.
So enjoy your summertime picnics, and think of the Library of Congress as you dance with your sweetie under the light of the moon.