Sheet Music of the Week: Cataloger’s Corner Edition

"The sterling silver moon," by Irving Berlin. New York : Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, 1918.

The following is a guest post by Senior Cataloging Specialist Sharon McKinley.

The average person might think that cataloging is a dull job, but it most certainly isn’t here in the Music Division! Okay, so the umpteenth biography of Justin Bieber may get a bit old, but one of our primary jobs is making the Library’s treasures accessible to researchers and the public.  All of the catalogers have worked with first editions, manuscripts, and collections. Getting to handle scores from the 17th century and before is simply a treat. Looking at holographs of famous 20th-century composers can be breathtaking, even if their writing may be indecipherable and identification of works difficult.  I hope to present, from time to time, some of our favorite items and collections for your entertainment.

So here’s one!

Unpublished Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin was one of the most prolific of Tin Pan Alley songwriters. He produced over 1250 songs and lyrics, large numbers of them stashed away in boxes and forgotten. Some were written for shows and movies which were never produced. Others were replaced by other composers’ songs. Many were never published. But copyrighted? Of course! The Music Division has dozens of melodic ideas and songs in lead sheet and score format, including little ditties written for family members. Berlin famously could not notate music, so they’re in someone else’s hand, but they came straight from Berlin’s fertile brain. There are some dogs in there (write 1250 pieces and you’ll write some bad ones, too!), and lyrics which might seem offensive today, but they are the products of their time and a vast output.

Janet McKinney of the Acquisitions and Processing Section handed off almost one hundred copyright deposits to me for cataloging. Having the opportunity to peruse these songs and do the research on what show or movie (if any) in which they might have been performed has been wonderful. The complete lyrics of Irving Berlin, edited by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet (New York : Knopf, 2001) is a wonderful resource drawing heavily on the Music Division’s collections, and providing historical context and fascinating back stories. The book cites items in the collection—which I’m holding in my hand. It’s wonderful to see our unique holdings featured like this, and to make bibliographic information available to the public for the first time.

You can find our bibliographic records in the online catalog here on the LC web site, or through WorldCat, which will tell you which libraries near you own The complete lyrics of Irving Berlin, an entertaining read as well as a great reference source.

Follow the links for bibliographic records from some of our more unusual Berlin items:  “Song for Elizabeth Esther Barrett” (1957)  is dedicated to Berlin’s granddaughter. On our copy, the composer credit, “by her grandpa” is crossed out and replaced with “words and music by Irving Berlin.” I love “Welcome yellow Aryans,” from This is the Army (1941) – it’s from the point of view of the Germans telling their oh so un-Aryan allies in Japan that they are really “Aryans under the skin.” Berlin would often re-write variations on lyrics and music. One such example is “When a one star general’s daughter meets a four star general’s son” (1956), which also exists in a version called “When a three star general’s daughter meets a four star general’s son .”

3 Comments

  1. Marie from Connecticut
    June 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    This post is entertaining, informative, and humorous. Love it! Keep it coming!

  2. Kimberly Field
    June 24, 2011 at 8:12 am

    What a delight to read… thanks for sharing .

  3. Catherine Kerst
    October 7, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Most wonderful post! Nice job!

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