New Historic Sheet Music Online: Honoring the First World War Centenary

John Clayton Calhoun. "The beast of Berlin we're going to get him." New York: Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., 1918.

John Clayton Calhoun. “The beast of Berlin we’re going to get him.” New York: Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., 1918.

When the Library of Congress was founded in 1800, the institution could not yet boast an established Music Division; in fact, it would be nearly a century before the Library formally created a Music Division. That decision was not so much a philosophical reflection of music’s importance in our culture but rather a necessary course of action in response to one major influx: copyright deposits. When copyright functions were centralized in the Library of Congress in 1870, the number of new deposits of music for copyright rose from 2,891 in 1870 to 5,085 by 1871 (an increase of 176%). A decade later, in 1880, the annual number of new deposits of music reached 10,528 (an increase of 364%).[1] At this point in the late nineteenth century, sheet music still served as the major forms of music dissemination (though recorded sound technology was coming soon).

Piano transcriptions of large-scale works, marches, sentimental ballads, and other examples of parlor music are well documented in the Music Division’s sheet music holdings; and from the late 19th century through the early 20th century, sheet music not only served to disseminate music for home recreation but contributed to documenting what events, issues, and cultural themes were significant to the American public as well as how those topics were perceived. Our published sheet music collections cover just about every historic event in American history, from Civil War sheet music, to historic baseball sheet music, to Presidential campaign songs, just to name a few. This month the Music Division is proud to announce the launch of newly-digitized World War I sheet music, made available in recognition of the centenary.

Frederick G. Vogel wrote in the preface to his reference book, World War I Songs: A History and Dictionary of Popular American Patriotic Tunes, with Over 300 Complete Lyrics, that “With the exception of World War II, no episode in American history has stimulated the nation’s songwriters into action more than World War I…” Vogel asserts that more than 35,000 marches, ballads, and anthems related to the “war to end all wars” were copyrighted between 1914 and 1919 by established composers and no-name amateurs alike. The Library of Congress acquired over 14,000 pieces of published sheet music relating to the “Great War,” with the greatest number coming from the years of the United States’ active involvement (1917-1918) and the immediate postwar period.

We hope that you will take time out to explore this newly available online collection of World War I Sheet Music and come to appreciate the role historic sheet music plays in documenting our nation’s history. You’ll come across recognizable names such as American favorite George M. Cohan, Leo Friedman (best remembered for the sentimental  “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”), and Gus Edwards (to name just a few), and you’ll discover new names that you’ve likely never heard of before. In fact, half of the approximately 14,000 pieces of newly digitized sheet music consists of vanity press publications or manuscript amateur copyright deposits, representing the music of the American public itself. You will also notice a significant presence of early jazz in this online collection, heralding the approaching jazz age of the 1920s. Whether cheering on our soldiers, longing for their return, or mourning their loss, songwriters found an outlet for our country’s anxiety and emotional investment through music.

[1] This statistic is included in Library of Congress retiree Gillian B. Anderson’s article, “Putting the Experience of the World at the Nation’s Command: Music at the Library of Congress, 1800-1917,” published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. XLII, No. 1 (1989): p. 117 .

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