The great city of New Orleans turns 300 this year, and they’re celebrating in a big way. To help commemorate this exciting milestone, we proudly present a few of our musical gems published in one of my favorite cities.
New Orleans is best known as the birthplace of jazz, of course, with a well-documented history of melding disparate musical styles—European and African—into a uniquely American form. But the city’s musical story goes back much further than the development of ragtime and jazz in the late 19th century.
There have been music publishers in New Orleans for most of its history. At first, sheet music in the United Sates was imported at great expense from Europe, or brought over with wealthy settlers. New Orleanians transferred allegiance several times, looking first to France, then to Spain, then very briefly to France again for high culture.
But after the acquisition of Louisiana by the United States in 1803, music printed in the United States began to appear. Publishers in cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia teamed up with local concerns to publish and sell their music in New Orleans. “Hail to the Chief,” composed by James Sanderson, is a good example; the highly successful Philadelphia publisher George Willig tapped the New Orleans market by co-publishing with E. (Emile) Johns, who was selling music there as early as 1826. The march, from Lady of the Lake, was already famous, both in England and America, and Willig was establishing a presence in the South with this sure-fire hit.By 1852, P.P. Werlein, a German immigrant, had set up shop as a music publisher in New Orleans. He met with enduring success; despite temporarily being put out of business after the city fell to Union forces in 1862, he came back soon after the Civil War ended, and Werlein’s Music was a fixture in the city until 2003. Not surprisingly, in 1861 Werlein was publishing music supporting the Confederate cause, and honoring local military units such as the Washington Artillery, for whom a number of pieces were written, such as “Parade March and Quick Step.”
There was more local talent involved in this particular piece of music. The creator of the handsome lithographed cover was Jules Lion, a free man of color who had emigrated to New Orleans from France in the 1830s, and was well known in the city as an artist, lithographer, and photographer. While it is perhaps ironic that he was producing art glorifying a Confederate military unit, it is in keeping with the diversity of the city that his skills were in demand, even during the Civil War.
As the century progressed, peacetime themes reappeared as songwriters sought to please their middle class and wealthy clientele. “Fairy Nell” was a song in a popular show, Over the Garden Wall. It features a handsome portrait of the performer, Mrs. George S. Knight, who toured in this show with her husband all over North America.
By the 20th century, African-Americans were becoming more involved in the music publishing business. From the earliest days of the city, slaves and free blacks were creating music. Well before the Civil War, African Americans were composing and illustrating music printed by mainstream publishers. But it wasn’t until 1915 that an African American founded a music publishing house in New Orleans. Armand J. Piron had made his name as a jazz violinist, bandleader, and composer. He joined with Clarence Williams, at that time an up-and-coming pianist and composer, to create their own publishing company and control the entire production of music from composition to sales. “America They are Both for You” is a WWI song with music composed, arranged, and published by the duo; it tells of a proud mother sending her children off to war.
New Orleans, with its fabulous wealth of music of all kinds dating back over two centuries, has provided us with so much: sentimental ballads, stirring military marches, an outpouring of ragtime and jazz, and other hot popular hits. Happy 300th birthday! We wish you many more.
We leave you with a recording of Armand Piron’s greatest hit, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.”