As the topic for this Themester, labor has been a focus for many undergraduates across campus. Courses explore the intersections of labor with race, gender, history, technology, the legal system, and art. I am sure each course takes a vastly different approach to this topic, but there is one resource that provides a provocative insight into how labor might have been viewed in the early twentieth century. While photographs and primary documents can be extremely helpful in understanding these intersections in a somewhat more objective manner, we can also look at the popular image of these issues through other relics of the time.
I’d like to introduce you to IN Harmony, a digital library project that provides access to popular American sheet music from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries held at the Lilly Library, the Indiana State Library, the Indiana State Museum, and the Indiana Historical Society. In their era, these pieces of music could be found in many homes throughout the country, bought both for their entertainment value in a time of limited sound recording and for their eye-catching covers. The combination of the colorful cover pages and the rather frank lyrics (along with the occasionally startling melodic turn) spurs thoughts about what these lyricists and artists thought would be topical and popular enough to sell. By examining the objects these creators thought would sell well, we can start to piece together what that era might have been like.
Images abound on topics of labor, and here are just a few.
The song “Why Shouldn’t They Be Good Enough Now?” highlights the fact that the role of women as workers while men were at war precedes the overshadowing discussion of the return of soldiers from World War II. Sample lyrics:
“If they were good enough before/To help us win the war,/Why shouldn’t they be good enough now?”
In the song “Cotton Time,” plantation owners happily dance to the music of African Americans who sing while they pick cotton. The music is very syncopated and reflects a common stereotype of African American music. Sample lyrics:
“In cotton time, the love bells chime./Then you will be my honey in the sunny cotton time.”
“This Grand Countrie” celebrates Eugene Debs, a prominent American socialist who would go on to found the Industrial Workers of the World and would be the socialist candidate for five presidential elections. The hymn-like setting of the song celebrates the working man, and the poem envisions an America that benefits all its citizens. Sample lyrics:
“Behold a million working men, their banners lifted high!/You can see the fire of battle in each patriotic eye!/You shall hear their shouts of vict’ry in the coming jubiliee/For these men shall be the rulers of this grand countrie!”
Jack Drislane’s added words to Henry Frantzen’s popular, dance-able (and apparently whistle-able) two-step celebrating the leisure of college life as opposed to the work of the real world. Sample lyrics:
“Bring back the days of the golden past,/Those good old college days,/Those days we never knew a care or strife”
The length and purpose of this blog post doesn’t really permit me to examine any of these songs in depth, but each does beg several questions: When does entertainment become political? When does labor become entertainment? How might this sheet music have been used? Why would people be interested in hearing this kind of music?
Sheet music is often neglected in many studies, but it can provide an impetus to all kinds of questions about the relationships between entertainment and pressing subjects during different points in history. Hopefully this exposure to the treasures of popular sheet music will spur some new thoughts as to the uses of all kinds of documents.
– Bret McCandless
Holmes, Robyn., and Ruth Lee Martin. The Collector’s Book of Sheet Music Covers. Canberra, Australia: National Library of Australia, 2001.
Walas, Tony. Visions of Music: Sheet Music In the Twentieth Century. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2014.
Wenzel, Lynn, and Carol J. Binkowski. I Hear America Singing: A Nostalgic Tour of Popular Sheet Music. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.