Sheet music like every collectible has an interesting history. Sheet music has been employed in churches for hundreds of years. But, it was not until about 1880 that it became an item found in the home, bars, dance halls and other non-religious venues.
Starting in 1880 pianos began selling in record numbers and with that came the need to want to play old and new favourites on the piano. In the days before radio the piano became the gathering spot for family and friends.
By 1900 several smart music publishers began to mass produce song sheets to be sold in music stores, newspaper stands, 5&10 cent stores. The public appetite for the newest musical hits grew larger with each passing week. The public wanted to be able to play on their own pianos the hit song that was in the silent movie house or in the dance hall.
In New York City Tin Pan Alley became home to 45 music publishers. Tin Pan Alley was and is still located on Broadway and Sixth Avenue near 28th Street. M. Witmark and Sons, Will Rossiter, Harry and Albert Von Tilzer. The US music publishers were located near the Broadway theatre district. Song pluggers made a career of performing songs for Broadway stars, who would buy a song in return for the promise that their picture would be featured on the cover of the music sheet. Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin received their musical start as pluggers. In Toronto at 193 Yonge Street was located the major music sheet publisher Gordon V. Thompson Limited.
In the early days many music stores employed a house pianist who would play songs that a customer requested. If successful the customer would then purchase the music sheet and play it at home. Later, the marketing of sheet music was increased by placing the recording artists or movie stars on the front cover.
The early tradition of employing Broadway stars on song sheets brought about the concept of using someone famous to increase the sales to the public. The wonderful thing about collecting music ephemera is the vast amount of material. One’s collection can be only on Broadway plays, sports, movies, war songs, Christmas songs, Walt Disney material, individual performers, or specific song writers. The amount of collectible is endless and generally very affordable since so many song sheets were produced.
In 1914 when Great Britain declared war on Germany, the song writers swung into action. Patriotic music moved into the home, dance hall, vaudeville, and onto the battlefront. Some of the early favourites were contained in the "Flag of Empire Dance Album". "The Dreadnought Polka, Scouts’ Patrol, Queen Mary, Sailors’ Hornpipe, Pageant of Empire, God Save the King and Coronation Blue" were played on pianos in homes and dance halls across the British Empire. To encourage enlistment and keep up morale, the hit song "Khaki" hit the music stores. "Khaki is a mighty popular, first class military song. Oh! The man who’s dressed in khaki is the man who fights the foe. For he fights to guard the empire, our gallant soldier lad."
Popular songs now were issued on "Songs of the Homeland" sheet music. "Remember Nurse Cavell, Do Your Bit, Red Cross Nell and Khaki Jin, That Old Tipperary Tune, Fly the Flag, Every Soldier is My Sweetheart." The front cover of the "Remember Nurse Cavell" features her sitting with the family dog. The songs and the image on the song sheet were meant to create patriotism and of course a little propaganda did not hurt the war effort.
But, it was not all gloom and doom. Gordon V. Thompson published "Take Me To The Toronto Fair". "A catchy waltz song so popular with orchestras and bands. By 1916 when the end of the war did not appear to be near new songs focused on yearning for home. "When Jack Comes Back" ("When Jack comes back, there’ll be a mighty welcome for our soldier boy! And he will be the idol of the country").
In late 1918, when it appeared the war was finally at a turning point, a piece of sheet music hit the music stores with a soldier holding a camera on the front cover. "When I Send You A Picture Of Berlin, You’ll Know It’s Over and I’m Coming Home."
The advent of the radio in the early 1920’s provided an entire new venue for singers, bands and the mass marketing of music to the public. Radio required programming and a lot of programming. Groups of talented and not so talented individuals formed bands. Many played in dance halls, but many others were featured on radio shows. Guy Lombardo, Mart Kenney, Luigi Romanelli, Stan Patton, Jack Slatter. Two of Guy Lombardo’s hits were "Dance With A Dolly With A Hole In Her Stocking" and "Dream Train".
In the 1930’s and 40’s photographs of the performers appeared more and more on sheet music. Sheet music was an item not only to sell the song, but the performer or the movie connected to it.
The movies and Broadway produced hit after hit. Lon Chaney in Laugh Clown Laugh, Coney Island and the hit, "Cuddle Up A Little Closer". The movie starred Betty Grable. Of course the image of Canada was portrayed by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Rose Marie. The movie featured the famous song "Indian Love Call". On the red, white and blue song sheet Jeanette and Nelson are shown in a romantic embrace.
World War II brought forth six years of patriotic songs. "I’m Sending You the Siegfried Line to Hang Your Washing On." In 1940 with the Battle of Britain raging there was "Thumbs Up". The front cover featured a fighter pilot giving the thumbs up sign. Who can forget Vera Lynn singing, "We’ll Meet Again (Don’t Know Where - Don’t Know When, But I Know We’ll Meet Again Some Sunny Day.") Gordon V. Thompson publishers of Toronto sold Soldier Songs of Canada with the note, "This Book Should Be In Every Canadian Home."
Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbour Tin Pan Alley swung into song writing action. Bandleader Sammy Kaye wrote and recorded "Remember Pearl Harbour". Published by Republic Music Corporation the song sheet featured an Army bugler sounding the alarm for America to retaliate against the Japanese. The cover was in red, white and blue.
The 1930’s and 40’s featured a new hit song every Christmas. "The Merry Christmas Polka, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, The Santa Claus Parade." With the world at war again Christmas songs became focused on nostalgia. Bing Crosby singing, "I’ll Be Home For Christmas", and of course the famous 1940 Irving Berlin song Crosby sang in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, "White Christmas". Once the war was over "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer."
Soldiers described World War II bases as, "The civilian girls would come out to dances in the Drill Hall. Most of the bases had their own entertainment and bands. The sales of sheet music in the war years sky rocketed. Gathering around the fire and piano with family and friends became even more important.
With the end of World War II and the age of television sheet music has continued to be produced. Not in as large numbers as in the past, but still very collectible. Any material connected to Walt Disney is especially collectible. The music sheet from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs featuring the song "Heigh Ho" sells in the $150 range. Disney material has always been produced with the intent to increase sales. Fess Parker who played Davy Crockett on the early ABC tv show The Wonderful World Of Disney appears on the front of the song sheet. It sells in the $50 range.
Sheet music is a historical snapshot of a certain period in time. Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, the Hollywood Canteen of World War II, Edward Johnson, the famous Canadian opera singer. Almost every historical event has been immortalized in sheet music.
The one caution in collecting sheet music is like any paper item condition and proper storage are important.