December 2007 Issue
Songs That Tell a Story
The Cleveland Public Library spotlights a noteworthy sheet-music collection.
Today, “Cleveland Rocks.” But it didn’t always.
Back in September 1852, residents slow-danced to the strains of the “Cleveland State Fair Waltzes,” performed by the German Brass Band in honor of the state festival that was taking the city by storm that year (it made the rounds of other towns, too, before being headquartered permanently in Columbus, beginning in 1874).
And it’s easy to imagine World War I doughboys sitting around a campfire far from home in 1918, pining to be back in the Buckeye State described in “I’m From Ohio,” where “It’s simply grand to shake the hand of each friend I used to know.”
These anthems are just two of the 400 being showcased at “A Sentimental Journey,” an exhibit at the downtown branch of the Cleveland Public Library through January. The display pays homage to the institution’s extensive sheet music collection, comprised of more than 20,000 noteworthy tunes celebrating the great American songbook.
“These songs reflect and tell the story of our country in so many ways,” says William E. Anderson, the library’s senior subject specialist. “It reflects a time that was very participatory. You bought the sheet music, somebody in the family played the piano, and anybody could sing the lyrics. Assuming that movies are correct, even kids in college would spend an entertaining evening sitting around the piano and singing.
“Nowadays, there’s karaoke,” he notes, “but it just isn’t the same.”
Selections range from operettas –– including “Lover, Come Back to Me,” crooned by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in “The New Moon” –– to original Broadway cast arrangements, including “America,” made famous by Chita Rivera and The Shark Girls in “West Side Story.”
A soulful Elvis gazes from the cover of “Love Me Tender,” and Nat King Cole’s sly grin promises travelers will “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66!”
“After seeing these songs, people stand and sing in the hallway,” laughs fine arts and special collections manager Pamela Eyerdam.
But it’s those compositions rooted in Ohio that generate the most interest among patrons –– from 1909’s obscure “Cleveland Industrial Exposition March,” acknowledging the city’s burgeoning industrial success; to “Ohio,” the bittersweet ode written in 1953 by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green for the Tony Award-winning show, “Wonderful Town.”
Homegrown composers and publishers of note get their due. They include Cleveland native Ernest R. Ball, best known for his Irish ballad, “Mother Machree,” penned in 1910, and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” written two years later. Sam Fox Publishers — a Cleveland firm that pioneered the publication of music for film companies, supplied scores for short-subject “March of Time” newsreels and was the exclusive publisher of John Philip Sousa — is also represented.
“Sheet music,” reflects Daniel Goldmark, assistant professor of music at Case Western Reserve University, “is really the beginning of modern music culture: You’ve got these companies putting out hundreds, if not thousands of songs every year.
“And how many of them will be a hit in a single year? Maybe 100, maybe 200. The rest are songs that people will not remember.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about this collection –– it spans all time.”