A couple of weeks ago, I came across about 100 pieces of vintage sheet music. They had belonged to an elderly lady who was an enthusiastic amateur pianist. I knew her fairly well, and I remember she was one of those older people whose friends were all decades younger than she was. She would host regular music sessions at her house, with groups of students showing up to perform.
As I sorted this clearly beloved music collection, I found myself swept up on a journey through the 20th century. It included songs published way back in the early 1900s – I came across “One Fine Day,” from the opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini, published as a popular song in 1908. There really was a time when an opera aria was considered popular music!
From the 1920s, I found a song called “Lover, Come Back to Me” written by Oscar Hammerstein (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame), with music by David Romberg. It has one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen, summing up all the charm and flamboyance of the flapper era just one year before the U.S. sank into the Great Depression.
My parents grew up during the Depression, and I remember my father telling stories about going to the grocery stores each night to check through the trash for discarded food. People survived the 1930s by singing show tunes like “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, “Good Night Sweetheart,” sung by Rudy Vallee, and “Dancing in the Dark,” from the Broadway hit The Band Wagon.
Looking through the pieces from the 1930s, I was also amazed to find what appears to be the autograph of actress Jane Ferrar on the cover of “Yesterdays” from the 1935 film Roberta. Ms. Ferrar is not on the cast list for this film, but it does feature a number of uncredited early appearances by stars to be (including Lucille Ball). It seems possible that Ferrar might have been one of the song-and-dance girls alongside the incomparable Lucy. Did the original owner actually meet Ms. Farrar during her brief period of popularity (or before it)? This is the kind of thing that makes what I do so interesting.
As the U.S. recovered from the Depression, of course, came the war. Sheet music was now printed with ads for war bonds. “As Time Goes By” from the film classic Casablanca highlighted the days before World War II hit its full stride. Covers regularly featured film stars in wartime stories – songs like “My Heart Sings” from Anchors Aweigh and “That Old Black Magic” from Star-Spangled Rhythm.
For some reason the collection includes just a few songs from the 1950s. And then – BOOM – the 1960s: Folk music! McQueen! Dunaway! Streisand! What a difference a decade makes! There are relatively few pieces from the ‘70s and ‘80s – I think my old friend’s tastes were well established by then. (But why did she have a song by Madonna? Inquiring minds want to know.)
Going through this music again gave me clarity into why we collect. This wonderful set of old standards connects – not just the original owner, but us – to our nation’s and our personal stories. Like a musical snapshot, we capture the past and gain insight into how it underlies our journey to modern times.
It also made me want to go watch old movies!