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1979: Albert's (in Omaha) is lit!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

S1K - intro

The Book of a Thousand Songs

The Book of a Thousand Songs. I first saw it on a shelf at Southern Music in San Antonio, TX, and a quick look convinced me I didn't need it. After returning home to Georgia, I suddenly decided I needed it after all, ordered it over the phone, and found that it's a trove of slightly shopworn treasures. The songs go from being as short as one line to taking a couple of pages, divided between ones that look like choral settings, ones that have a melody in one hand and the accompaniment in the other, and ones where the melody is woven into a rich enough piano part.

When we lived in Virginia, I found a second copy of this book. My first is a large volume, a little over half the thickness of a ream of paper and about the same size otherwise. The second copy was printed during wartime, so it's more petite and the paper is thinner. I rigged a cardboard slipcase for it and carried it in my backpack for years. I'm glad to have the lighter copy, as the somewhat improvised music stand on my electrical piano is not at its best with large, heavy volumes. When I get that messed-up hammer wire fixed on the other piano this won't be a problem.

The book is copyright 1918, edited by the once-ubiquitous Albert E(rnest) Wier, who is also responsible for Masterpieces of Piano Music, a glorious brick of sheet music covering everything from Bach to some formerly fashionable flashes in the pan who wrote painfully figurative little tone poems for the parlor player. It was part of the Music for the Millions series that brought so darn much culture to so many, and which have brought much joy to me personally. The older edition bore a MUMIL imprint, which first looked like a dignified Roman numeral. I eventually figured out its true meaning. (Can you figure it out, Dear Reader? The clue is in this paragraph!)

Sentimental songs! Operatic songs! Sacred songs! Hymns! Children's songs! Southern songs! College songs! Sea songs! Rounds! Patriotic songs! National and Folk songs! This book was put together back in the dim, forgotten days when it was actually possible for a song to come out of copyright (that's right, kids!), so it has snappy pop numbers from a couple of decades before 1918 and on back. It has classical tunes with sappy bromides fitted in place of the original dramatic intent (along with ones bearing apparent translations that are at least intended to be faithful) such as school children probably suffered to while developing a solid loathing for any and all forms of culture and uplift.

The book's most endearing feature is that it lets me make connections. I play this one, and realize where that tune comes from that I used to hear in the background of a cartoon, or where the lyric that Krazy Kat sings to himself is from. I play that one and it dawns on me that it was parodied in a Lewis Carroll book. I find more songs by Septimus Winner, a particular favorite, who wrote "Listen to the Mocking-Bird" and "Whispering Hope" under a pseudonym, as well as "Ten Little Indians" and "Der Deitscher's Dog" -- which we seem to know now as "Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone," and which is as often as not generously credited to the prolific "Anonymous" in these lazy times.

I showed this to my musician father, and he now has a copy of his own. He also likes to do what I do, which is to play through it aimlessly, annotating when a light bulb goes off; writing in a missing composer or lyric source (Claribel! Dekker!) or other trivium ("It's possible that The Old Grey Goose is a parody of this"). I recently mentioned to Dad that I was playing through some pages in the book, and he asked how far I'd gotten. Oh no, I said, I meant I'd just started in the middle and had played a half dozen or so pages… but it got me thinking. Why not, I thought, start from the beginning (like I did once with Gems of the Universe) and play every song at least one time through, repeats optional?

So I did. Updates to follow. I'm up to about page 32 now. I don't intend to write about every song, just to hit the interesting spots. If the book interests you, it's still available, and probably not more than about 100% more than I paid for my first copy, which was ten bucks. There are also scans of it online, or there have been. If I come across it again, I'll post a URL. I have my own set of scans that I made for my own use, so even though I'm not carrying the book in my backpack these days (it's getting fragile, and I gave in and taped a couple of pages that wanted to be free), it still goes a lot of the same places I go.

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