Monday, April 22nd, 2013...2:02 pm

Cheerful Warblers: Songsters in the Harvard Theatre Collection

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Cheerful Warbler, or, Juvenile Song Book. York, undated. Songster Collection, ca. 1780-1910 (TCS 89). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Box 40, folder 638.A new finding aid makes available for the first time over a thousand songsters in the Harvard Theatre Collection.

These little books, cheaply produced and modestly priced, mixed traditional pieces of music with popular favorites in a handy pocket-sized format, throwing in recipes, magic tricks and jokes for good measure.

Scheidler's Art of Conjuring Simplified and Songster. New York, undated. Songster Collection, ca. 1780-1910 (TCS 89). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Box 5, folder 78.

Scheidler's Art of Conjuring Simplified and Songster. New York, undated. Songster Collection, ca. 1780-1910 (TCS 89). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Box 5, folder 78.

Owing to the ephemeral nature of the genre there are few large collections of songsters; Harvard’s collection was amassed over time, from different sources. These songsters are cataloged in a single finding aid, not item by item like, for instance, the comparable collection of songsters at Brown University’s John Hay Library. The presentation of the Harvard songsters on a single page allows an unusually comprehensive view of the genre. Some observations yielded by this synthesis:
• The absence of musical notation is generally considered to be a hallmark of the nineteenth-century songbook, yet nearly 200 of the 1137 items in this collection do contain musical notation.
• Group singing appears to have played an important part of mid-nineteenth-century political campaigns; several dozen of these songsters were issued by supporters of Abraham Lincoln, for instance.
• Despite an abundance of titles implying a bucolic Southern origin (Bryant’s Essence of Old Virginny, White’s New Book of Plantation Melodies, Rose of Alabama), all but four of the United States publishers identified were located in northern cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

The collection is not limited to Americana. There are examples of the genre’s eighteenth-century British forerunner, the ballad chapbook. These two tiny copies of The Cheerful Warbler, published in Kent, are small enough to fit comfortably into a child’s hand.

Cheerful Warbler, or, Juvenile Song Book. York, undated. Songster Collection, ca. 1780-1910 (TCS 89). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Box 40, folder 638.

French and German songbooks are also represented in the collection. These lack the colorful paper covers of their American counterparts, and they are much shorter, usually just 4 or 8 rather than 32 or 64 pages. Their content is also noticeably more retrospective. A series of Alte Lieder fürs Landvolk is undated but identified as collected by “Adam Konturner,” a pseudonym for Konrad Mautner (1880-1924), an Austrian scholar of Alpine vocal forms. The first song in the series, “Das Gambslanschiassn is mein Freid,” features a yodeling chorus and old-fashioned Fraktur typography. Its two-part harmony, while printed from movable type, is so elegantly rendered as to appear engraved.

Alte Lieder fürs Landvolk. Nr. 1. Graz, undated. Songster Collection, ca. 1780-1910 (TCS 89). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Box 56, folder 968.

Alte Lieder fürs Landvolk. Nr. 1. Graz, undated. Songster Collection, ca. 1780-1910 (TCS 89). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Box 56, folder 968.

Alte Lieder fürs Landvolk. Nr. 1. Graz, undated. Songster Collection, ca. 1780-1910 (TCS 89). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Box 56, folder 968.

[Thanks to Christina Linklater, Project Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]

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