Pre-collegiate students encounter popular music of the past

July 31, 2019
Ray Heigemeir
Selection of sheet music covers

On Thursday, July 18, students in the popular culture course at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institute visited the Department of Special Collections to view materials from the Fielder Collection of American Sheet Music.

Students browse the Fielder Collection materials

The students stepped back in time to encounter sheet music for popular songs from the 1820s through the early 20thcentury. As a precursor, we viewed the Singing Master’s Assistant  [Boston : Printed by Draper and Folsom, 1781]. Increased interest in the practice of singing in Colonial America is evidenced by instruction books such as the Singing Master's Assistant. Steady growth in sheet music publishing over the course of the 19th century supported music-making in the home, and was paralleled by similar growth in piano and guitar manufacturing. Sheet music cover illustration art, topical themes, commerce and advertising, and the rise of mechanical sound reproduction (player piano rolls, sound discs, radio broadcasts) were considered.

Following are some titles we viewed from the Fielder Collection:

Buy a broom?
Philadelphia : George Willig, 1827
Full-page cover illustration was somewhat uncommon this early in the 19th century.

Good night love

Good night love : a much admired ballad adapted to Sig. Bellini's celebrated rondo, 'Dalla gioja e dal piacere'
New York : Thomas Birch, [1840]
This very large illustration, of a young woman in traveling clothes, would have enhanced the aesthetics of the owner's parlor or music room.


The Old Granite State

The Old Granite State
Boston : Ditson, 1843
The Hutchinson Family Singers toured the USA extensively in the mid-19th century. Their performances supported causes including suffrage, temperance, and antislavery.

The California Pioneers : a Song

The California Pioneers : a Song
San Francisco : Atwill & Co., 1852
Joseph Atwill traveled from New York to the Bay Area to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. His earnings helped him open California's first music store. This rare sheet claims to be "the first piece of music published in California."

On the Beach at Long Branch

On the Beach at Long Branch
New York : Pond & Co., 1868
William Lingard was a popular comic singer and drag performer.

Pleading and Practice

Pleading and Practice Grand March
Northport, NY : G. Bishop, 1896
This wonderful cover promotes the publication of the Encyclopedia of Pleading and Practice, by McKinney and Michie.

Students then had the opportunity to browse through a portion of the collection, and each chose a song title to examine more closely. For Ava Chang of Las Vegas, the visit revealed how the business of pop music has changed dramatically over the centuries. Today, “music is no longer purchased to be played on an instrument by yourself or with others—when people listen to music, it is usually online.” On the other hand, Houston native Leila Pulaski noticed that many of the old titles still felt relevant, since “we still look to pop music to hear about nearly the same things. We are searching for a ballad about love, a teary tune about heartbreak, or something that is simply catchy.”

The course’s instructor, Nate Sloan, who studied music history at Stanford and now serves as Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Southern California, believes that the kind of hands-on history available at the Department of Special Collections is invaluable for studying popular culture. “Holding a piece of early sheet music in your hands connects you to a different age—the look, the feel, even the smell—but then other parts of the experience feel utterly contemporary. Pop music has always been a business, and sheet music publishers set a template for how to promote and sell songs that is still in use, in one form or another, by today’s digital music industry. This cyclical nature of popular culture is hard to understand, unless you experience its artifacts first-hand.”