In the fourth part of his series revealing the hidden treasures which will soon find a home at the new Library of Birmingham, Graeme Brown examines a collection of rare songsheets.
While many of the more profound songs of the 18th century have stood the test of time, the vast songsheet collection of Birmingham’s Central Library suggests the popular music of the day was not always so weighty.
The burgeoning romantic movement saw the likes of Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt compose the music that would define a generation, but the collection shows that some of the songs designed to inspire laughter, debate and patriotism have fallen by the wayside.
The collection, which has only recently been truly researched, contains 6,000 songsheets dating from the early-1700s to the 1950s, including many taking a light-hearted view on religion, literature and a good old-fashioned booze up.
As well as serving as a reminder of popular culture in years gone by, it also illustrates progress in early film and fashion, societal attitudes to religion, slavery, war and women, and the ascent of marketing.
Assistant librarian Anne Elliott said while the work of those such as Anthony Trollope have transcended the Victorian era, many of the songsheets display a variety of entertainment forever stuck in the 19th century.
She said: “If you look back your perception is of very different art and music by people who continue to be known to this day, but looking at these you realise that is just the top part of what is a huge range, representing different parts of people’s daily lives.
“That is one of the reasons why this collection is so important – it represents music that is not particularly wonderful or profound but represents part of the culture of the period, and gives you a sense of the period and the scope of it.
“The more profound dominates – if you read something like Trollope you wouldn’t see much of this type of stuff.”
The songsheets come from a time before music could be recorded and re-played, and were designed to offer a memory of a show or an opportunity for a family sing-song.
“Many songs come from stage shows which were a lot like a Noel Coward musical play – neither a play or an opera – and of course the English never really got to grips with opera,” Ms Elliott said.
“Obviously you weren’t able to play recorded music, so your only way of replicating what you have heard is to remember it or buy the song sheet and then sing it with your friends.
“Perhaps you would do it with a karaoke machine now.”
She said the purchasers would have been “at least middle class”, and until the 20th century music was considered to be an expensive commodity.
The Music Library has about 6,000 songsheets in loose and bound volumes.
The library’s older reference songsheets and piano music have never previously been searchable through its online catalogue but plans are being put in place before the move to the Library of Birmingham next year, and a retrospective cataloguing project has begun.
The oldest songsheet is Loud Alarms Of War, by John Eccles in 1700 and comes from a performance at the New Theatre.
Eccles was the only Master of the King’s Musick in the history of the post to serve four monarchs – King William III, Queen Anne, King George I and King George II.
Later in the 18th century came Beer-Drinking-Briton, by Thomas Arne in 1757, which broaches two subjects dear to the heart of the British – drinking and criticising the French, with lines like “Those who drink good, honest, ale are always going to beat those who drink wine”.
Ms Elliott said: “You can see how it matches with certain elements of popular culture. This could quite easily be changed into a modern football chant.”
She added: “In the 18th century we spent much of our time fighting the French, and this would have been at the time of the French and British fighting in North America – in Louisiana for example.
“There was an awful lot going on in the 18th century, with the Jacobite revolution, and, much like the Second World War, a lot of music encouraged the public to be positive.
“People were getting fairly twitchy, so it was a way of improving morale.”
The Grey Friar, by W. Lovell Phillips in the 1850s, shows the propensity to poke fun at religion in what are now viewed as more puritanical times.
With lines like, “With a cup of good sack, and a bright roaring fire, what more could the heart of a mortal desire?”, the song gives a less than gentle reminder of the fortunate position friars enjoyed.
Ms Elliott said this was an instance where the songsheets identified the prejudices of the day.
She said: “It is reflecting prejudices. There was probably still quite a lot of of anti-Catholic feeling and it is almost folk-inherited idea of how Catholic orders aren’t what you would expect them to be – supposed to be helping the poor but living in luxury.
“It is reflecting the dissolution of the monasteries and the idea that they were not living as they should be.”
In times before advertising created icons like Mickey Mouse – and centuries before Simon Cowell had his way with popular culture – the songsheets reflect the love for literature in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ms Elliott explained: “A lot were named after the popular acts of the day – like Dickens characters.
“The Little Dorrit Polka is an example – it is music that is part of popular culture, which you associate with as a modern phenomenon but it is not.”
Others like Victoire!, by Camille Saint-Saëns, are an example of songsheets which lean more towards the propaganda.
With the First World War coming to an end in 1918 it features a “sword of justice” through a German eagle.
“This is very much propaganda – you can almost sense the printer has decided to go to town here,” Ms Elliott said. “It was the end of the war and that was very much the feeling at the time in Europe.”
Ahead of the move to the new £188 million Library of Birmingham in September 2013, Ms Elliott said work was still taking place to make the most of the songsheet collection.
She said: “We are only just discovering what is in this collection.
“They have been stored in boxes in alphabetical order so until you open and have a look nobody knows what is in there.
“We didn’t realise the spread of dates, subject matter and the fact it is not just music, but of interest in all sorts of areas – like marketing for one.
“We hope that these can become more popular because they are such an interesting and unusual resource.”
True Honest Britons
Ye true honest BRITONS who love your own Land,
Whose Sires were so brave so Victorious and free
Who always beat FRANCE when they took her in hand,
come join honest BRITONS, in Chorus with me.
Join in Chorus, in Chorus with me, come join honest BRITONS in Chorus with me:
Let us sing our own Treasures, Old England’s good Cheer,
the Profits and Pleasures of stout BRITISH Beer
Your Winetipling, Dram sipping Fellows retreat,
But your Beer drinking BRITONS can never be beat.
The French with their Vinyards, are meagre and pale,
They Drink of the Squeazings of half ripend Fruit;
But we, who have Hop Grounds to mellow our Ale,
Are Rosy and Plum, and Freedom to boot.
Shou’d the French dare to invade us, thus Arm’d with our Poles,
We’ll bang their bare ribs, make their lanthorn jaws Ring;
For your Beefeating, Beer drinking BRITONS are Souls,
Who will shed their last Drop for their COUNTRY and KING.