Late 19th-Early 20th Century Sheet Music

Special Collections and University Archives acquired a collection of late 19th century early 20th century sheet music. Ragtime arrived, World War I inspired patriotic fervor, and show tunes exploded on Broadway. Many of the compositions included in the collection are written by famous composers. All of the following songwriters were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in its 1970 debut.

George M. Cohan

Nicknamed “the man who owned Broadway”, Cohan is considered the father of American musical comedies. He wrote, composed, produced, and/or acted in more than thirty-six Broadway musicals. His first big hit was Little Johnny Jones in 1904, which introduced now-famous songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy”.

In fact, Cohan wrote more than 300 original songs. “Over There” became America’s most popular World War I song. Other hits included “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway”, “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All”, and “Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Goodbye”.

Cohan was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his popular patriotic songs. Shortly before his death, Cohan was able to see the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” based on his life, starring James Cagney. Cohan died on November 5, 1942.

On September 11, 1959 Oscar Hammerstein II unveiled an eight-foot tall statue of Cohan in the heart of Times Square on Broadway commemorating Cohan’s contributions to musical theatre in America. Cohan’s status is the only public statue of a theatre performer in all of Manhattan.

Fred Fisher

After visiting the United States in 1892, Fred Fisher immigrated in 1900. He was famous for writing dozens of Irish songs, including “Peg O’My Heart”.

“Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” was written in the early days of aviation. The song follows a young man courting his girl. Allegedly, the girl was based on Josephine Sarah Magner, who was an early American female parachutist in 1905, and who married aviation pioneer Leslie Burt Haddock.

Fragments of the song are sung in the movie Titanic (1997) by both Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) during the Irish party and the “I’m flying” scenes. It’s also featured in an early episode of Peaky Blinders.

Irving Berlin

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Irving Berlin was born Israel Beilin on May 11, 1888. He was an incredibly prolific songwriter, with over 1000 songs to his name. Hi first major international hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, which sparked an international dance craze.

Berlin produced ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes, and love songs that defined American popular song for much of the century. Some of his most famous hits include: “Blue Skies,” White Christmas,” “Always,” “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, and of course “God Bless America.”

Berlin won an Academy Award for Best Song of the Year for “White Christmas” in 1942.

Egbert Van Alstyne

Van Alstyne composed a number of popular and ragtime songs, often teamed with lyricist Harry H. Williams, such as “Who Are You With To-Night?” Our collection also includes “That Old Girl of Mine”, a collaboration between Van Alstyne and Earle C. Jones.

Con Conrad

“Oh Frenchy”, words by Sam Ehrlich and music by Con Conrad

In 1912, Con Conrad published “Down in Dear Old New Orleans”. In 1913 he produced a show on Broadway called The Honeymoon Express, starring Al Jolson. His first big hit wouldn’t come until 1920 with “Margie”. Other famous songs include “Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me”, “You’ve Got to See Your Mama Every Night”, “Memory Lane”, “Lonesome and Sorry” and “Come on Spark Plug”. He went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Song, along with collaborator Herb Magidson, for “The Continental” in 1934.

Harry & Albert von Tilzer

Harry Von Tilzer was born Harry Gumm in Detroit, Michigan. He ran away and joined a traveling circus at age 14, where he adopted his mother’s maiden name (Tilzer) as his own, and added on a “Von” to seem even more elegant. Eventually all his brothers would also change their last name to match his.

In 1898 Harry Von Tilzer sold his song “My Old New Hampshire Home” to a publisher for $15. It went on to become a national hit, and Harry decided to become a professional songwriter. His 1900 song “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” became one of the biggest hits of that time.

In 1914, Harry Von Tilzer was a charter member of the performing rights society, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). 

His younger brother, Albert, also became a songwriter. One of his most notable hits is the classic “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.

Joseph E. Howard

Howard and his second wife, Ida Emerson, published a syncopated novelty telephone number called “Hello, Ma Baby” in 1899. It sold over a million copies of sheet music within months. A sequel, “Goodbye, My Lady Love,” appeared in 1904. Other notable titles written by Howard include: “On the Boulevard”, “What’s the Use of Dreaming?”, “I Don’t Like Your Family”, “When You First Kiss the Last Girl You Love”, and “A Boy’s Best Friend Is His Mother.” Perhaps the most famous of Howard’s songs is “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now?”, a “cry-in-your-beer waltz” first performed in the 1909 Broadway musical The Prince of To-Night

For more information on any of the sheet music sampled here, or to view the entire collection, please visit Special Collections & University Archives on Allendale Campus at Grand Valley State University.

Slave Narratives

Slave narratives are a specific literary genre featuring an account of the life, or a portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave. While some former slaves could write their own accounts of their lives, those who were not literate often worked with abolitionists to relate their stories. Narratives were meant to educate the American public about the realities of slavery.

Many former slaves who escaped to freedom, including Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass, later published accounts of their enslavement and escape. The typical format follows the narrator’s journey from slavery in the South to freedom in the North.

Special Collections has a number of slave narratives in our Civil War & Slavery Collection including the following:

Title page of "Aunt Sally; or, the Cross the Way of Freedom." (1859)
Williams, Isaac.  Aunt Sally; or, The Cross the Way of Freedom.  A Narrative of the Slave-Life and Purchase of the Mother of Rev. Isaac Williams, of Detroit, Michigan. Cincinnati: American Reform Tract and Book Society, 1859.

Probably written by the son of Sally Williams (b. 1796), this anti-slavery tract details the dehumanizing practices of slavery in North Carolina that includes the separating of families. Sally Williams was sold to an Alabama plantation owner while her mother and son were left behind, and later her husband and children were sold to other owners. Her son escaped slavery and was eventually able to purchase his mother’s freedom. Written for young people, the author hopes “that this little story may be the means of leading those who read it to think and feel deeply upon the truths which it involves…so that the young may grow up imbued with spirit of liberty….”

Title page of "Father Henson's Story" (1858).

Eliot Samuel L. and John Lobb.  Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life.  Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1858.

The narrative of the life of Josiah Henson first appeared in 1849 under the title The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada. Narrated by Himself and was ghost-written by Samuel Eliot.  It tells of Henson’s life from his birth as a slave in Maryland, his life there and later in Kentucky, his being sold in New Orleans, and finally his escape north via the Underground Railroad to find refuge in Canada. 

By the time the second (and revised) edition appeared, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had appeared and Stowe, to answer Southern critics, intimated that her story was based on that of Henson and his adventures.  This was not true in the strictest sense, but this edition of Henson’s autobiography conveniently was altered by John Lobb to conform to the statements of Stowe.  In his old age Josiah Henson came to believe that he indeed was the model for Uncle Tom. Our edition has this additional note from the book’s previous owner alongside Henson’s signature:

Josiah Henson's signature.

Sylvia DuBois’ biography is written entirely in phonetic orthography. The author, C.W. Larison, wished to write her story “just as she spoke it”. Larison explains that “giving her own words in the order and style in which she spoke them, portrays more of the character, intelligence, and force of the heroine than can possibly be given in any other way” (3).

Title page of "Henry Box Brown who escaped from slavery enclosed in a box 3 feet long and 2 wide" (1849).
Stearns, Charles.
Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide.  Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself…. 1849.

In 1848, Henry “Box” Brown had the original idea of mailing himself out of slavery with the help of a friend.  He made a box, climbed in, had the box nailed shut, and then was sent via a shipping company from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

February is Black History Month. To view more items related to slavery and African-American history, visit Seidman House on the Allendale Campus or view our Civil War & Slavery digital collection.