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.
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 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.
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.