With the help of two of my kids and three husky grandkids, my home office was moved upstairs last week.
Included in the move were several four-drawer files, several cartons full of information, notes, stories and one small suitcase in which my mother had stored sheet music from World War I and World War II, and the intervening decades of the Golden Twenties and Depression-ridden ’30s.
On some of the music were penciled notes, names and dates, their significance known only to my mother and those who wrote them. A quick glance at them undoubtedly brought back to her an instant recall of people and experiences associated with those songs.
There are stories and memories behind each piece. For example, the song “Smile and Show Your Dimple” did not sell well – fewer than 1,000 copies. It was a catchy tune; the composer was disappointed, but not disillusioned. All it needed was new words.
When he got around to rewriting the words – and the title – Irving Berlin came up with a song that is still popular today, “In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it. ...” That’s right – “Easter Parade.”
Another Berlin song in the suitcase was one that he was reluctant to publish. He felt the public would think the words were superficial. But after Kate Smith introduced the tune on her radio program, “God Bless America” became a virtual American anthem. Profits from the song were donated to the Boy Scouts of America as a thank-you from the composer to his adopted country.
Berlin migrated from Russia at the age of 4. His father died when Berlin was only 8. The boy roamed the streets selling papers and singing for pennies. Sometimes, he’d enhance his income by leading a blind singer into local taverns.
Never formally trained in music, Berlin had a natural ear for it and pecked out hundreds of tunes. His first published piece was in 1907, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” He wrote an estimated 3,000 songs, published 900 of them and more than 50 were spectacular hits.
The 1910-1940 era was interesting. It tended to have wordy titles and voluminous verses. Romance, as now, was a popular subject, such as “In the Land of Wedding Bells,” “There’s Something about a Rose that Reminds Me of You” and “All Alone with You in a Little Rendezvous.”
Lack of romance, too, was a subject such as the song, “Take ’em to the Door, That’s All There Is, There Ain’t No More Blues.” That song’s cover sheet pictured the most doleful looking smooch-starved specimen of mankind one could ever imagine.
Social commentary, then as now, was evident in some of the tunes in the suitcase, including the 1916 song, “Coalin’ Up in Colon Town” which probably raised a few eyebrows as it hinted at seaport shenanigans when lonesome sailors hit port, and there was the 1919 tune,”Alcohol Blues,” lamenting the Prohibition era.
Music during World War I tugged at the nation’s heartstrings with “Bring Back my Soldier Boy to Me,” “Just a Baby’s Letter Found in No Man’s Land” and “When I Come Back to You, We’ll Have a Yankee Doodle Wedding.”
World War III had its share of songs, too, in Mom's old suitcase: “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” “Cleanin’ My Rifle and “Dreamin’ of You,” “Just a Prayer Away,” “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “When the Lights Go on Again All Over the World.”
Sheet music covers from the teens through the ’40s were lavishly illustrated by talented artists. Many of the covers were suitable for framing.
Next time you’re asked to help clean up the basement or attic in Grandma’s house, welcome the opportunity. But don’t be surprised if work slows down considerably when old sheet music spills out of a suitcase or box. That’s the magic of music.
Paul Fugleberg is a former editor and co-publisher of the Flathead Courier in Polson and the Ronan Pioneer. His freelance articles and photos have appeared in numerous regional and national magazines and newspapers, and he has written several books. He can be reached at email@example.com.