I love collecting stuff. I collect musical instruments (the stranger the better). I have a passion for Nutcrackers, The kind you find around Christmas, I have over 100 in all shapes and sizes, (alright maybe that makes me a bit of a hoarder, but this stuff is cool). But the one thing I really love to collect is old sheet music. I have mountains of it, with some sheets going back as far as the late 1800’s. If I see old sheet music somewhere like a flea market or a yard sale, consider it pretty much sold!
Not long ago, I got a huge box of old sheet music from a very nice older lady who told me they used to belong to her husband, who was a big band leader, but in the “old days,” (that’s how she said it). I took a quick look in the box and found cool old pieces of some Dixieland Jazz and old show tunes, some rags and blues, even one with the Marx Brothers on the cover. That’s was all I needed to see, so she got the $25 she wanted and off I went like a kid on Christmas morning! When I was finally able to tear into the box and see what I spent my money on, I found a lot of really nice pieces (many dating back to the early 1900’s). Before you start thinking I ripped this poor old lady off, you need to know that not everything old has any real value, and that goes double for this kind of stuff. Some of my nutcrackers are worth quite a bit more then my entire collection of sheet music.
While old sheet music isn’t worth much, there’s a lot to learn by studying these pieces. For example, there were several old music magazines in the box from 1901. It’s fun to read through those, and I really love the ads, like the one about the secret to getting your husband to stop drinking “demon whiskey” for only 5 cents!
The magazine that really caught my eye was a copy of “Popular Songs” from March of 1935. Inside, I found articles about Rudy Vallee’s “Secret Passion”, where it said something to the effect that even though you never see him “around town with a lady, he is not of that type!” I’ll show you it to you if you don’t believe me! There’s also a Great article with the “New Wonder Boys” the Dorsey Brothers! There’s also a photo of an amazingly beautiful 19 year old “new comer” by the name of Dorothy Lamour!
What really popped out was an interview with none other then the “Father of the Blues,” W. C. Handy. At the time of the interview, he was 62 years old, and while Handy was long respected as a writer and band leader, he wasn’t performing as much as he wanted to. He complains in the interview about how others are making money from his music but he himself can’t seem to get a booking! The best part of this interview is his discussion about how he wrote the “Saint Louis Blues,” which is often widely considered to be the very first blues song published. To read his own words about this song was really a blast! Below are some highlights from Handy.
“One morning I left home and didn’t get back ’till late the next night, for that night, after we finished playing, I just laid down where I was-and thought the whole thing out,-“The St. Louis Blues.”
“I got up at three o’clock in the morning and wrote down the verse. The melody came hot-spontaneous. Then and there I made the orchestration for this song that was used for 14 years”
“When I finshed, my band played the tune. We thought it was pretty good. Then I realized how long it had been since I left home! Somehow, it seemed to be a good idea to get the whole band to accompany me on my return, We thought we better play the new tune for Mrs Handy”.
“I saw her out in the yard leaning on the front gate as we came up. She looked spirited. When I reached her, she did a regular Maggie and Jiggs! I couldn’t blame her.”
“Mrs Handy did not like “The Saint Louis Blues” that evening. It took about seven years for Mrs Handy to appreciate that number”
“I published “St. Louis Blues” myself. It’s first title page was in deep blue with white lettering. The original printing and engraving of it cost $3.50. The original plates were $1.70 each. the first 10,000 copies cost me $80″
” The Memphis people where great boosters, too. They came to New York and said, ‘Ain’t you got the Saint Louis Blues? Why, you ain’t got no music ’till you get that!”
“Sometimes things make you wonder. Things like this. It hasn’t been very long since a representative came to me about a certain screen star who wanted to use St Louis Blues” in a picture. If she could change the words. I said, ‘Let me see what she wants’. The man comes back to know what I demanded in money- and offered me fifty dollars! You know what would be regular money for using that song in a big picture production! Once Wagner was told that he wrote such high notes in some of his songs that the sopranos couldn’t reach them. He answered, ‘Let them go up to them.’ No, I didn’t change the words.”
“I have never been able to get an engagement on the big time vaudeville or radio. Why is it? I’ve been a band leader for 42 years. The people in the audiences gave me the idea of putting down the blues of my race. I’ve been working at this job a long time. I’d like to play my own blues for all the people.”
(in writing the words) ” I just laid down a plot of a story. I pictured a woman in love, whose fellow has deserted her for a better looking woman, Beal Street, in Memphis, was full of that. I didn’t have to go far from there to see it.”
“I wrote “St Louis Blues” in the key of G because colored people can moan better in that key.It has a mournful plaintiveness. ‘Saint Louis Blues’ wouldn’t sould the same in B flat or some other key.”
“Blues music has it’s own mind. For instance, once when I was out rehearsing they told me to smile at a certain place in one of my own songs. I said ‘I will if I’m not crying. For that particular blues gets me to thinking of my early struggles- sitting around with my people in Memphis.”
So you see? Even though my collection of old sheet music isn’t worth much in dollars and cents, it’s priceless in it’s historic value. Where else are you going hear, in his own words, how the “Father of the Blues” wrote this historic piece of the music we all love so much. So, even though they take up a great deal of space around my place, I’m going to keep on looking for and collecting these priceless gems (priceless to me, anyway).
By the way, if anyone’s interested, I’ve got a first publishing signed copy of Glen Miller’s book “Method For Orchestral Arranging”!! Not that I plan on selling it — I just like to show off!