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Two exhibits explore American culture through sheet-music covers

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two exhibits exploring a changing and challenging America as depicted by Tin Pan Alley have opened at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Portraying American Femininity Through Melody and Art” looks at evolving American womanhood as seen through the lens of music and sheet-music cover artwork produced from the turn of the century through the 1920s. “The Long Good-Bye,” also drawing on sheet-music covers, focuses on the genre of “good-bye” music that World War I provoked and Tin Pan Alley provided.

The free, public exhibits run through June 30 at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, 236 Harding Band Building, 1103 S. Sixth St., Champaign.

The sheet music was drawn from the James Edward Myers Collection, which the archives acquired in January. Items in the collection span nearly 150 years – 1836 to 1985, and three genres – country, military and popular music. Of particular interest are the covers designed for Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, and John Philip Sousa.

According to Sousa archivist Scott Schwartz, a co-curator of the exhibits, the collection provides a “wonderful illustration” of how musicians depicted American culture through melodies and lyrics, and a “rare focus” on the cover artist’s view of popular culture.

“While the visual imagery is beautiful, and many of the artists represented here were well-known in their time, their legacies have largely been forgotten,” Schwartz said. “In displaying and discussing these images, we want to revive interest in the artists, to give new life to these covers in the same way we try to give life to music on the page.”

In “Femininity,” covers from many great American show tunes abound, including “You Made Me Love You” (1913), “I Found a Million Dollar Baby” (1926) and “The Best Things in Life are Free” (1927).

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According to co-curator Mary Miller, a graduate student in library science, the display “traces Tin Pan Alley’s take on femininity from demure beginnings – where the loyal homebody and the naïve sweetheart reigned – to the sophisticated femmes fatales who ruled over men’s hearts in the 1920s.”
In the exhibit, images of the devout Whistler-type mom abound, as do those of the wholesome girl next door and the devoted wife and children.

Included is Edward H. Pfeiffer’s 1908 cover art for “In Those Good Old Country Days,” written by George Meyer, who also composed “For Me and My Gal” (1917).

For “Country Days,” Pfeiffer, an early advocate of art deco known for his depiction of “attractive women,” offered an icon of purity: a rose-cheeked farm girl covered in gingham, holding a bowl of apples and gazing wistfully.

For the cover of the music to “I Want My Old Girl Back,” artist Albert W. Barbelle also conjured up an image of the American sweetheart – in a long billowing skirt, big bow and hat. But these girls give way to quite another type – a type who is less well-covered and more in control, threatening and somewhat dangerous.

For example, the woman who dominates the five-color 1912 cover of “Somebody Else is Getting It” is a larger-than-life Jezebel toying with three Lilliputian beaus at a time: one she has dropped to the floor, one she is controlling with the heel of her shoe and one she is dangling by the scruff of his neck.

War, women’s suffrage and Hollywood were largely responsible for imagining a woman who seemed to morph overnight from pure to pure hell, Miller said.

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But business considerations also were a factor. The illustrations were often much more risqué than the lyrics they advertised because sheet-music publishers were vying for buyers’ attention, the co-curators say.

“Though the cover might have depicted a woman in a more ‘liberated’ light – less harmless, less well-behaved, more sexualized – the lyrics often held fast to the traditions of the prior century,” the exhibit label says.

Once Hollywood created the “vamp,” however, many Tin Pan Alley lyricists responded in kind, writing lyrics to reflect this new woman. For the first time, “American femininity was associated with assertion, sexuality and strength.”

The Ziegfeld Follies provided plenty of examples of this bold, daring, scantily clad and somewhat scandalous woman. Highlights of the exhibit are Ziegfeld Follies covers from “Tulip Time” (1919) and “Tell Me Little Gypsy” (1920).

The unsigned cover of “Tulip Time” features a thinly veiled, flesh-flashing Vargas-style vamp flirting with a parrot. On the art nouveau cover of “Little Gypsy,” an extravagantly beribboned Las Vegas-type showgirl struts her stuff and her tattoo. Her body language says she is fearless and takes no prisoners.

A different brand of bravery is apparent in the “Good-Bye” exhibit, which draws primarily on music created between 1914 and 1918. Songs and covers convey the heartbreak of leaving for “over there,” the loneliness of separation, the hope of safe return and reunion, and even the strong bond between the United States and France.

Perhaps the most dramatic, and certainly one of the most famous World War I-era sheet music covers on display is “Good-Bye Broadway, Hello France,” the “big song hit from ‘Passing Show of 1917,’ ” the cover says.

On the cover by “Rose,” two colossus generals, one American, the other French, shake hands across the ocean as ships sail below them, planes soar overhead and bombs burst aloft. Signature landmarks of each nation are visible in the background.

The song underscores the patriotic feelings, friendship and history shared by the people of America and France. The second verse: “Vive Pershing is the cry across the sea. / We’re united in the fight for liberty. / France sent us a soldier, brave Lafayette / Whose deed and fame we cannot forget. / Now that we have the chance / We’ll pay our debt to France.” (The song can be heard at

“Jim” Myers (1913 to 2001), the man who collected the sheet-music covers, was born and raised in Springfield, Ill. He majored in history at Illinois and graduated in 1935. While on campus, he played oboe for the concert band and drums for the marching band. In later years, he became an avid collector of American sheet music.

Also fascinated by Abraham Lincoln, Myers purchased the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office in Springfield and restored it for public tours, then sold it in 1985 to the state of Illinois.

Myers wrote and published several of his own books in a variety of genres including humor, fiction and history. His autobiography is titled “Hell is a Foxhole.”

The Sousa Archives hours are 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Appointments are encouraged but not necessary.

For more information, contact Schwartz, Miller or Adriana Cuervo, a graduate student in library science, who helped with the exhibit, at 217-244-9309 or