M.E. (Davis Smart) Miller (English Education, ’70; English, ’73) recently donated a treasure trove of vintage popular and classical sheet music, books, and trade magazines dating back as far as the 1860s and up through the mid-1970s to the Louisiana Tech University School of Music.
This donation of over 1,300 items is now housed in the department of University Archives and Special Collections in Prescott Memorial Library. The collection features a wide range of music genres, including ragtime, vaudeville tunes, country and western, film music, jazz and the blues, patriotic music and war songs, Broadway classics (with a particularly large collection of works by Irving Berlin), and novelty tunes, such as “Oh! I Love No One But’er My Oleomargarine” (Gaskill and Leslie, 1926). Included among the donated items are very early editions of popular tunes appropriate for this time of year, such as “White Christmas” (Irving Berlin, 1942) and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (Gillespie and Coots, 1934).
“The importance and value of having a collection like this on our own campus can’t be overstated,” said Michael Austin, Founding Director of the School of Music. “Music publishing is an important part of the music industry that often gets overlooked, and this collection represents a time in history when sheet music was the music industry. If you’re going to be a future leader in this business and help to determine where the music industry is going, you really need to understand where it’s been and what baggage it’s bringing with it.”
With plans to digitize aspects of this collection, it also promises to become a valuable resource for music scholars, historians, and popular culture specialists around the world.
While most people think of modern record labels and music videos when they think of the popular music industry, its history stretches all the way back to London in the mid-1700s. In the late 19th and early 20th century, popular songs were published in New York City in a part of Midtown Manhattan called “Tin Pan Alley,” so named due to the noise produced by piano players stationed outside of each publishing house simultaneously playing the latest hit tunes on old upright pianos in hopes of selling copies to passersby. Until the invention of radio, phonographs, and other music playback technology became commonplace in American homes, playing this sheet music at home was really the only way to hear music on-demand. Although there was a steep decline in sheet music publishing after World War II when Tin Pan Alley music was replaced by rock and roll, the sheet music publishing industry still sees nearly $247 million in annual global revenue.
Much of the music in the collection has important historical and social significance. Some of the songs’ topics and titles reflect important issues from various points in American history; for example, the ideals of the Temperance Movement are clearly reflected in Jean le Croix’s “Father Drinks No More” (1874). Other pieces in the collection feature songs from Blackface Minstrelsy and works that highlight sexist, racist, and xenophobic attitudes that were prevalent at the time they were published.
“All of this music — the good, the bad, and the ugly — is an important part of the history of the music industry and of this country,” Austin said. “There’s undeniable value in presenting our students with the opportunity to see first-hand the long history of troublesome depictions in the illustrated cover of a music score or in the lyrics of a popular show tune. And being able to have our students physically hold pieces like these in their own hands has the potential to make a much greater impact than simply seeing a picture of it online or in a PowerPoint presentation. Plus, music has always reflected culture rather clearly, and learning how to recognize and contextualize harmful representations of ‘others’ is one of the first steps in preventing that kind of harm in the future.”
Founded in 2019, the School of Music continues to build on the legacy and tradition of over 125 years of excellence in music education at Louisiana Tech University with ambitious degree programs and cutting-edge learning opportunities that prepare aspiring professional musicians, music teachers, music scholars, and music industry professionals for traditional and emerging careers in a rapidly changing world. For additional information about the School of Music, visit music.latech.edu.
First established in 1945, the department of University Archives and Special Collections located in the Prescott Memorial Library contains over 700 archival, manuscript, and special collections that demonstrate the history of Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, Lincoln Parish, and North Central Louisiana. Materials found in our collections are free and open to the general public. For more information about the University Archives and Special Collections, visit latech.edu/library/special-collections.