THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

16 May 2018

Over There, All Over Again: American Sheet Music, World War 1 and Nostalgic Musicals

It is always a great pleasure when you find your research coinciding with that of your colleagues. There has been a recent spike in discussions around American music and World War I in the Eccles Centre as Jean Petrovic is currently developing an online exhibition showcasing the British Library’s excellent collection of American sheet music, whilst I am researching American musicals of the early 1940s which looked back at World War I and vaudeville. 

As part of her project, Jean has been focusing on World War I, which saw an explosion in printed music. At the turn of the twentieth century – prior to the rise of radio and the phonograph – pianos were still the main source of home entertainment. Recent innovations in production had bought about a sharp decline in prices and an inevitable rise in demand. Not surprisingly, this was a boom-time for song-writers and music publishers. Print runs of top-selling songs frequently exceeded hundreds of thousands and between 1900 and 1910 more than 100 songs sold over one million copies.

More than 10,000 songs about World War I were published in the United States during 1914-18. In the early days, many of these songs echoed the non-interventionist stance of President Woodrow Wilson and most Americans.

Within days of the US declaration of war in 1917, George M Cohan, already one of the country’s most successful songwriters, penned ‘Over There’. With its patriotic call to arms, its optimism and its references to liberty and the American flag it went on to become the nation’s favourite war song. It was performed and recorded by many artists and eventually sold more than two million copies.

Over There - LOC photo

Above: George Michael Cohan. Over There. New York: Wm Jerome Publishing Corp., c1917.  British Library shelfmark a.318.(5) (other versions, h.3825.z.(52); h.1562; H.1860.i.(8); h.3825.ff.(7)); image courtesy of the Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010518

In 1936, President Franklin D Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his contribution to US morale during World War I.  He was the first person in an artistic field to receive this honour.

And this is where I come in. During America’s participation in World War II, a notable body of musical films were produced which reflected on the current crisis through the historical metaphor of America’s role in World War I. By binding these wartime stories with settings concerned with vaudeville and performance, these films conveyed patriotic messages and made entertainment culture central to American values. 

Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_poster

Above: promotional poster for Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner Brothers)

In 1942, director Michael Curtiz made Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic about Cohan’s life. The narrative is framed by Cohan, in the present day, going to visit President Roosevelt at the White House where he discusses his career and receives the Congressional Gold Medal (despite the award actually being made 6 years previously). In the urgent context of World War II the film places Cohan (but also by extension Hollywood itself) as vital agents in America’s cultural mythmaking: the inclusion of his famous, popular songs (‘Over There’, ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’, ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’) and production numbers involving a lot (and I mean A LOT) of flags, allow the fictional President Roosevelt to comment to Cohan that “your songs were weapons as strong as cannons and rifles in World War I."

Interesting, whilst the film was certainly an important part of Warner Brothers Studio’s commitment to the war effort, aimed partially at legitimizing their own work in the context of the war, the unashamedly patriotic film also served an interesting purpose for its star, James Cagney, who had personally struggled to deny Communist links.

Cagney had initially been opposed to making a Cohan biopic as he’d disliked Cohan since the Actor’s Equity Strike in 1919 when Cohan had sided with the producers. However, during the late 1930s and early 1940s Cagney had run-ins with the Dies Committee (the House Un-American Activities Committee): in 1940 he was named along with 15 other Hollywood figures in the testimony of John R Leech (an LA Communist Party leader) and the New York Times printed the allegation that Cagney was a Communist on its front page (August 15, 1940).

Although Cagney refuted the allegations and Martin Dies made a statement to the press clearing him, his brother, William Cagney, who managed his business affairs is reported to have said that “we’re going to have to make the [most] goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made. I think it’s the Cohan story.”[1] The film certainly achieves this aim: Cagney went on to win an Oscar for the role (and the film was a huge box office success for Warners).

For those interested in learning more about the American sheet music collection at the British Library, Jean’s web exhibition will go live later this summer.  In the meantime, an older incarnation of the project can be found here.

I will be discussing ‘American Film Musicals and the Reimagining of World War I’ as part of the British Library’s Feed the Mind series on Monday 21 May at 12.30 in the Knowledge Centre. I can promise clips of Gene Kelly, which must rate as one of the best ways to pass a lunch break. I hope you’ll be able to join me.

By: Dr Cara Rodway, Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, with thanks to Jean Petrovic, Bibliographical Editor.

 

[1] Patrick McGilligan, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur (New York & London: Tantivy Press, 1975), pp145-8 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.981/20794]

09 May 2018

Spring news from the Eccles Centre

North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

Our colleagues from the Americas Collections have kindly allowed us a slot on the blog, so we thought we would let you know about some changes that are coming to the Eccles Centre. Spring is a particularly exciting time of year for the Eccles Centre as we welcome our new Visiting Fellows. Our Fellows are drawn from across the UK, Europe and North America and the Centre provides them with a financial award to support research using the North American collections of the British Library, plus a one-year membership of the Library.

Our Visiting Fellowships announcement marks the end of our 2018 awards and so our attention is now turning to calls for applications for our 2019 cohort. An invitation to apply for the Centre’s Fulbright Scholarship is now available on the Fulbright website and we will soon be advertising the next round of our Writer’s Award. Those of you who read The Bookseller will have seen Catherine Eccles’s recent piece about the award and noted that the scope of works eligible will stretch across the whole Americas during 2019. Watch this space for more details.

Further changes to our awards will be obvious when our call for 2019 Fellows comes out this summer. We are keen to help applicants see the potential of the Library’s collections more clearly and so from 2019 there will be a series of research priorities championed by the Centre. These are not meant to be exclusive, we still want to hear about all research the Library’s North American collections can support, and instead provide a window into areas where the collections are particularly strong. The priorities will also shape the Centre’s events schedule for the coming year and, hopefully, create a cohort of fellows working in similar areas. With this in mind the priorities for April 2018 – April 2019 will be:

  • North American and Caribbean Indigenous Studies
  • Literary, theatrical and artistic connections in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • Book history and arts in North America
  • Pacific politics and geopolitics
  • Migration in/from/through Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • LGBTQ histories and culture in Canada, the Caribbean and the US

Should anyone wish to discuss possible research projects, collaborations or events that tie in with these priority areas please get in touch with us at eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Evidence of our research priorities can be seen in the Centre’s upcoming events for the spring and summer, with ‘Buffalo Bill Goes to China’ and ‘The Death of Captain Cook’ speaking directly to our new priorities. So too does the Centre’s support of the British Library’s, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ and the season of events that accompanies the exhibition. We are also excited to be supporting an, 'In Conversation' with The Last Poets; Sarah Churchwell’s critical history of ‘America First’; and our two Black Lives Matter events, ‘From Black Lives Matter to White Power Presidency’ and ‘Black Lives Matter in the US and UK Today’, amongst our packed schedule

We hope the changes to the Centre excite you as much as they do us and we look forward to seeing you at one of our events soon.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies

01 May 2018

L is for Labor

May Day is celebrated in most of the world, including the US, on May 1st (in the UK, it falls on 7 May this year, due to the tradition of holding national holidays on Mondays).  It is now of course associated with International Workers' Day.  The date was chosen in commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, following the deaths of civilians and police at a rally for an 8-hour work day.

Amongst the many May Day related materials in our collections are these recently acquired pamphlets. 

May Day 2
Shelfmark YD.2017.b.496 and YD.2017.b.497

Published in 1938 and 1939 by the Communist Party of the United States, they draw direct correlations between the activities of workers and the struggle against fascism. 

"In the democratic countries, the workers will marhsal their forces in parades, demonstrations and meetings.  In the fascist countries, workers will gather in small groups, hidden from the police and fascist murder-bands, and once again will tell the story of May Day, and prepare for militant struggle to restore democracy."

Additionally, they point to the rise of fascist groups across the Americas, thereby making the call for labor unity more immediately urgent for their US audience. 

Sold at 1c, these pamphlets were aimed at a broad audience, some of whom may not have been familiar with the histories discussed within or the language of labor movements.  For those, the following publication would have been of use:

L is for Labor
shelfmark YD.2017.b.499

Published by the League of Women Shoppers in 1937, L is for Labor: a glossary of labor terms introduced its readers to the "new language" of labor, a language with the "color and vitality of great human movements."  This was a clever strategic move by the League who aimed to educate consumers on the rights of shop-workers, and encourage them to support union organising in the shops that they patronised.  Listing such terms as 'blacklist', ' boycott', 'collective bargaining', 'industrial accident', 'paternalism', and 'preferential shop', it provided a rapid education in the underlying principles and actions of labor movements that May Day exemplifies.

- F. D. Fuentes Rettig