Curators at the Smithsonian Institution are busy cataloguing a monumental new collection of nearly 200 years of popular American sheet music, including stacks of rare, long-forgotten Broadway melodies by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.
This bonanza from the nation’s musical past, a gift from Ft. Wayne, Ind., broadcaster Sam deVincent, consists of 130,000 original editions of illustrated sheet music, nearly 20,000 recordings and boxes of posters, concert programs, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia.
“This is one of the great, legendary collections of sheet music in the world,” said John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “It contains some of the rarest of the rare.”
The scope of the deVincent collection is staggering. It ranges from yellowing reprints of parlor piano pieces of the 1790s to mournful Civil War ballads, the shameless bigotry of minstrel show music, railroad songs and ragtime, military marches, anti-war protest songs, Beatles favorites and political campaign choruses.
The bulk of the collection focuses on the golden era of Tin Pan Alley, from the 1890s to the 1940s, when Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter and other great songwriters were churning out Broadway show tunes.
Scores of large cartons in the museum’s archives are stuffed with their most memorable hits and some of their most forgettable words and lyrics.
Among the latter is a 1919 Gershwin song titled “Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo” and a few of Hoagy Carmichael’s obscure World War II morale boosters, including “I’m a Cranky Old Yank in a Cranky Old Tank. . . . “
Berlin wrote “I’m the Guy Who Guards the Harem (And My Heart’s in My Work)” for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919. And little remembered from his 1933 hit musical, “Easter Parade,” is a song titled “I Say It’s Spinach.”
Hasse says the deVincent collection, a rich and diverse repository of Americana, will give historians an intimate portrait of the nation’s cultural tastes and social upheavals over the past two centuries.
The collection represents a 60-year labor of love by deVincent, retired music director of Ft. Wayne radio station WOWO, who began hoarding sheet music as a 12-year-old in Chicago.
By 1978, while Hasse was writing a doctoral dissertation on ragtime music at Indiana University, deVincent’s collection had filled his two-car garage and spilled into nearly every room of his home.
“When I saw his ragtime holdings, I was flabbergasted. I was speechless,” Hasse said. “I quickly realized the tremendous value of his collection and made a vow to myself that I would try to help it find a good home someday.”
Hasse, who joined the Smithsonian in 1984, played a leading role in negotiating the acquisition of the deVincent collection, which was shipped to Washington in the spring of 1988 in five truckloads.