Echoes of a Lost Culture ...and a Dig at the French; in the Fourth Part of His Series Revealing the Hidden Treasures Which Will Soon Find a Home at the New Library of Birmingham, Graeme Brown Examines a Collection of Rare Songsheets
Byline: Graeme Brown
While many of the more profound songs of the 18th century have stood the test of time, the vast songsheet collection of Birmingham's Central Library suggests the popular music of the day was not always so weighty.
The burgeoning romantic movement saw the likes of Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt compose the music that would define a generation, but the collection shows that some of the songs designed to inspire laughter, debate and patriotism have fallen by the wayside.
The collection, which has only recently been truly researched, contains 6,000 songsheets dating from the early-1700s to the 1950s, including many taking a light-hearted view on religion, literature and a good old-fashioned booze up.
As well as serving as a reminder of popular culture in years gone by, it also illustrates progress in early film and fashion, societal attitudes to religion, slavery, war and women, and the ascent of marketing.
Assistant librarian Anne Elliott said while the work of those such as Anthony Trollope have transcended the Victorian era, many of the songsheets display a variety of entertainment forever stuck in the 19th century.
She said: "If you look back your perception is of very different art and music by people who continue to be known to this day, but looking at these you realise that is just the top part of what is a huge range, representing different parts of people's daily lives.
"That is one of the reasons why this collection is so important - it represents music that is not particularly wonderful or profound but represents part of the culture of the period, and gives you a sense of the period and the scope of it.
"The more profound dominates - if you read something like Trollope you wouldn't see much of this type of stuff."
The songsheets come from a time before music could be recorded and replayed, and were designed to offer a memory of a show or an opportunity for a family sing-song.
"Many songs come from stage shows which were a lot like a Noel Coward musical play - neither a play or an opera - and of course the English never really got to grips with opera," Ms Elliott said.
"Obviously you weren't able to play recorded music, so your only way of replicating what you have heard is to remember it or buy the song sheet and then sing it with your friends.
"Perhaps you would do it with a karaoke machine now."
She said the purchasers would have been "at least middle class", and until the 20th century music was considered to be an expensive commodity.
The Music Library has about 6,000 songsheets in loose and bound volumes.
The library's older reference songsheets and piano music have never previously been searchable through its online catalogue but plans are being put in place before the move to the Library of Birmingham next year, and a retrospective cataloguing project has begun.
The oldest songsheet is Loud Alarms Of War, by John Eccles in 1700 and comes from a performance at the New Theatre.
Eccles was the only Master of the King's Musick in the history of the post to serve four monarchs - King William III, Queen Anne, King George I and King George II.
Later in the 18th century came Beer-Drinking-Briton, by Thomas Arne in 1757, which broaches two subjects dear to the heart of the British - drinking and criticising the French, with lines like "Those who drink good, honest, ale are always going to beat those who drink wine".
Ms Elliott said: "You can see how it matches with certain elements of popular culture. This could quite easily be changed into a modern football chant."
She added: "In the 18th century we spent much of our time fighting the French, and this would have been at the time of the French and British fighting in North America - in Louisiana for example.
"There was an awful lot going on in the 18th century, with the Jacobite revolution, and, much like the Second World War, a lot of music encouraged the public to be positive. …