Popular Music of World War I: A Living Archive

This page is part of the static Popular Music of World War I project pages,
archived on 31.12.2020 to satisfy the requirements of the UK RESEARCH EXCELLENCE FRAMEWORK. All other users should access the dynamic, current page here.


Everything is a work in progress. Nothing is complete until it is utterly forgotten. Something takes its final form only when no further interactions occur.

And so it is with the Myers and Driscoll collections and digitized archives that underpin this tool for research. In no respect are these complete, nor, the gods willing, will they ever be. Every interaction enriches and enlarges them.

In describing this tool, it can be separated into four components:
the physical artifacts
the digitized images
the spreadsheet
the metadata

But in using this tool, of course, it is the relations—not the components—that matter. Strength rests in the manner in which each manifestation compensates for weaknesses in the others; thus, taken together, they mitigate somewhat the ways in which each is incomplete. It is these relations that following description hopes to elucidate.

The physical artifacts
Items and titles
The digitized images
The spreadsheet
The archival metadata

The physical artifacts

The Myers and Driscoll collections consist primarily of sheet music: unbound, single copies of music compositions—in this case, largely short works for voice and piano, with lesser numbers of pieces for piano solo or vocal ensemble. The collections are housed at two different institutions: the Myers at the Sousa Archives & Center for American Music at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, and the Driscoll at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The Driscoll collection came to the Newberry in 1968; the Myers collection came to Illinois in 2005. In both cases the collections remain today essentially as their respective collectors had organized them, although they have been placed in new folders and boxes as required for archival conservation.

James Francis Driscoll (1875–1959) lived his entire life in communities near Boston, Massachusetts. His trade was civil engineering, but he was an accomplished amateur organist and choir director. He collected sheet music for sixty years, primarily by searching pawn shops, auction houses, and similar establishments, but also by negotiating exchanges and purchases with dealers and other collectors. His policy was always to trade up, acquiring better copies to replace inferior copies in his collection, with surplus copies being traded or sold. Thus, with rare exceptions, every item in his collection is distinct.

James Edward Myers (1913–2001) resided in Springfield, Illinois, but travelled widely. He, too, was an amateur musician, playing in University of Illinois bands while a student in the 1940s, after returning from service in World War II. For six years he managed an innovative farm in central Illinois; then he joined the family business, a department store in Springfield, as vice-president. Like Driscoll, Myers built his collection primarily by scouring local second-hand shops and garage sales; but, unlike Driscoll, he kept duplicate copies of some of his titles.

Both collectors organized their holdings by topic. Driscoll’s system of categories was quite elaborate; a full description can be found in the Newberry’s “Inventory of the James Francis Driscoll Collection of American Sheet Music.” Music pertinent to World War I occupies eight boxes (163–170), but there are surely additional pertinent items that Driscoll placed in other categories, such as “Patriotic Songs” or “Presidents.” No attempt has been made to locate and incorporate these additional items, however; the digitized archive is made entirely from the materials in the eight “World War I” boxes.

Myers’ categories are much broader, but within the categories, songs are arranged first alphabetically by title and then by date of publication. Within “Military Music,” then, there are sets of folders that contain “A titles,” “B titles,” and so forth; and the individual folders are dated “A Titles, 1915–1916,” “A Titles, 1917–1918,” and so forth. It’s relatively simple, then, to extract the items that are pertinent to the war and that were published during the war years (which are taken to be 1914–1920, for present purposes). A finding aid prepared by Mary Miller and David Shin details the contents, folder by folder.

Both collectors made errors in classifying their material; both, for example, occasionally misread an item’s year of publication, which was often given in Roman numerals, in Italics, and in small type, sometimes blurred or broken. It is relatively easy to mistake MCMVIII for MCMXVIII (1908 for 1918); indeed, in preparing inventories and lists in the course of this project, several different librarians and scholars have themselves made similar errors. They are still being found; in this respect, both the physical artifacts and the digitized images are over-complete. Or, we could say, the process of cross-checking is incomplete.

Myers also occasionally classified as “military music” items that have nothing to do with war; on the other hand, the arrangement of his collection ensures that nearly all the items are from the correct period (1914–1920). Driscoll’s categories ensure that virtually all his “World War I” items are indeed pertinent to the war; but he included items that were not published during that period. Some of these result from errors, as noted above; but some are earlier publications that were repurposed or even reissued during the war years. And some titles issued in the 1920s are clearly war-related, issued as memorials or for veterans organizations.

To determine the set of artifacts that would form the basis for this project, then, a review was undertaken of all the “World War I” materials, as categorized by the two collectors, item by item. Each was checked for uniqueness, relevance, and publication date. Exact duplicates were set aside, as were pieces that were irrelevant to the war. Publications issued after 1920 were carefully checked to be sure their subject matter was pertinent; publications issued before 1914 were similarly checked (for example, by means of newspaper searches) to discover whether they were performed or reissued during the war years. There remained 1746 items in the Driscoll collection—the vast majority of the materials occupying boxes 163 to 170, since Driscoll rarely retained duplicates. Myers did retain duplicates, and so the 934 items that remained represents about eighty percent of the total contents of the appropriate folders in his collection. Hereafter the phrases “Myers collection” and “Driscoll collection” refer to these winnowed sets of music, not to the entire physical subcollections housed at the Newberry and at the University of Illinois. [top]

Items and titles

In discussing these and similar collections, it is important to distinguish between items and titles. An item is a single piece of sheet music: an object that one can hold in one’s hand or set on the piano. A title is the name given to that object. Nearly always, for these particular objects, the title is taken to be the words or phrase printed on the cover and inside, above the music itself. The titles on the cover and the inner pages do not always coincide exactly; for more about this, see the discussion of Title in the page about Conventions.

A single title may be applied to several items that are different in significant ways: they might have different cover illustrations, or different back covers, or the music itself might take a different form: solo song, arrangement for band, arrangement for vocal ensemble, and so forth. In both collections, then, the number of items is larger than the number of titles. The Driscoll collection contains 1746 items and 1489 titles; the Myers contains 934 items and 736 titles. Put another way, 85 percent of the titles in the Driscoll collection are found in a single form only; 15 percent of the titles take different forms and thus are associated with two or more items. For Myers, the respective figures are 19 percent and 21 percent.

This is not a significant difference, but it does warrant an explanation. Both collections were built primarily from local sources—Driscoll in Massachusetts, Myers in Illinois and its neighboring states. Massachusetts—Boston, in particular—was the home of the major so-called “standard” publishers: Oliver Ditson, Arthur P. Schmidt, and others. These purveyors of educational  and “high-class” music usually issued only a single version of a given title, printing a substantial number of copies and warehousing them over many years or even decades. Driscoll, collecting locally, would have acquired a significant number of titles from these publishers, and that would have tended to increase the percentage of his acquired titles that exist in only one form. Illinois, on the other hand—and Chicago, in particular—was the location from which major national distributors of commercial, “Tin Pan Alley” publications (“jobbers” in the trade jargon) disseminated their goods: firms like McKinley Music Co. and Forster Music Publisher. Tin Pan Alley publishers issued small quantities of their titles; if the title was a hit, they would reissue successive printings as long as the market responded. And, often, these successive printings were different in some way. Hence, Myers, collecting through the city and state, would tend to have acquired multiple versions of a single title.

This somewhat intuitive interpretation could be tested using the two collections; one could, for example, find out the percentage of Driscoll titles that were issued by “standard” publishers and, similarly, the percentage of Myers titles that came from Tin Pan Alley firms. That requires only a relatively simple series of tags and filters applied to the collection using the components of the research tool this project provides. It’s a job for the future, along with several dozen others; but it serves to illustrate the potential for research that is constituted by the mix of data, images, and physical repositories that make up this research resource. [top]

The digitized images 

After the physical collections, the digitized images themselves are more nearly final than is anything else. A four-year process, described in “History,” generated high-quality images of 2,654 items of sheet music—approximately 13,320 printed pages. Yet there is still work to do: a small number of those digitized items are flawed in some way, and, as errors are found, corrections are gradually being entered. Twenty-six items were digitized but have yet to be added to the Driscoll archive; these will raise the current total from 1720 to 1746. In the Myers collection, another thirty or more pertinent items have since been located and will be digitized at some time in the future. More ambitiously, there remains the possibility of extending the archive to all the public domain items in the Myers and Driscoll collections, not just those relating to World War I. And more ambitiously still, additional collections at both host institutions (the University of Illinois and the Newberry Library) are candidates for inclusion. [top]

The spreadsheet

The spreadsheet—a crucial component in this tool for research—is less complete but in a perfectly usable state. It has been developed by means of a series of passes through it (done alphabetically by title) that has occupied about six years. Each pass includes a careful search to see if more information is available, especially about editions, printings, and variants; when a new version is found, a new database entry is created. Since digitization and data extraction proceeds at a remarkable pace in hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions, each pass has thus far approximately doubled the database size. The most recent pass started in autumn 2018 and has reached titles beginning with G at this writing. Hence, although titles beginning with A through F constitute about 18 percent of the total titles, database lines for A through F constitute 25 percent of the database. The imbalance, of course, will rectify itself as work continues. 

It is important to note that all the data in the database is derived from online digitized copies of sheet music. That is, no effort has yet been made to visit physical archives to incorporate additional variants of titles already entered, nor have catalogues been systematically checked for such variants. Hence, when assertions are made about the order of printings or the history of a particular title, they must be regarded as somewhat inconclusive: the data is implicitly incomplete. Again, the lack of completeness is meant to encourage additional research; and again (and always) users of this website and the digitized archive are strongly encouraged to contribute their own research insights and data to build a stronger, more complete totality. [top]

The archival metadata

The metadata entered into the Myers and Driscoll web archives is the least complete component of this tool. Basic metadata—title, composer, lyricist, publisher, date of publication—is present for all titles; but, of course, errors and omissions are still being found and remedied. For Myers items only, the lyrics for all texted music have also been entered—with the same caveat. But the remaining fields for the remaining items, in both collections, have been populated only in part. Since the web archive was designed to be used in tandem with the spreadsheet, the latter can compensate in large part for the lacunae in the web metadata; for more information about this, see the “User’s Guide.” 

Work continues, and fields are continually being updated. But certain fields—specifically “Historical note,” “Comment,” and “Musical note”—require quite substantial research that must be conducted title by title. This is a slow process; the entries already in place were accomplished over eighteen months of, admittedly, part-time and sometimes sporadic work. It will surely be another four or five years before any kind of completeness is in sight—and even then, there will always be work to do.

In the meantime, however, the metadata is useful and informative, and the collection as a whole is an exceptionally rich resource. Rather than denying the public access for months or years, it was decided to make all the work available, explicitly as a work-in-progress, with updates continuing as time and personnel permit. That seems to have been a wise course, since the informal “peer review panel” constituted by colleagues, scholars, and the lay public has so far been positive. Work has been done; work is being done; work will be done; and the best work of all will be that which, unexpectedly, comes from persons wholly unaffiliated with the Newberry or with Illinois. The great advantage of a public, partially complete jigsaw puzzle is that everyone is welcome—indeed, urged!—to find and place a missing piece. [top]