Often I post book covers to illustrate this blog, but today, we’re dipping way back into the past, and I’ve got gorgeous, vintage sheet music. Before there were records, let alone CDs, mp3s, and so on, even before there was radio, there was sheet music. Americans entertained themselves by playing the piano—the must-have home possession of a century ago—and they bought sheet music by the millions. That’s why, despite World War paper drives and epidemic scares requiring that used (and possibly virus-carrying) paper be destroyed, these vintage works of art are now easily available. But most people are unaware of just how attractive these covers are. Take “One Alone,” for instance, from “The Desert Song,” a very popular 1926 operetta by Sigmund Romberg. It’s comic book style art, a line drawing contrasting with a brightly colored background. We’ve got a serene, boyish sheik, and a cute, flapper girl who looks surprised at being carried off in his arms. Charming, and it deliberately sends a message that this story is played strictly for romance and fun. In fact, the plot is all about a Clark Kent type whose secret identity is the dashing robe-clad hero.
The cover for “Diane” is a close-up of two people desperately holding onto each other (actress Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, very big stars in their day). Their embrace points clearly to the melodrama of this movie’s pre-Hays censorship plot, which involves prostitution and lots of misery. “Diane” is a song I don’t know, from a movie I’ve never heard of, “7th Heaven.” But once I got to the chorus, “Smile for me, my Diane” the song was familiar. It’s only an 82-year-old song. Why shouldn’t it be familiar? Yeah, irony intended. My tweener godchild has never heard of it, of course. The television variety shows that kept those songs alive are long gone, although probably some cabaret singers still sing them.
I’ve never been a Bing Crosby fan, but just look at the beauty of “Moonstruck,” in which he stands holding long-forgotten actress Mary Carlisle, who leans back trustingly in his arms. It’s from an infinitely forgettable 1933 movie called “College Humor,” which has a typical college football hijinks kind of story. But what a romantic photograph, in a page so delicately designed and colored that it looks like a painting.
Some songs were published without any photos or drawings of people. Look at this cover for “How Deep is the Ocean” for elegance of composition. Perhaps because it was written by Irving Berlin, the greatest American songwriter of the 20th century, there was no need to use people, whether drawn or photographed. All these covers share one vital element: they are romantic. In different ways, it’s true. “One Alone” is lightly and pretty. “Diane” has a passionate clinch. “Moonstruck” is more subtly suggestive about romance and passion. “How Deep is the Ocean” asks one to enter a romantic world of simplicity, represented by the stark, affecting design.
The popularity of sheet music (and pianos) declined as radio and the movies took over as central entertainment in American life. But regardless of the fate of sheet music, and the old songs, the romance implied by the beautiful artwork on these sheet music covers is timeless.