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Historic sheet music plays to national pride

They say there is a song for every occasion, and when it comes to patriotic music, every day is an occasion for celebrating music and freedom. In this article, Melody Amsel-Arieli explores the topic of antique and vintage patriotic sheet music.

By Melody Amsel-Arieli

Patriotic music played an integral part in American history and culture even before the birth of the nation. “The Liberty Song,” published in 1768, featured the phrase “ uniting we stand… dividing we fall,” -- a patriotic slogan that has since reverberated through US history. Though “Yankee Doodle,” a British battle song, initially mocked locals in the French and Indian War, American Revolutionaries sang it, updated to reflect the political climate, in their fight for freedom.

Evolving Sheet Music

America's Most Famous Songs sheet music

America's Most Famous Songs, four patriotic collections and marches, various publishers, from the collection of Judith Adelman, sold for $32. (Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

Sheet music from this era, if indeed any appears in large quantity, would be exceedingly rare. Instead, these popular tunes bear historic ties to fireside encampments, then an extension by like-minded kith and kin.

As printing techniques improved in the early 1800s, civilians, gathered around parlor pianos. They sang patriotic polkas and marches from published sheet music. Their titles, graphics, lyrics, and melodies not only inspired and celebrated quests for independence, but also spread news of historic happenings and events.

“When Francis Scott Key witnessed the War of 1812 battle at Fort McHenry, for example,” explains Marsha Dixey, Consignment Director at Heritage Auctions, “he penned lyrics called ‘The Defense of Fort McHenry’ and set it to music. Though the song, soon known as The Star Spangled Banner, was printed in a Baltimore newspaper and distributed through the area, it likely spread much faster in song than in print.”

Scores of Sheet Music Dating to the Civil War

Pieces from this era generally sell from ten to several hundred dollars each, but there have been exceptions. In 2010, for instance, Christie’s auctioned a bound set of sheet music (published 1820), featuring The Star Spangled Banner. A Pariotic [sic] Song, for $506,500.

With strides in printing in the 1840s, sheet music, in addition to featuring decorative designs with ornamental fonts, sometimes boasted colorful title pages. During the Civil War, the heyday of sheet music, scores of patriotic marches and hymns depicted bright, attractive images of Union and Confederate flags, crossed swords, troops, and soldiers. Mournfully titled pieces of sheet music, like Dying Soldier; Kiss Me Goodnight Mother and Sadly the Bells Toll the Death of A Hero, however, featured more subdued shades.

“Most patriotic Civil War lyrics, both North and South,“ observes Katie Horstman, Director of the American History Department at Cowan’s Auctions Inc., “express longing for home, racial themes, as well as tributes to soldiers (both those that died and those taken prisoner, wounded or missing), specific regiments, or specific conflicts. While these patriotic tunes were sometimes presented by high profile performers of the day to piano accompaniment,” she continues, “research indicates that they was more often sung acapella by soldiers at camp, on marches, to pass the time, and to create company camaraderie.”

Enjoy patriotic music...

Factors Influence Value of Sheet Music

Typically, a single piece of vintage patriotic sheet music, often found at flea markets, antique shops,

National Music sheet music

Our Flag is Here, in National Music featuring full color illustration of the American and French flags, voice and piano, compendium of five popular patriotic pieces unidentified office of the American navy, War of 1812, 5 pages, Oliver Ditson & Co., 1861, $35 including buyer's premium realized in 2009. (Courtesy Cowan's Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio).

or at auction, runs from several to several hundred dollars. Bound collections, however, depending on the eras they represent, their quality, cover graphics, music, and the number of pieces, may command between a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

Many are sourced from private collectors, antique dealers, and institutions that have officially removed them from their collections.Furthermore, their market value is determined by a variety of factors, including age, theme, composer, and rarity.

Since most Civil War era pieces originate in the North, for example, rarer ones, within in the Confederacy, tend to be more costly. In addition, sheet music displaying full color illustrations is usually more valuable than that featuring text alone. The quality of a title’s graphics is no less important. A rare, lithographed, full color Civil War song sheet entitled Union, God, and Company: Our National Flag, which portrays servicemen from various historic eras, and features a sailor raising a 32-star American flag, for instance, realized over $200 at Cowan’s Auctions in the early 2000s.

Historic Importance in Sheet Music

President Lincoln’s Grand March, a rousing instrumental 1862 tribute featuring a stunning, artistic portrait, draped with the Stars and Stripes and flanked by adoring attendants, realized a similar price at Heritage Auctions.

The condition of vintage sheet music, typically appearing on music racks, within piano bench drawers, and a vision of hand to hand, also affects its worth. Nineteenth century pieces, because their engraved-plate printing required sturdy cotton rag paper, have survived in fairly good shape. Later pieces, on far more affordable wood pulp paper, however, were prone to yellowing, brittleness, creasing, stains, tears, spots, or even disintegration through the years. In addition, scores, separated from larger works or trimmed to size, suffer unsightly glue or tape repairs.

Sheet music of historic importance, especially pieces memorializing notable leaders connected with notable wars, is the most collectible of all. For instance, Civil War tunes that extol Union or Confederate generals along with major battles like Gettysburg or Shiloh are more desirable than general tunes like We Shall Miss You Dearest Brother or Song of the Southern Boys; Cheer, Boys, Cheer.

Songs of Support

There's an 'FDR' in Freedom sheet music

There's an 'FDR' in Freedom, World War II sheet music signed by more than fifty famed entertainers, composed by Clarence Kelley, Frank H. Stanton and Bob Matthew, 1942, sold for $1,195 including buyer's premium in 2008. (Courtesy Heritage Auctions)

Similarly, The Yanks With the Tanks Will Go Through the German Ranks, the official song of the U.S. Tank Corps during World War One, is more desirable than popular pieces like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile. Yet historic or not, most pieces dating from World War One and Two bring in modest prices, ranging from five to fifty dollars each.

There’s an F-D-R in Freedom, however, which not only equates World War Two president Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the American ideal of freedom, but also spotlights entertainment of that era, is exceptional. Its title page, printed in red, white, and blue, features FDR’s photographic image against a fluttering American flag, all overlaid with signatures of over fifty famed entertainers, including Jack Benny, Al Jolson, Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Fred Allen. “This piece,” adds Ms. Dixey, “valued for its autographs rather than the sheet music itself, realized $1,195 at Heritage Auctions in 2008.”

Though framed vintage patriotic sheet music makes a strong decorative statement, few, it appears, collect these pieces for their titles or covers. Rather, history buffs and people with personal connections to a particular place or era seek them out. Scores also collect patriotic sheet music to play and sing it—as of old.

Sheet Music Showcase

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