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Music Division



In Search of the Woman Composer: Finding Music by Women
arrow graphicTopical Research in Popular Song





Topical Research in Popular Song

A woman's “no” is “yes,”
A woman's “don't” is “do,”
And tho' she says contrary things,
She means the same as you.

—from “A Woman's No! Is Yes!” by J. Walker (1909)

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Women are called to action in the suffrage song “We'll Show You When We Come to Vote”. 1869. Frank Howard (M1665.W8H). Music Division.
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Besides being creators of popular song, women and the roles they inhabit are also often its subject. Popular song research can provide a picture of an era, a rich social commentary on women's lives through the ages. Fashion, hairstyles, and popular trends of a time may be seen in sheet music cover art (see also Sheet Music Covers in the Prints and Photographs Division). Current ideas and opinions can also be heard in song titles and lyrics. The bloomer craze, for example, inspired many nineteenth-century songwriters.

The cover of “My Sweet Little Bloomer Girl” (1895) (M1622.R), words by H. J. Craig, music by E. D. Roberts, features a photograph of a woman wearing bloomers sitting astride a bicycle. P. H. Van der Weyde weighed in against the new fashion with his “Anti Bloomer Schottisch” (1851) (M1.A12 I vol. 40) [full item], which is “respectfully dedicated to the ladies who dislike the bloomer costume and are opposed to its adoption.” Motherhood is extolled in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World” (1909) (M1622.H) [full item], words by Carroll Fleming, music by Abe Holzmann:

In childhood all our greatest men learned at their mother's knee
The lesson that in after years has set our country free
And made the hearts of tyrants tremble, far across the sea,—
Our battle cry “For Home and Mother” dear.

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When grown up ladies act like babies: I've got to love 'em that's all. Maurice Abrahams. 1914. Music Division.
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From the social mores preceding Prohibition in “Good-bye, Wild Women, Good-bye!” (1919) (Leo Feist Sheet Music Collection, box 13), words by Howard Johnson and Milton Ager, music by George W. Meyer—

After the country goes dry,
Good-bye, wild women, good-bye!
How on earth do you expect to win 'em?
Unless you get a little bit of good liquor in 'em,
The girlies will start to act shy,
Right after the first of July;
Then ev'ry night you'll see many a sinner,
Taking his own little wifie to dinner,
The minute the country goes dry,
Good-bye, wild women, good-bye!

—to the sassy independence of “No One's Fool” (1921) (Leo Feist Sheet Music Collection, box 13), by Phil Furman and Fred Rose—

Why should I let some preacher give me away
When it took me so long to get this way
I'm going to make this world get up and say
“There goes no one's fool!”

—popular song provides a unique snapshot of a subject in the context of its age, and often depicts women as seen by men.

Topical research in popular song is challenging because the number of songs in the Library's collections is so great and the subject access to them so limited. This type of material usually falls into the “classified not cataloged” category or is simply filed by copyright registration number.

Subject Access through Call Numbers

The classification schedule for music (class M) is only marginally helpful in providing subject access to songs. There are numbers for songs about specific topics that allow a subject search by calling up pieces with that call number. Songs about prominent or notorious people, for example, are classified as M1659.5 followed by the first letter of the subject's last name. This classification is where songs about Amelia Earhart are found (M1659.5.E). Songs about political parties and movements are classified as M1664 (collections) and M1665 (separate songs). For example, woman's suffrage songs are located here under M1664.W8 and M1665.W8. Patriotic societies and organizations have their own song numbers and include such groups as the Daughters of the American Revolution (M1676.D3), Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War (M1676.D4), Gold Star Mothers (M1676.G6), United Daughters of the Confederacy (M1676 .U7), and the Ladies' Auxiliary (M1676.V42). The classes M1977-M1978 are assigned to songs of special character and arranged topically. Homemakers and housewives, mothers, nurses, secretaries, and women in general are just some of the subjects included within this class. Searching these topical classes, however, should not be considered exhaustive; only about 1 percent of such material finds its way here.

Songs that are topical in nature more typically are found under the general number for popular songs and among the copyright deposits. Locating these songs may require the use of reference sources that index songs by subject, searching titles that begin with a topical term, and the help of a little serendipity.

Subject Access through Keyword Searching

Subject searching of a limited variety is possible in the title portion of the card catalog for music scores by looking up titles that begin with a specific word. Searching under “woman” or “mother,” for example, will locate songs whose titles begin with those words. Since most of the popular song holdings are not represented in this catalog, this type of topical search is of limited use.

The same strategy, however, can be used to search copyright records. To search for songs about the suffrage movement, go to the relevant chronological section of the catalog of copyright registrations and search under words such as “woman,” “suffrage,” and “vote.” A search of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century copyright records reveals many suffrage songs whose titles begin with these words, though undoubtedly there are many more with titles that do not begin with one of these terms. In addition, this search also yields several songs on the theme of “A Woman's No! Is Yes!” from this same time period, just one example of the sort of serendipitous find one can make when searching copyright deposits.

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I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier. Music by Al Piantadosi; words by Alfred Bryan. 1915. Music Division.
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Electronic resources such as the World Wide Web have made title keyword searching of sheet music easier. American Memory, a collection of online resources compiled from the Library of Congress, contains a wealth of performing arts collections:

All of these digital collections offer keyword searching of bibliographic records and digitized images of the music itself, including covers and advertisements on back and inside covers. With future plans to add music copyright deposits from the Civil War era, American Memory will eventually provide access to the sheet music of nearly the entire nineteenth century.


Subject indexes to popular song literature are found in:

Cooper, B. Lee. A Resource Guide to Themes in Contemporary American Song Lyrics, 1950-1985. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. ML156.4.P6 C66 1986 [catalog record].

Green, Jeff. The Green Book of Songs by Subject: The Thematic Guide to Popular Music. 5th ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Professional Desk References, 2002. ML156.4.P6G73 2002 [catalog record].

Lax, Roger, and Frederick Smith. The Great Song Thesaurus. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. ML128.S3 L4 1989 [catalog record].

Stecheson, Anthony, and Anne Stecheson. The Stecheson Classified Song Directory. Hollywood, Calif.: Music Industry Press, 1961. ML128.V7 S83 [catalog record].

For a brief historical survey of what songs were popular in a given year, see:

Mattfeld, Julius. Variety Music Cavalcade. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. ML128.V7 M4 1971 [catalog record]. Though not a subject index, this volume provides a chronology of vocal and instrumental music popular in the United States from 1620 to 1969. Portions of Variety Music Cavalcade are available on the Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music site as Greatest Hits, 1820-60 and Greatest Hits, 1870-85.

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