The Civil War and the War of 1812 inspired many popular patriotic songs. Most were sung to the tune of old world traditional or folk songs, so only the words needed to be printed, usually in broadside form. Then, as lithography and mass production printing methods became more widespread and as American society became more urban, musical performance became more common and popular.
Unlike today, when reproduced, recorded, and broadcast, electronic music is ubiquitous. A hundred years ago to enjoy music meant a certain dedication or, at least, personal effort. It was necessary to attend concerts, opera or theater or, more importantly, to make music oneself. Every proper young lady was destined to take music lessons and spend countless hours of practice on the piano or violin or flute. Modern homes were built with a parlor or music room to accommodate a piano.
So, the demand for popular sheet music grew overwhelmingly with publishers and purveyors in every major city. As publishers and lithographers flourished, the music covers (publishers call them the title page) became more and more ornate and colorful to attract buyers. Full color lithographed covers such as those by Currier or Kellogg were hand tinted in the beginning and then later became printed with colored inks. As photoengraving and photoprinting developed, sheet music covers became more realistic, if somewhat less romantic and charming.
Collections today often begin innocently with one example merely as a complement to a collection of other nonpaper items. For instance, a collector of railroad lanterns might be given a colorful copy of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” showing a steam locomotive and passenger cars with a conductor swinging a lighted lantern. Framed, it becomes a conversation piece to go with the lantern collection. Then, along comes “Casey Jones” and another and another and before long, a new sheet music collector is born. The same thing to happen to a cat fancier or old car buff. A collection can be amassed around any imaginable topic: Flowers, girls’ names, aviation, presidents, state names, sports, food and on and on. A very interesting, colorful and historical collection can be centered around the romance of firefighting.
The allure of the volunteer fireman has fascinated men and boys since the formation of the first volunteer fire company in 1648 by Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New York. Many stories, books, plays and movies have been written about the heroic exploits of the brave “fire laddies”. Contemporary books about modern or antique fire trucks are very popular and department histories are usually sold out by subscription before publication.
Song writers, composers and publishers, too, have romanticized the lore of these brave civic servants. Literally hundreds of songs have been written about fires and firemen. All facets of the fireman’s life have been glamorized or memorialized in song: the appointment of a new chief; the retirement of a favorite fire horse’ the acquisition of a fancy new “enjine”’ or a blaze at the orphanage.
The annual fireman’s ball was always the anticipated social event of the year, eagerly awaited by all the fair young maidens and handsome “fire laddies”. Every proud mother of marriage age girls would somehow make sure to get an invitation for the fair daughter by bribe, if necessary. In attendance would be the most eligible young men, civic leaders, would-be politicians and up-and-coming businessmen. The best brass quintet would be featured and the refreshments would be only the best, often imported.
The fireman’s ball was also an occasion to compose a new song. Marches were predominant, but also popular were the two-step, polka, waltz, schottische and cake-walk or rag. While most of the marches were instrumental, ballads and waltzes often contained lyrics that would have done justice to operetta or, at least, soap opera. Every fireman was a hero; young, handsome and brave.
I want to be a volunteer,
Every fire was an inferno, threatening life and limb; a daring rescue made on every call.
He’s one of the men who fight the flames,
Often the songs were dedicated to a neighboring company who helped at a “really big one,” but even more often the words told a story of envy and rivalry.
Come all you Good Will heroes,
Colorful sheet music covers depict buildings engulfed with rubber-coated firemen shooting long streams of water. Many show galloping horses pulling a steam fire engine with black coal smoke belching from its smokestack or a brave hero on a ladder with a child in his arms after a daring rescue. Fire trucks of all types made popular subjects—the shiny new Model T, the big 12-cylinder American-LaFrance or the Champion Water Tower fully extended with elevated water stream doing its job. Often all the men, in full regalia, lined up in front of the station. If the song was dedicated to a retiring chief, usually his picture was predominantly placed.
Most people start sheet music collections because of the colorful, exotic covers—to be matted, framed and hung like great works of art, which many are. But many are interested in the historical value of the stories they tell.
For whatever reason a collection is built; art, beauty, history or curiosity, the fun and enjoyment is usually in the search; the pursuit. Besides flea markets and mail-order, sheet music can still be found in large quantities at local thrift shops, second hand stores, antiques malls, garage sales, attics, and basements. Because so much of it was produced in its heyday from 1850 to 1950, and because, for some reason, it never gets thrown away (like National Geographic), it is very plentiful with much nice material available for one or two dollars each. Specialty subjects, like firefighting, are somewhat more costly, reflecting its limited supply. Still, a representative collection of fire department songs can be started for ten or fifteen dollars per title in excellent condition. Some of the more rare or older pieces are bringing up to $75 each, again in excellent condition.
The most often seen happens also to be one of the most colorful and attractive: “The Midnight Fire Alarm” by Harry J. Lincoln, published by E.T. Pauli in full color lithograph showing a three-horse hitch pulling a steamer at full gallop. It was published in many editions from 1900 to the 1930s. Copies are easy to find for $10 to $30 depending on condition and original print quality. Other Harry J. Lincoln songs include: “Fire Drill”, “To the Rescue” and “Still Alarm.” Among the other hundreds are: “Our Brave Heroes” by Eugene Mack; “The Flash” by Carl Mora, “March of the Exempt Fire Company” by Charles Schultz; “I’m a Fireman’s Love” by W. Raymond Walker and Thomas J. Gray; “Homeless Tonight” by C.A. White; “The Man Who Fights the Flame” by Joe Maxwell and “Rescue Waltz” by Roland Davis.
There are also sideline items to be added to a collection from the fireman’s ball: Engraved or gold imprint invitations; music programs; the ladies’ dance cards; photos of the Fire Department Brass Band and gentleman’s calling cards. Also from the engine house are membership certificates, equipment catalogs, meeting notices, daily activity journals, signs or banners. These and other items make up another fascinating specialty to be covered in a future article.