Transported by music

Here on the MusiCB3 blog, we talk a lot about the collection of Victorian and Edwardian songs held at the University Library. It is rare, however, that we have the opportunity to dust them off and perform them. This week is one of those rare times, as a couple of music librarians (the Daisy Belles) are involved in the launch festival for the new Centre for Music Performance in Cambridge.

With so many songs in the collections to choose from, picking just a handful for this event was a tricky task indeed. Thinking that some kind of central theme would both narrow down our choices and help the programme flow nicely, we decided to stick with songs which all had something to do with transport. The programme we finally came up with involves bicycles, hot air balloons, trains, and boats…

We start with possibly the best-known song about bicycles – Daisy Bell. This song has had many lives and other versions now include appearances in sci fi films, computerized singing, and as my daughter recently discovered, Cocomelon.

When a song was particularly popular, of course, it made lots of money from people buying the sheet music to use at home. Much like nowadays, it seemed a good idea to publishers to take advantage of an especially popular piece with a follow up to that same song. We can surmise that Daisy Bell was popular, as we have the sequel as well in the University Library music collections. Fare you well, Daisy Bell tells the end of the Daisy Bell story (spoiler alert: the romance didn’t work out, sadly!).

Daisy Bell was so popular that it had a mention in other songs, like this one from across the pond – Daisy, bloomers, wheel and all, which was evidently influenced by Amelia Bloomer and the rational dress movement, as well as the increasingly loud voices of the Suffragette movement.

The last of our bicycle themed songs brings us back to England. I won the bicycle involves an ill-advised prize draw, followed by an eventful cycle through London. It includes sections of monologue as well, better known as “patter”, which quite often appears in music hall songs.

As well as your standard advertising, adding the titles of new hotly anticipated publications to the sheet music, it also provides publicity for the music hall singer who popularised the song. The face of Harry Randall can be glimpsed as the unfortunate cyclist plummeting from his penny farthing on the illustrated title page. A long time actor / comedian on the music hall circuit, Randall had worked with Dan Leno, one of the foremost comics of the Victorian stage, and was a well known pantomime dame. 

Moving on from bicycles, we have Let go, a descriptive ‘galop for the pianoforte’ which illustrates the potential perils of launching a hot air balloon.

We placed this piece after the bicycle section, as bicycles were sometimes a vital tool for hot air balloonists. The composer, John Marsh, recalled a balloonist nearly being lynched after his balloon failed to take to the skies, much to the disappointment of his audience who had paid good money to see the balloon sail away, and had no sympathy for inclement weather conditions. In the case of the poor Chevalier de Moret, he was forced to hop onto a nearby horse and take off at a swift gallop. Later balloonists almost certainly would have kept a bicycle to hand.

Of course, the big Victorian transport revolution was the railway, and there are lots of songs in the Victorian sheet music collection at the University Library which reflect this. We chose two examples of ‘train songs’ for our programme. Our first train song is a music hall classic – Oh Mr Porter. Written by the Le Brunn brothers, a phenomenal pair of tunesmiths (they completely fill one of our sheaf music catalogues). It was later popularised by Marie Lloyd. As it was Marie Lloyd’s centenary the other day, we had to include this one. 

The Le Brunns take over the sheaf music catalogues

This piece is interesting from a legal deposit point of view too. The copy we are playing from is not the original publication, but a later edition from the 1930s, following the release of the Will Hay comedy which featured the song. What happened to the earlier edition? It may not have been supplied, it may have been deemed too lewd for the hallowed halls of academia, and so have been disposed of at an early stage, or it may have been intercepted by a don with a penchant for a quirky ditty. (Other options are also available, and have been previously discussed on here).

Our next song will be familiar to regular MusiCB3 readers. Continuing on the theme of trains, we have Help, the railway dog of England, which featured on MusiCB3 a few weeks ago. We were surprised to find several transport themed songs which were also charity numbers. Evidently music used as a source of fund raising was a much older concept than Band Aid in the 1980s.

The final song in our programme is both transport and Cambridge themed – Boating on the Cam.

Jewesbury and Griffiths the writers became friends in their early years at Sidney Sussex, though Noel would later move to Caius. With a mutual interest in science and music, the two penned this jolly boating song, and indeed Griffiths wrote more songs dedicated to Sidney Sussex (as you can see on the home page of the college, just scroll down). Griffiths later became Vice-Principal three times of what is now the University of Cardiff, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and lived well into the 20th century.

Sadly, Jewesbury had a much shorter life, following graduation he was ordained, and spent some years working in Lancashire. He returned from Lancashire to his family home in Kensington, where he passed away still in his early 30s.

Do come and join the Daisy Belles for their first (and possibly last) concert, when they hope to transport you with the popular music of the Victorians and Edwardians. The event is free, but please register – https://www.cmp.cam.ac.uk/events/daisy-belles-launch-festival. Saturday 22nd October 2022 at 10 am, Clare Hall.

KC and MJ

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