Not long ago, the song count on my iTunes passed the 20,000 mark. This milestone was precipitated by a month-long orgy of uploading, during which I transferred my entire compact disc collection to my laptop computer. In the weeks since, I’ve been selling the CDs on Ebay, steadily emptying my shelves of these relics of a now-quaint earlier digital age, when we believed that recordings already dissolved into bytes and bits of data needed to be stored in polycarbornate plastic Frisbees lodged in polystyrene cases, with paper inserts and lyric sheets and pretty pictures on the front. The CD purge has been accompanied by a tiny pang, as I’ve thought back on the hours and, especially, the dollars, spent acquiring the CDs—the care with which I’d packed them up and schlepped them from apartment to apartment—all the love I’d lavished on them: the meticulous alphabetizing and arranging and other absurd, fetishistic rituals familiar to anyone who has ever collected records. On the other hand: I weep not for the objects themselves. Of all the formats created in the more-than-century-long history of the recording industry—Edison wax cylinders, 78 rpm shellac discs, LPs, even 8-Track cassettes—I submit that the compact disc housed in a jewel case is the dumbest and ugliest of all, and the most poorly engineered. Why is it that every single time I’ve ever dropped a jewel case, even from a height of just two inches, those little hinges on either side of the front lid have snapped clean off?
As I’ve trundled my Ebay sales off to the post office, my feeling of satisfaction has graded occasionally into self-satisfaction. I’m a music critic closing in on the age of 40, and it has been pleasant to imagine that getting rid of those hundreds of CDs was a sign of maturity—that I had at last achieved an asceticism and Olympian distance befitting a mandarin, casting off my old collector’s acquisitiveness and fanboyism, freed from the need for anything but music itself. I toggled off the option that uploads tiny jpgs of album covers to my iPod, and savored the starkness of the readout on the screen: just the name of the singer and the title of the song, what more do you need? Recently, for the first time in a dog’s age, I went into a record store—remember those?—and I caught myself feeling smug, watching the indie rock kids earnestly thumbing through the racks and carting their purchases home to Williamsburg. Didn’t they realize that we’d left all that behind in the last century?
But the truth is, the desire for pop music stuff—for a thing to go with the sound—is historical, and it is eternal. The evidence can be found, in teetering piles, on the very shelves where my compact discs once sat. You see, nearly every dime I’ve earned on Ebay selling the CDs has gone into my Paypal account, and then straight out again, to online merchants of turn-of-the-century popular song sheet music.
My fascination with 11″x14″ illustrated sheet music folios began years ago, when I was researching a graduate thesis on Jewish popular songwriters in a library in London and stumbled on a yellowing copy of song titled “I Want to Be an Oy, Oy, Oyviator.” The song, from 1915, combined two favorite sports of Tin Pan Alley songwriters, outlandish ethnic caricature and topical novelty. It was a Jewish-themed variation on the airplane song, all the rage at that post-Wright Brothers moment. It had a lyric full of humorous faux-Yiddishisms—the song was written for interpolation into the acts of vaudeville’s Hebrew comedians, the Jewish counterparts to the popular stage’s blackface minstrels. But what really enchanted me was the cover art: a color lithograph of a hook-nosed Jew in full Red Baron regalia, piloting a biplane glider through a deep purple sky. The image was both gaudy and romantic. It was a revealing historical artifact, a reminder of the tumult of the Progressive Era, when the United States was remade by new technology and new immigrants. And it was as cool as any album cover I’d ever seen. Sheet music is the original popular music collectible—the way that pop songs first entered the homes of pop fans, decades before the advent of records and radio. Sheet music remained unchallenged even decades after Edison invented the phonograph and cylinders and 78s arrived in stores; it wasn’t until World War II that record sales eclipsed sheet music sales. Today, the idea of sheet music-based pop music culture seems bizarre and Victorian—you picture the family gathered in the parlor room, with prim girls in whalebone corsets at the piano and father gazing down grimly over his muttonchop moustache. But the sheet music folios from the first two decades of the 20th century are definitively post-Victorian things. Look at the illustrations of young dancers, lustful and entwined, doing the Grizzly Bear, the Kangaroo Hop, the Turkey Trot, and other racy period steps. Scrutinize the song titles—”My Wife’s Gone to Country (Hurrah!) (Hurrah!),” “I Love My Wife, But Oh You Kid,” “Everybody’s Doing It Now,” “I Like You Just A Little (But I Love How You Make Love)”—and the mythology that sex and rhythm only entered the pop mainstream circa 1954 is exploded.
The value of sheet music as historical documents can hardly be overstated, a fact that has only recently begun to dawn on scholars. Of course, it helps if you can actually read musical notation. I can’t. The truth is, my experience of the sheet music I have been fiendishly collecting is utterly nonmusical. I read the lyric sheets for entertainment and edification. I study the inset photographs of the vaudevillians who popularized the songs, for a glimpse of yesteryear’s forgotten stars. I gaze at the gorgeous graphics and illustrations. But the songs themselves, I can only imagine. The purism I’ve congratulation myself on my zealous CD-liquidating embrace of the MP3—music stripped of packaging—is in this case farcically reversed. My sheet music collection is all packaging, no music.
But can you blame me, when the packing is so seductive? I’ve gone through different phases of collecting, focusing at various times on ethnic novelty tunes, on dance craze songs, on rags, but lately I’ve returned to the subgenre that got me in all this trouble in the first place, aviation songs. I love the cover illustrations, which combine romantic bombast—flying machines strapped against starlit skies—with a gee-wilikers wonder at the new technology. And, of course, there’s sex: look at the couple in a love clutch at 10,000 feet on the cover of “That Aeroplane Rag.” To turn of the century songwriters, an airplane was just another place to spoon—a damn good one actually, a couple of miles above all the prying eyes and dead-ender Victorian moralists. Not long ago, I bought a wax cylinder recording of my favorite of these pieces, “Come Take a Ship in My Airship,” from 1909, which has a wonderful illustration of young lovers in silhouette riding a dirigible. I was disappointed: the cover had raised hopes for a brilliant song, an unearthly pop fantasia, but the thing turned out to be just another poky Tin Pan Alley waltz, with a screechy vocal by Billy Murray, a studio hack who recorded untold thousands of songs between 1900 and 1920. More recently, a friend emailed me an MP3 of another aviation novelty, “That Aeroplane Glide.” I’m sure I’ll play the record eventually, but I’m tempted to let it sit unplayed in my inbox. Why bother listening to the song—I’ve already seen it.