A 1935 songbook that includes “Happy Birthday,” “Dixie,” “Silent Night,” and a Schubert-Shakespeare collaboration deserves some attention.
After the book emerged from three decades in our basement, what first caught my attention was its cover. Velma, a teenage girl from eastern Washington, wrote her first and last name in light blue ink on the cover of “Songs of the Show Boat” about 85 years ago. Just below, Velma wrote the name of her rural high school.
That was enough information for me to find her family, and I was able to contact Velma’s daughter. I had heard of this kind of lost and found literary project: people find a note or an inscription in an old book and try to find the original owner or a family member.
My opportunity came after a recent downpour, when our basement had a leak. We brought several boxes of sheet music and songbooks that my wife, a music teacher, had collected. She inherited some of the material from her grandmother, a pianist who accompanied silent films in Spokane theaters a century ago.
While we were sorting through the salvaged articles, I checked the publication dates, some of the material going back to 1893. And then I saw Velma’s name on “Songs of the Show Boat.” Using Google, I found a photo with a caption that included Velma’s maiden name as well as her married name. This led to his 2010 obituary, which listed Velma’s children. Within an hour of starting, I was talking to his daughter Linda, a Portland-area resident.
Turns out my wife and two of Velma’s daughters were born in the same hospital in Whitman County, so our families have that in common. But we’ll never know how our family acquired Velma’s songbook.
The “Maxwell House Show Boat” radio program aired on NBC from 1931 to 1935. There was no boat. The show was a studio production and the photos of riverboats in the book were from the 1929 film “Show Boat”.
The songbook was distributed by Maxwell House Coffee as a promotional item. It includes 55 songs, with many traditional hymns, patriotic songs and nursery rhyme tunes. There are even light classics such as “Who is Sylvia?” (Franz Schubert associated his music with a verse by William Shakespeare from “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”.)
The book also includes performer profiles. A photograph illustrates a zany aspect of 1930s entertainment. The program’s comedy crew was a blackface act, Molasses and January, performed by two white vaudevillians. It was a time when “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was the most popular show on radio, attracting 40 million listeners at its peak.
According to period documents, “Songs of the Show Boat” does not appear to be a premium item. On an online sales site, its value varies from $5 to $15.
But there are different ways to measure value. After Linda received the package, she emailed me. “Thank you so much for sending in this wonderful songbook that belonged to my mom,” Linda wrote. “A lot of the songs in this book are what we learned to sing from mom when we were kids.”
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