Tin Pan Alley sheet music is always fascinating for so many reasons. There's the music itself, which reflects the current events and society of its time; there's the potential that this music has to teach us about our history and our ancestry; but then there's the art that adorns the covers of each piece.
Art on sheet music was so pervasive at the time that many talented artists were hired to create these unique pieces. Not the least of these was Albert Wilfred Barbelle, a young man from Massachusetts whose long and fruitful career brought us so many wonderful pieces of vintage art on sheet music.
He was born on February 15, 1887, in Fall River, MA, and began to study art abroad in his teenage years, returning to America in the 1910s to attend the Art Students' League in New York City. By 1912, he was already contracted as a sheet music artist with the Waterson, Berlin and Snyder co., and became a studio artist in the 1920s.
What I love about Barbelle's work is its versatility. A search for his sheet music covers online will turn up many examples, each with its own unique flavor fitting the song. In this article, I'd like to briefly explore some of what I consider to be his best pieces. Because he was so prolific, there are many sheet music covers credited to him, so I hope to showcase more of his work in future articles. For now, this is what I have so far.
1.) The Blue Devils of France (1918): There is a well-known maxim in graphic design, which is that good design is 99% thinking, 1% creation, and this sheet music cover is a good example of that. Working a silhouette in with the colors of the French flag is one of many ways Barbelle could have chosen to illustrate this song, but this is by far the most effective for its drama and its politically charged atmosphere.
2.) How Can I Forget (1917): The subtle use of color in this piece is what I like most about it, but the composition is also very well done. The placement of the titles, as well as the red box around the main image, all make for a cohesive visual statement.
3.) I Love to Stay at Home (1915): It's a bit unusual for Barbelle to include this much detail in a sheet music cover, but it's nonetheless a real treat for the eyes. So much is going on here, from the protagonist happily luxuriating in his chair with his pipe and smoking jacket, to the ruffles in the upholstery and the curtains, to the leaves of the plant in the lower left hand corner, to the moon which can be seen peeping through the window far in the background. Now this is a picture you could easily get lost in, (but please, don't make us send search parties...)
4.) My Sweetie Went Away (1923): This is one of many good examples of the sheet music covers that he drew in pen and ink. As with the others, detail and crosshatching abounds, but I also like the horizontal black lines at the top. These lines appear to be receding into the background, which, to my mind, is an abstract visual interpretation of the phrase "went away". The lines are going back further and further, and we don't know when or if they'll ever be back... Bon Voyage!
That's it for Part 1. Which of these sheet music covers did you like the best? Are there others you'd like me to include in Part 2? Please leave me your thoughts and I will look forward to reading them.
In the meantime, stay well and safe!
Just a side note: we currently have two sheet music covers by Barbelle available for sale to our US customers. If you liked this article, feel free to explore.