The Sheet Music Covers of Albert Wilfred Barbelle, Part 2

The sheet music art of Tin Pan Alley has left us with a rich artistic legacy, and while some artists are better known that others, none have quite matched the versatility and volume of Albert Wilfred Barbelle.

For this reason, this will be an ongoing series without a definite end time, and I will keep posting these covers as I find more that are of interest.

So here it is, part two of The Sheet Music Covers of Albert Wilfred Barbelle.

1.) The Devil Has Bought Up All the Coal (1918): Here we see a somewhat rare example of Barbelle's treatment of satire and comic imagery. This song wittily explains that the reason we were experiencing a coal shortage is because Satan was buying it all up in an attempt to make Hell extra hot for Kaiser Wilhelm, and even without prior knowledge of the lyrics, jut this one image tells it all. From the anxious look on the Kaiser's face as he watches the Devil carry off his hoard, to the knowing glance that Beelzebub gives him, as if to say "I'm cooking up something very special for you..." one can fairly easily get the gist of what they are to expect when hearing the song.

In conclusion, I might argue that this would have also made a great stand-alone political cartoon.

2.) Homesick (1922): This cover is a very creative treatment of the idea of home as a distant but wistful memory. The gold frame around the house in the distance suggests that home is nothing more than an image, whereas the clouds add that the image is a mental one. (A picture in the clouds is, to my mind, a metaphor for a daydream.) But the bushes and stream in the foreground extend outside the frame, suggesting an element of reality and deep intimacy. As a whole, this emotionally powerful composition represents that home is in our minds, but we want to go back there so badly that it reaches out to us.

3.) Rockaway Hunt (1915): The first thing that jumps out at me when I look at this cover is how skillfully Barbelle added geometric shapes to this scene of a hunting expedition. The large ring through which the people are riding on horseback, the half square directly above, and the extensions of the bottoms of the letters F and T in Fox Trot, all make for a very decorative graphic presentation.

To add to this, his choice to use watercolor as his primary medium gives it a mystic quality, as if this hunting trip is a dream or memory. It all strikes me as a very misty and surreal depiction.

4.) Hippity Hop (1919): The graphic boldness of this sheet music cover, from the use of big letters at the top, to the use of red on the plane and throughout, evokes a sense of brazen, spirited confidence. We are bravely going into the stratosphere, and we know we'll surmount every challenge that comes our way. Add to that the cocky smile on the woman's face, which we take as an invitation (or perhaps a dare,) and we can't help but want to take her up on it.

Interestingly, the color red is also a universal color for anger, which seems to hint at the lyric: "One day he flew into a rage and landed with a bang." (As a side note, the protagonist described in the song is a male, whereas the image is of a female. Maybe this inconsistency was a deliberate attempt to to use a pretty face to market the song? It's interesting to speculate, but we'll never know for sure.)

5.) Won't You Play a Simple Melody (1914): This song is actually a fairly well known one, particularly among Irving Berlin fans, (of which I used to be one not long ago.) It's a duet between two characters, one of whom prefers old fashioned songs from before the Civil War, while the other wants nothing more than to listen to ragtime. (This leads to some very interesting counterpoint between them in the chorus line.) The lead singer, (Ernesta, the antebellum music-lover,) sings about how she longs to hear more of "the kinds of songs they sang when mother was a girl."

As for the cover, it does appear to be a visual interpretation of Ernesta's reverie, as its color palette and hazy use of charcoal in soft, muted strokes gives it an obviously dreamlike quality. And the choice of sepia strongly suggests the daguerreotype, which was one of the dominating photographic mediums of the pre-Civil War period. It looks as if Ernesta (in the foreground, with the sparkly head dress,) is reaching into a daguerreotype of the couple at right (who are presumably her parents,) immersing herself into it further and further until she becomes the image. But if you look closely, behind Ernesta's left leg is a demonic figure playing a jarring tune on his fiddle, presumably a symbolic representation of the other character who will only listen to whatever's currently popular. (Portraying him as a demon is, to be fair, not entirely Barbelle's idea, as the lyrics include the line "Musical Demon, set your honey a-dreamin'".)

This depiction of a deep feeling of nostalgia is very evocative and haunting, and I can't think of a better way to sell such an emotionally charged tune.

That's it for part two. Which cover did you like the best? Are there others that you'd like me to include in the next installment? Please leave a comment and I'll look forward to having a conversation.

Until next time...



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