Handwritten manuscripts by ordinary musicians of the music they play, love, or want to learn are precious and unique windows into music-making of a particular time and place. For a person to inscribe on paper a tune or hymn or song is to acknowledge that this music matters! "Vernacular" music manuscripts thus contain prima facie evidence of the musical preferences of common people. They also serve a function distinct from printed music, which documents musical availability but does not generally contain evidence of whether the music was actually played or sung or even of concern to anyone. To see, play from, or study one of these manuscripts made from before the time of recordings, is to get as close to the document's time, place, user, and music as we are allowed.
This is a collaborative project between the Center for Popular Music and American Antiquarian Society to:
survey their holographic American vernacular music collections;
describe them bibliographically;
catalog each item;
inventory all contents at the song-title level;
create and share bibliographic records;
digitize all manuscripts;
store virtualizations of them at Internet Archive;
and build and maintain this website in order to provide web-based public access to all information and contents.
The project concerns manuscripts that are American in provenance (or that touch directly upon the American musical experience) with contents that are preponderantly non-cultivated ("vernacular") in style. It covers manuscripts dated from ca. 1730 (the earliest in the AAS collection) to 1910, which was a time when recordings started to serve a didactic purpose for musicians somewhat akin to the role notation played in earlier days and when publications of vernacular music became more readily available
More than 8,000 pages containing more than 9,000 songs, tunes, hymns, and pieces have been cataloged and digitized during the course of this project, information that can be used in manifold ways. An obvious question to ask is, "Why did the music matter enough to an ordinary person that he or she invested time and energy in writing it down?" Such simple questions often demand the most sophisticated probing and the most complex of answers, and this is likely to be the case here. Evidence supported by a database containing approximately 9,000 pieces of music should, however, point the scholar in the right direction. Since a search through this website will yield data that can be organized in many different ways, users can learn about music-making in a place or region, during a particular period, in a particular style or genre, that employs particular musical forces, that adopts a specific notational scheme (shape note; round note; etc.), by gender, ethnicity, class, occupation, age, or any combinations of these and much more.
"Search the Collection" will produce a list of manuscripts containing the search term(s). A click on any one of those manuscripts would take you to a page containing a full description of that particular manuscript and a list of hyperlinked contents. A click on a content link would then take you to the appropriate location in the "American Vernacular Music Manuscripts Collection" at Internet Archive, where the image of a page holding that content will show. From there you can focus on details, flip through the manuscript forwards or backwards, download a page, or return to an earlier stage in the search process.
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What are American Vernacular Music Manuscripts?
The period covered by this project found many Americans seeking to learn how to read and notate music and practicing what they learned. As a result, it became perhaps the most musically literate time and nation in the history of the world, a literacy that included both genders and spanned across a range of classes, occupations, and regions. Ordinary Americans bought copybooks (sometimes with musical staves already printed) or fashioned their own from loose leaves bound by thread, and wrote in them the tunes, songs, hymns, and other musical pieces that mattered to them, which were generally expressions of a vernacular music. Many of these have been preserved, probably thousands of them. Because they are always unique and special to where they lie, their usefulness for students and scholars has been compromised. This project joins two large, complementary collections of these manuscripts and makes them available for wide-ranging study.
We are pleased to offer greater access to these important historical documents about the nation's musical life. They provide a special window through which to view and study American musical taste and popular culture from 1735 to 1910.
Some of these resources may contain offensive language or negative stereotypes. Such materials should be seen in the context of the time period and as a reflection of contemporaneous attitudes. These items are presented here as part of the historical record and do not represent the views of the Center for Popular Music.
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