At the Prohibition Ball

At the prohibition ball Back in June, we wrote about Irving Berlin's Prohibition song I'll See You in C-U-B-A, one of the pieces of sheet music that's on view in "There'll Be a Hot Time in the U.S.A.": Illustrated American Sheet Music, 1917-1924, the current exhibition in the Library & Archives reading room. This week, we're taking a look at one of the other Prohibition-inspired songs that's also in the show, a song called At the Prohibition Ball.

When I was first trying to decide how to select thirty pieces of sheet music out of hundreds to choose from, I realized very quickly that the pieces fit easily into various themes or topics and that each exhibition case could focus on one of these topics. Because of the time period, one of the themes that made itself apparent was Prohibition. After selecting five Prohibition-themed pieces of sheet music for the exhibition, I was struck by their publication date. All but one were published in 1919.

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919, but it didn't take effect until one year later, on January 16, 1920. Section 1 of the amendment reads, "After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited." The Prohibition songs written during 1919 weren't based on the reality of Prohibition, but instead reflect the anxiety of what social life in America might be like once the country went dry.

The cover for At the Prohibition Ball is an amusing depiction of this anxiety: an imagined party that's taking place on January 15, 1920 - the night before Prohibition begins. A Grim Reaper figure is pointing at the clock which is about to strike midnight, signalling that the party - both actually and metaphorically - is almost over. The cover, of course, was designed to catch a consumer's eye and sell music, but it also reflects the lyrics of the song:

All the folks will come from ev'ry state,
Ev'rywhere they'll congregate
It will be the night before the Prohibition Law!

We'll be at the Prohibition Ball,
There we'll mix with Mister Alcohol,

Folks will pay their last respects
To Highballs and to Horse's Necks;

The Gin we got from the Land of Cotton,
Will be gone but not forgotten.

Then we'll say farewell to old Champagne,
We may never taste a drop again;

It's gonna take till early morn
To say goodbye to Barleycorn,

We'll celebrate at the Prohibition Ball!

The exhibition, "There'll Be a Hot Time in the U.S.A.": Illustrated American Sheet Music, 1917-1924, will be on view until January 25, 2009.

At the Prohibition Ball, words by Alex Gerber, music by Abner Silver. Published by M. Witmark & Sons, 1919. Gift of Estelle F. Gese, Gale S. Pemberton, and Anne D. Pemberton, in memory of Frances Schmidt Pemberton. 04-014sh

Irving Berlin's "I'll See You in C-U-B-A"

We put on two exhibitions a year in our reading room, with objects primarily coming from the Library & Archives collections. Starting tomorrow (June 21), our exhibition cases will feature examples of illustrated American sheet music. The selection of sheet music in the exhibition is drawn from a gift that the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives received in 2004. The donors’ mother, Frances Schmidt Pemberton, collected them as a young woman working at a vaudeville theater in Rochester, New York, from about 1918 until 1925. "There'll Be a Hot Time in the U.S.A.": Illustrated American Sheet Music, 1917-1924 features sheet music published from the year that the U.S. entered WWI until five years after the end of that war. It's a rich moment in U.S. history, and the popular music of the time reflects various social phenomenon in sometimes surprising and entertaining ways.

Ill_see_you_in_cuba_webOne piece of sheet music that'll be on display is Irving Berlin's 1920 song I'll See You in C-U-B-A, pictured here. While it might not be obvious from either the title or the cover illustration (I'll admit that it wasn't obvious to me), the song is one that responds directly to Prohibition. Prohibition, of course, was the result of the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (later repealed by the 21st Amendment). Prohibition had a wide-ranging effect on life in the United States - something that was not lost on Tin Pan Alley's songwriters, whose ability to respond to current events is well-known. I'll See You in C-U-B-A is one of a few Prohibition-inspired songs that can be seen in the exhibition.

Through the process of looking at so many great covers while selecting only around thirty for the exhibition, I really started to want to know what some of these songs sound like. Thanks to a great project undertaken by the Department of Special Collections at the University of California, Santa Barbara, this became incredibly easy to do. I figured that our visitors might have the same reaction when they came to see the sheet music on display in the reading room too - "wonderful covers, but I wonder what some of these songs sounded like?" Because of that, we'll be loaning out mp3 players, pre-loaded with period recordings of many of the songs in the exhibition. With one exception, these recordings are all courtesy of the wonderful Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which has digitized and made available thousands of Edison cylinder recordings from the early 20th century. (Interested in the copyright side of this? See UCSB's FAQ about it.)

If you can't make it in to the exhibition, we've got two of the songs that will be featured in the exhibition available over on our website - just go to the bottom of this page. I've included one of those songs in this post - a recording of Fred Hillebrand performing I'll See You in C-U-B-A on a 1920 Edison Blue Amberol recording. Click here for more info on the recording - and click on the play button below to give a listen.

Pictured above is Irving Berlin's I'll See You in C-U-B-A [Call number: 04-111sh], published by Irving Berlin, Inc., 1920. It, along with all of the other sheet music in the show, is the gift of Estelle F. Gese, Gale S. Pemberton, and Anne D. Pemberton, in memory of Frances Schmidt Pemberton.