www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 3 · April 2001
Benjamin Filene is an exhibit curator at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul; he is the author of Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill, 2000). He was the lead curator on the History Center's new exhibit, Sounds Good to Me: Music in Minnesota.
Searching for Florence
For me, it was the eyes. With her hand resting easily on the piano, the girl gives the camera a piercing look of pride and self-possession, with just a hint of defiance. That look stirred up deep feelings in me--about music, about daughters (especially prideful, self-possessed, occasionally defiant daughters), about reaching back for the past. I admit--and it became even more plain later, when I knew more--that I brought personal feelings to bear on the image. But this wasn't a time to be an "objective historian." This was a time to indulge, for a moment, the warm, vaguely melancholy feeling that comes from connecting to the past and to remember why I became an historian in the first place. And it was time to learn more.
All that was written on the back of the photograph was "Florence Blood seated at piano, Feb. 25, 1912," plus the call number assigned by the Minnesota Historical Society's library. The photo was one of hundreds that a team of us flipped through on an early winter afternoon in 1998. The group was assigned to develop a new exhibit for the Society, Sounds Good to Me: Music in Minnesota. Two years before the opening date, we were starting to work in earnest. Until that point, Sounds Good to Me had been more a felicitous phrase than a meaningful title. Seeing Florence, though, brought it into focus for me. The exhibit should be about the feelings this girl had for music and the feelings I was having about the girl. It should be about how we all--in different ways, in different times, and in different places--weave music into our lives: sounds good to me.
Without telling the rest of the team, I order a print of the photograph, slide it into a frame, and put it on my piano at home. For several months, it sits there largely unexamined. Occasionally my four-year-old daughter, Eliza, notices it and asks if it is a picture of her. "No," I say, "it's someone who lived a long, long time ago." "You mean before I was born?" "Yes, before you were born." Is that all? Can the photograph become more than just a reservoir for the vaguely nostalgic feelings I'd imposed on it? Can Florence be found? One day, I begin the hunt.
The most obvious route dead-ends. Most objects in MHS's collections have donor files that tell how they came to the Society. But our photography curator, Bonnie Wilson, turns up no file on this image, just a record showing that the actual donation had been a 4" x 5" glass-plate negative, not a print. In the 1950s and 1960s, shortly after the Society established its audio-visual library, it was not uncommon for people to donate a stack of glass negatives. The understaffed department might not have had time to develop the images for a while, and donor records either were not created or did not itemize all of the images. The surprisingly precise name and date on Florence's photo likely were handwritten on the paper wrapper that held the negative when it was dropped off. Bonnie speculates that since the identification includes Florence's last name, the photograph was probably snapped by someone other than a family member (who would have written just "Florence")--perhaps an itinerant photographer or an amateur who owned a camera and took pictures for everyone on the block.
Regardless of the exact scenario, I can't call Florence's descendants and say, "Tell me about your grandmother." I turn back to the photo itself. Again I am struck by the clarity of the image. You can tell Florence dressed up for it--hair in a braid and a corkscrew curl with ribbons in the back, bracelets and a bead necklace, rings on fingers, shiny boots laced up tightly, cotton dress with nary a wrinkle. The room that holds the piano is not as fancy as some of the other turn-of-the-century parlors I've seen in photos. Sometimes you can hardly spot the instrument beneath the doilies, plants, statues, and bevy of family photographs. Florence's instrument looks to be covered with a tasseled cloth. There's a metronome on top in the center, a fern arrangement and vase on a table nearby, a framed painting (spaniels!) on the wall behind, and a flowered flue cover on an adjacent wall. It's not a lavish setup, I think, but certainly comfortable. I realize that the idea of a not-wealthy person dressing up to pose with a piano is part of what I find moving. With an air of idealism and hope, the photo places music in the center of Florence's life--as an avenue for personal and public expression, for feelings of self-worth and hopes for self-advancement.
Tantalizingly, you can read the titles of the music on Florence's piano: "Meet Me To-night in Dreamland" and "Moon Wind." Sheet music, I know from our exhibit research, was all the rage in this period. Pianos had become more affordable in the late 1800s, and their new owners wanted easy-to-play music for parlor sing-alongs. Colorful, single-sheet copies of popular songs became the stock in trade of a booming industry. Although the player piano and then the phonograph began appearing in middle-class homes in the 1890s, the sheet-music trade flourished until the 1930s, when it went into steep decline.
What would it have been like to sit in the parlor and hear Florence play? The question calls to mind an institution I'd read about, the Chatfield Brass Band Music Lending Library in southeastern Minnesota. Jim Perkins, a lawyer in Chatfield, had started a community brass band in 1969 and needed repertoire. He wrote to schools and bands, asking for old sheet music that wasn't being used. At first Perkins filed the donations in his attic in wooden cabinets he bought from the Mayo Clinic for five dollars. As more and more music came pouring in, he moved the collection to City Hall and then, in 1981, opened a three-thousand-square-foot library. Today the collection has more than one hundred thousand songs, with another five hundred boxes of music waiting to be catalogued.
I ask Ayesha Shariff, the researcher working on the music exhibit, to call Chatfield. "Moon Wind" doesn't ring a bell, but, yes, "Meet Me To-night in Dreamland" is in their collection. [The author has since learned that the "Moon" song, partially obscured in the photograph, is actually titled "Moon Winks."] Ayesha orders a photocopy of the music and, with an eye toward reproducing it in the exhibit, asks about the color of the original sheet. A week later the copy comes--clearly legible, showing the same dramatically bonneted woman on the cover as appears on Florence's music. There is also a typewritten note: "I have cut off a corner of the cover of the sheet music we have so you can get an idea of the color." Egad! To the conservation-minded, this is akin to getting a thumb in the mail. But it does show clearly that the cover is pink with a yellow border and red script.
At home I put the music on my piano, a 1908 upright, not too different, probably, from Florence's. The music has a 1909 copyright along with a warning at the top of the inside page: "PLEASE NOTE:--Owing to the phenomenal and unprecedented success and sale of this beautiful song, there have been placed on the market, imitation "Dreamland" songs with very similar titles. This song written and composed by LEO FRIEDMAN and BETH SLATER WHITSON is THE ORIGINAL song of this title AND WE CAN PROVE IT."
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