Top of page

Collection World War I Sheet Music

World War I Sheet Music at the Library of Congress

In 2013-14 the Library of Congress Music Division cataloged and scanned 14,004 unique titles, editions or printings of classified M1646 World War I sheet music. Although there are examples as early as 1914 and as late as 1920, the bulk of material comes from the years the United States participated in the war, 1917-18 and is music published in the United States. The number of items in this collection reflects a robust music publishing industry in the decade after copyright registered the highest production of popular music in history. In comparison to the 14,000 World War I titles, sheet music of the American Civil War (1861-65) is approximately 2,500 items for the North (M1640) and the South (M1642) combined.

Of the items in the collection, 11,053 are print material and 2,951 are manuscript. Approximately 60% of the print items are commercially or privately published sheet music and 40% are vanity press publications (personal use and distribution). There is some variation of format in the figure given for print material; in addition to sheet music there is a relatively small number of song collections, songs published in newspapers, instrumental or extended works and printed ephemera. The manuscript material includes original arrangements or deposits of published songs, vanity songs that had not been printed and copyright deposits by unpublished or amateur composers.

The three categories may be listed as:

  • Printed Sheet Music - Commercially or privately published.
  • Vanity press – printed or in manuscript.
  • Manuscript – unpublished or amateur deposits, original drafts of printed music.

About the Vanity Press

For a price, anyone who could pick out a melody or simply write verse could become a published songwriter. There was a thriving industry of publishers1 that would produce however many printed copies of a song the customer would care to pay for. Many of the vanity press songs have music and lyrics by client songwriters but many more employed the services of a publisher's composer/arranger, or "pulper". The "pulper" would supply music or arrange a client's tune and set it to the provided verse. The publisher would then print the agreed upon issue on cheap stock using one of a number of standard cover designs.2 Some "pulpers" were quite prodigious; there are over 1,500 pieces by Leo Friedman in the collection.

Raymond A. Browne, an independent "pulper"/songwriter wrote the music for 700 songs that appear not as vanity press printed editions, but as unpublished manuscripts. Browne's manuscripts are unique in that they are not through-composed; one page contains (usually) eight or sixteen bar units tagged "intro", "verse" and "chorus", while the other page has pasted-on typescript lyrics. Other manuscript songs set to music by professionals have melodies with lyrics, much like modern lead sheets. Unarguably cheaper than paying for print editions, the client had only to pay the "pulper" for their services and a one dollar copyright fee.

It is fairly easy to distinguish between professional and amateur manuscripts, but there are many songs where that determination can be difficult. On the whole, rules of traditional harmony are maintained though the complexity of accompaniments varies.


  1. Delmar, Fairchild, Howard, Legters, North American, Riviera and World Music Companies. [Return to text]
  2. See, Parker, World War I Sheet Music, Vol. 1, p. 825 for complete descriptions of sixteen cover designs. [Return to text]