ASCAP: Creative Americans Organize

On February 13, 1914, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded in New York City. The purpose of this organization was–and remains–protecting the copyright and performance rights of the works of its members: composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers. ASCAP’s first director was composer and musician Victor Herbert, an eloquent supporter of musicians’ rights to receive royalties for the use of their work.

Herbert, Victor. [between 1905 and 1945]. Harris & Ewing Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

According to the story told about the birth of the society, the popular composer Victor Herbert became aware of the need for protection of musical creators’ rights when he was visiting a hotel and overheard a musician playing a piece of music that he had written. He knew that he had not been paid for the use of his music in performance, even though copyright law had protected against the unauthorized public performance of music since 1897. From that time, Herbert worked hard to organize creative artists into a collective and to bring the problem of payment of royalties to the attention of policymakers.

Compositions of ASCAP Members

An Old Fashioned Wife; Oh Boy!External. Book and lyrics by Guy Bolton & P.G. Wodehouse; Music by Jerome Kern; New York: T.B. Harms & Francis, Day & Hunter, 1917. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries
Get Together; Fox TrotExternal. Victor Herbert, composer; New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1915. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries
Mandy: Ziegfeld Follies of 1919External. Irving Berlin, composer: New York: Irving Berlin, Inc., 1919. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries
“Beale Street Blues”External. W.C. Handy, composer; New York: Pace & Handy Music Co., 1917. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries

Early associated with Thomas Edison, Herbert recognized the importance of the phonograph, making and issuing early recordings of some of his works in orchestral versions. Herbert’s testimony had an impact on the passage of the 1909 Copyright Law of the United States (PDF) , that extended composers’ rights to include royalties for the sale of recorded music.

Bernstein with Composer/Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, 1978… Weissberger, photographer. Leonard Bernstein. Music Division

Herbert served as director and vice president of ASCAP until his death in 1924. Some other members of ASCAP represented in the Library’s collections include W.C. Handy, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Ira and George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, and Leonard Bernstein.

Today, members of ASCAP include musical composers of all types of music from rock, hip hop, country western, and musical comedy, to symphonic and operatic music. A small sample of the ASCAP membership includes Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mariah Carey, Elvis Costello, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stephen Sondheim, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews, Burt Bacharach, André Previn, Alanis Morrisette, and Korn.

Learn More

  • Explore the exhibition ASCAP: 100 Years and Beyond which was created to celebrate the ASCAP Collection at the Library of Congress on the occasion of the organization’s centennial in 2014.
  • Search the Library’s Event Videos collection on ASCAP to find the “We Write the Songs” concerts which celebrate members of ASCAP as well as the ASCAP Foundation’s gift of their papers to the Library.
  • For more history and background on ASCAP and information about its members, visit the society’s websiteExternal. The site also includes a list of ASCAP winners and nominees for the Grammy awards.
  • For more on the life and work of musicians and composers, search Today in History. Examples of artists featured include Dizzie Gillespie, Aaron Copland, Louis Jordan, Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sophie Tucker.
  • The Performing Arts Databases include a rich diversity of performing arts materials.
  • Search these sheet music collections on composers’ names, such as Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin, or Jerome Kern, to see more examples of music written by ASCAP members:

Six Italian Folksongs

Italian-American Mario Olmeda shared his passion for traditional Italian singing with folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell on February 13, 1939, in Concord, California. Cowell recorded Olmeda’s rendition of six Italian folksongs, including “Marinaro (The Sailor),” and “La Capinera (The Blackbird),” a song that he said he had learned from his father. Cowell also visited Italian-American communities in the nearby towns of Martinez, Pittsburg, and Woodside.

Mario Olmeda, portrait, photograph. Concord, California, February 13, 1939. California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. American Folklife Center
Sidney Cowell, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right. Roger Higgins, photographer, 1948. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division
Mrs. Sanfilippo and her Sister. Martinez, California, February 11, 1939. California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. American Folklife Center

Listen to recordings of such titles as “Addio Mamma(Goodbye Mama),” “Sugnu Monica per si e per no Lu Zitu Voglio e la Tonica No (I Want My Sweetheart and not this Nun’s Robe),” and “Mio Marito e un Uomo Tipatiello (My Husband’s an Old Grouch).” Cowell’s comments on the Sicilians, made during her 1939 visit to Pittsburg, California, provide additional insight into this community and their songs.

Listen to the musical heritage and view photographs of numerous ethnic groups representative of the diverse peoples who settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. The collection includes recordings by Armenians and commentary on some of their performances, as well as recordings by Basque and Croatian performers and images of some of their musical instruments and performers. Browse by Subject, Contributors, Musical Instruments, or by individual Audio Titles. Search the collection on terms such as guitar, Portuguese, or wedding.

“Remembrance of Italy”. Giovanni Paggi, composer; Boston: Henry Prentiss, 1840. Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800 to 1922. Music Division

Learn More