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I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to go rummaging through dusty boxes of books and magazines at car boot sales, flea markets and charity shops, but for me it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. To my mind, there’s nothing better than seeking out and finding vintage popular music-related treasures among the dust and clutter, then bringing them home to be preserved and their history researched. So it is in the spirit of sharing my excitement with these finds that I will continue to document some of my ‘treasures’ on this site, in the certainty that I am not alone in my slightly obscure pastime and fascination with pop’s past. As a starter for ten, I’ll write a few words on Henry Hall’s Souvenir Song Book, published in 1937.

This wonderful little book, presented free with the popular magazine Answers, week ending October 2nd 1937, contains a fascinating page-long introduction by conductor Henry Hall offering insights into what he estimates to have been nearly four thousand hours at the microphone over the space of his thirteen year career, five and a half years of which were spent as leader of the BBC Dance Orchestra. He begins by revealing his personal satisfaction at having introduced what must have been a hundred thousand tunes to his audiences, admitting “there is even greater satisfaction in discovering them (new tunes), in putting on the air the many numbers which reached the public for the first time through me”. Hall recalls how he had occasionally been very slow to recognise the merit of a tune which afterwards proved to be a best seller, and offers some cases in point.   For example, speaking of “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing”, Hall writes:

“I quite liked the original manuscript and had it orchestrated. But when the band played it the general effect sounded dreadful. So I scrapped the band “arrangement” and had another made; but this proved to be worse than the first and the result was an incredibly awful din so, being only human and a band leader, I decided to have nothing more to do with it. But song-writers don’t like their tunes to die such an unnatural death. The men who wrote “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing”, Stanley Damerell and Tolchard Evans, came down to Broadcasting House and begged me to have another shot at the number. Yielding to their agitations, I had another orchestration made, this time a very simple one indeed. And I don’t have to tell you the result!”

After outlining similar examples of songs which he initially failed to value as hits, including “Underneath the Arches”, “Play to Me, Gipsy”, “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” and “On a Steamer Coming Over”, Hall concludes “Great band leaders can be wrong” and that “a good song, in common with Shakespeare’s rose, does not have to depend on its name”.

It’s a great little souvenir of a once household name in popular music and one hopes that at some point in its lifespan it would have been at the centre of some musical gathering, perhaps family members or groups of friends singing songs around a piano at seasonal or personal celebrations. But for now at least it is safely housed alongside my collection of vintage magazines and newspapers. The new home for this little gem is also particularly apt since Answers magazine was launched by Alfred Harmsworth (in 1888), who was later to become Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail and owner of The Times. Answers magazine was aimed at a new demographic of younger readers and its commercial success, alongside publications like Tit-Bits and Illustrated London, arguably helped lay the foundations for a new mode of journalism in tabloid newspapers.   So it’s interesting to see how, even then, popular music-related material was being used to help draw in younger readers, long before the broadsheet press adopted a similar strategy in the late 1980s (see Skellington, J (2010) at: http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?did=1&uin=uk.bl.ethos.543819). This great little free songbook (although it cost me 20p!) therefore offers valuable insights into the early relationship between popular music and English magazines and newspapers, and thus becomes the most recent addition to my hoard of vintage teaching props.

Source: ‘Henry Hall’s Souvenir Song Book: the Years of Radio Rhythm 1932 – 1937’, Answers, (The Amalgamated Press: London). Week ending 2nd October, 1937.

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