Each year a group of aspiring young professionals joins in our work as summer interns, and some of them make creative use of the digital library items. Christine Fena looks at the Progressive era through the lens of music.
I found it difficult to decide on a topic for a digital humanities project using items from the Theodore Roosevelt Center's digital library. There are so many gems to be found! For example, I was fascinated to read through Roosevelt’s and Taft’s perspectives on the second occupation of Cuba in their letters and speeches in the fall of 1906. I was also intrigued by the details, painstakingly documented in many naval officers’ letters, surrounding the Navy’s relief effort after the January 1907 earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica.
There were also a variety of unexpected documents entirely outside the world of legislation, the military, and politics. One of my favorites of these was a 1914 letter from the artist and sculptor Gutzon Borglum (who would later create Mount Rushmore), in which he writes to photographer and filmmaker Edward S. Curtis to thank him for his moving picture In the Land of the Head Hunters, a 1914 silent film whose cast was comprised of entirely Kwakwaka'wakw native people and tells a fictional story filmed on location on the central coast of British Columbia, Canada. Borglum’s letter touches on the promise of “educational entertainment” through the film medium, and Curtis’ ability to bring it to “the realm of the fine arts.” Borglum further explains how he sees the tremendous impact that film is having on people everywhere:
"The moving picture has been to the dramatic roust-about what the tin horn has been to the boy with an insufficient vocal organ. It has been diverting, and in its rapidity of action alone it has caught the tired eye of the world. In its rapid reappearance with an occasional promise, it has held the attention of humanity."
In our own era, in which we continue to be entranced by how quickly new technologies are transforming twenty-first century societies, letters such as these provide perspective and context.
Although it would have been wonderful to analyze Borglum’s many letters in the library’s database, I opted to focus instead on music-related documents in the digital library. I found hundreds of music-related letters and photographs, in addition to the over 450 examples of sheet music housed in the collection, and selected only a few to showcase in my project, Musical Highlights from the TRC’s Digital Library. Among the highlights, which I share through the format of a chronological timeline made with Timeline JS, are items that shed light on interesting intersections between music and the Roosevelt presidency, as well as an assortment of social issues from the period, including those relating to race relations, gender, and American Imperialism. For example, in one letter, African American leader Booker T. Washington shares with Roosevelt a song for the 1904 campaign written by his “colored friends,” prominent songwriters Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, the sheet music for which is in the collection. Other significant names that emerge in the timeline are composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa, female composer and bandleader Helen May Butler, performer Buster Keaton, and noted composer, pianist, and music teacher Constantin von Sternberg. Other items reveal Roosevelt’s perspective on the national anthem (he preferred “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to “The Star-Spangled Banner”), and his dislike of a particular war protest song.
In order to showcase as many historic recordings as possible, I linked to items from the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Audio Archive. By listening to these digitized cylinder recordings, visitors can hear the music as it was performed at the time, often in the same year in which the music was written. I also provided links to a number of recent recordings prepared by the Theodore Roosevelt Center with funding from the North Dakota Council on the Arts. Links to these recordings, both historic and modern, provide a soundtrack to the images and text that I feature from the collection.
I hope digital library visitors enjoy these musical tidbits from Roosevelt’s presidency and social era, and continue to browse the collection to find many more. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to read through hundreds of items in the digital library as I created and reviewed their metadata, and created this project. Reading and experiencing primary sources helps to recreate historical events and historical context in a way like no other. It has been a pleasure to contribute to this digital library, which provides the essential service of bringing enlightening primary materials to anyone who has access to the Internet.