Monday, July 28, 2014

WWI music: "Feenish" and A.C. Mitchell

This past week, the Library of Congress Junior Fellows interns had their final display, where we show off items that we have "discovered" during our assignments. While most of the people who attend the display are other employees of the Library of Congress, it is nice to have a culmination experience. Over the course of the day, I explained my objects many, many times, and a few times got to sing a selection.*

For one of my objects, I chose a piece of World War I sheet music called "Feenish." I became interested in the piece first because it was published in France, oddly, not the U.S. It turns out that the song was written by two American soldiers while they were in France, and my best guess is that the famous French publisher Francis Salabert liked the piece so much that he made his own arrangement and published it.

And I can understand why Salabert took a liking to the song—it is written from the point of view of an American soldier in France, who is having a hard time understanding French. The solider keeps hearing one word over and over, and thinks it's French: "feenish." However, the word is just French people saying "finish" in a French accent—as in "finish the war, and then we'll see about helping you out." There's little bits of French strewn throughout the lyrics, too.

Notice that the last word of the 2nd verse is missing. On purpose.

The music of "Feenish" is typical of popular music from the era, with perhaps slightly more chromatic chord progressions influenced by early jazz. The choice of a slow waltz tempo may have been a nod to European musical tastes. The vocal line certainly flowed nicely, building up to the phrase "fini le guerre", the crux of the song and the point at which the joke is revealed, if the audience hadn't guessed it before then.

The soldier who wrote the music, Albert C. Mitchell, also has an interesting story. He served the war as a military bandsman, and wrote other popular World War I tunes such as "The Dixie Division" and "Over the Top (with the Best of Luck)." Then after the war, he went on to play saxophone with Paul Whiteman's orchestra. But as I was doing the authority work for Mitchell, or in other words determining which of the many Albert Mitchells was the author of each work, I also discovered that in the 1940s this Albert Carlyle Mitchell from St. Louis had a second career, which had nothing to do with music—he became a host of a radio show called The Answer Man, in which people wrote in questions about anything and he seemed to answer them on the fly. In actuality, he had a staff of forty people and they broadcast across the street from the New York Public library; so in many, ways he was a radio librarian.

I hope you enjoy Feenish. Hopefully, the rest of the 14,000 pieces of World War I sheet music the the Library of Congress digitized will be up soon and you can enjoy some more of them.

lyrics, chord progressions, chromatic, waltz, authority work

* I was pretty hoarse by the end of the day.

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