Arts + Culture

Love or something like it

These old songs in UCLA’s Sheet Music Collection show that love songs aren’t what they used to be

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I Do Kind of Feel I'm in Love
UCLA

If you’re having trouble expressing romantic sentiments on that Valentine’s Day card to your honey, it might help to know that, over the last 100 years, lots of others have had the same difficulty talking about love in all its permutations. A young Frank Sinatra crooned it this way in a popular 1945 love song: “Although I Know That You Don’t Care a Bit, I Care a Lot About You.” More than 30 years before that, a lesser known singer, Fred Douglas, sang with a bit of hedging: “I Do Kind of Feel I’m in Love,” captured in this 1913 gramaphone recording.

These tunes are among a sampling of off-message love songs culled from the UCLA Library’s Performing Arts Collections by Peggy Alexander, curator of the more than 100,000 titles of popular American sheet music dating back to the early 19th century that is part of Special Collections housed in the Young Research Library. A couple of years ago, Alexander came upon the sheet music for those songs while going through a box of items a donor had recently sent the library.

“They’re not your common love songs,” she said. “They’re interesting … and odd. Some have really odd cover art, and the lyrics are odd.”

Consider, for example, “I Just Met the Fellow Who Married the Girl That I was Going to Get!” Published in 1914, the lyrics by Joe McCarthy capture the regrets of a lovelorn guy whose timing was off:

“The day for our wedding I now forget,
I couldn’t get married ’cause I was in debt.
Then some other fellow he stole my pet.
I feel so bad, he can have all I never had.”

And then there’s this take on a nice-guy-turned-jerk, “I Knew Him When He was All Right,” recorded in 1914 by Bill Murray and the American Quartet.

Because an important aspect of Alexander’s curatorial job is to consider how items in the collection might be useful in research and teaching, she started keeping an ongoing list of these “love” songs for researchers, faculty and students who tap the sheet music collection for everything from dissertations to class projects.

“There’s so much to learn from the sheet music collection,” she said. “It tells you a lot about the time [they were published in] — what people were thinking, their values and concerns.” And the back covers of many of the older pieces of music featured jokes and ads for the likes of Bromo Seltzer and the Shefte Rapid Course in Modern Piano Playing.

Songs from earlier eras also shed light on prevailing social problems like sexism and domestic violence. The sheet music for “I Gave Her That” shows singer Al Jolson on the cover, whose smile matches the song’s jaunty lyrics — a man boasting that he gave his wife a pretty dress, a motor car and a big, black eye.

And while the world has changed immensely since songs like that were popular, some things never change, among them the human heart and the panoply of emotions — longing, jealousy and despair, to name just a few — that music from generations past captured in their own way.

“Wee” Bonnie Baker, in a 1938 recording with Orrin Tucker and Orchestra, confessed to an affinity for infidelity in “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (for Someone Else).” Dean Martin made a recording of the song some three decades later.

“I love you dearly, I’m yours sincerely
But honey, please remember
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
For somebody else.

When the cat’s away, the mice will play
I don’t say I will but still I may
I may be blue, away from you
And then again I may be gay.”

And Marilyn Monroe gave a nightclub rendition of “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It,” a song that shot to No. 2 in record sales when it first came out in 1920:

“After you get what you want, you don’t want it
If I gave you the moon, you’d grow tired of it soon

And tho’ I sit upon your knee
You’ll grow tired of me
’Cause after you get what you want
You don’t want what you wanted at all.”

Make an online visit to the UCLA Library’s Sheet Music Collection. You can also view the collection in person, by appointment, at Charles Young Research Library. And if you happen to come across any unusual songs during your visit, Alexander invites you to let her know. Email her at palexander@library.ucla.edu.

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