Beautiful Music and the Myth of the West

Posted on: June 23, 2020
Topics: Collections

by Cheryl Miller, Head, Library Metadata and Discovery Services

Covers of sheet music in the Autry Collections highlight one way the Myth of the West became entrenched in American society. In her book Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West, Beth Levy notes “different brands of Western Americana were absorbed into American culture by way of sheet music, radio, recitals, and film.”

In the 1890s, as the sheet music industry grew and publishers competed for sales, they hired artists to make beautiful covers. The introduction of offset presses put fancy color covers within affordable reach of all commercial publishers. 

Audio Clips: 

"Sweet Betsy From Pike" performed by Bill Bender

Cowboys, Cowgirls and Pioneer Women could be found on many covers.

  • Image 1. Sheet music for “Sweet Betsy From Pike” published in New York, 1924. Autry Museum; 91.117.11
  • Image 2. Sheet music for “In Oklahoma” published in New York, 1909. Autry Museum; 95.196.6
  • Image 3. Sheet music for “Bonita” published in New York, 1927. Autry Museum; 91.196.2
  • Image 4. Sheet music for “Cheyenne (Shy Ann)” published in New York, 1905. Autry Museum; 91.23.5
  • Image 5. Sheet music for “Little Jesse James I Love You” published in New York, 1923. Autry Museum; 91.221.834
  • Image 6. Sheet music for “Maid of the West” published in Cleveland, 1923. Autry Museum; 91.23.3
  • Image 7. Sheet music for “The Bronk That Wouldn’t Bust” published in Chicago, 1935. Autry Museum; 90.20.2
  • Image 8. Sheet music for “The Wheel of the Wagon is Broken” published in New York, 1935. Autry Museum; 91.117.20

The popular romanticizing of California’s and the West’s Spanish past features the “Spanish Senorita.” These images illustrate Keller’s typology of Latina stereotypes: cantina girl, suffering senorita, or vamp.

  • Image 9. Sheet music for “My Old Guitar” published in Chicago, 1931. Autry Museum; 91.221.815
  • Image 10. Sheet music for “On the Way to Monterey” published in San Francisco, 1924. Autry Museum; 91.221.839
  • Image 11. Sheet music for “Chiquita (Chi-Keeta)” published in New York, 1928. Autry Museum; 92.163.6
  • Image 12. Sheet music for “San Antonio Rose” published in New York, 1940. Autry Museum; 93.169.1

The music of Tin Pan Alley during the early 20th century produced a number of songs that were represented as "Indian" songs or implied that the music was "an Indian lament, rhapsody" or some other Indian song. The music was not at all Native American music or even based on the same. In fact, it is very likely that none of the composers or publishers had ever even heard a true Native American song or even seen a real "Indian."

These compositions were illustrated with idealized art that frequently depicted Native American women as an "Indian Princess." The song "Owatonna" specifically refers to a “Princess Owatonna.” It tells the story of a young Mexican man named Pedro who is in love with an Indian princess, Owatonna. The cover features a young man strumming a small guitar under a tree, with teepees and an Indian woman silhouetted in the background.

Ancillary to this stereotype is the Native American man or woman paddling a canoe out of the distant past, a visual callback to a romanticized, mythical past.

  • Image 13. Sheet music for “Na-jo” published in Cleveland, 1921. Autry Museum; 91.221.859
  • Image 14. Sheet music for “Rainbow Song” published in New York, 1908. Autry Museum; 91.117.10
  • Image 15. Sheet music for “Owatonna” published in New York, 1906. Autry Museum; 91.117.7 

Some of the most prolific artists exploring the myth of the West are represented in the Autry Collections.

Albert Wilfred Barbelle (1887-1957) was an American artist known well for his work in advertising, particularly cover art for sheet music of Tin Pan Alley. He also illustrated the first Mickey Mouse book. Barbelle's career spanned over forty years.

  • Image 16. Sheet music for “Rose of the Rio Grande” published in New York, 1922. Cover drawn by A.W. Barbelle. Autry Museum; 91.221.829
  • Image 17. Sheet music for “Song of the Open Road” published in New York, 1936. Cover drawn by A.W. Barbelle. Autry Museum; 91.117.18
  • Image 18. Sheet music for “Moonlight on the Colorado” published in New York, 1930. Cover drawn by A.W. Barbelle. Autry Museum; 91.221.798
  • Image 19. Sheet music for “The Big Round-Up of Cowboy Songs” published in New York, 1934. Cover drawn by A.W. Barbelle. Autry Museum; 91.117.14

The brothers William Austin Starmer (1872-1955) and Frederick Waite Starmer (1878-1962) were noted sheet music cover artists who were born in Leeds, England, but emigrated to New York City. "Starmer" appears on innumerable covers from the early 1900s to the 1940s. By some accounts, the brothers were responsible for nearly a quarter of all signed covers published during that time frame. 

  • Image 20. Sheet music for “The Rose of the Mountain Trail” published in Boston, 1914. Cover drawn by Starmer. Autry Museum; 94.133.5
  • Image 21. Sheet music for “San Antonio” published in New York. 1907. Cover drawn by Starmer. Autry Museum; 91.117.6
  • Image 22. Sheet music for “Rocky Mountain Moon” published in New York, 1923. Cover drawn by Starmer. Autry Museum; 91.117.13

Andre de Takacs (1880-1919) was a unique illustrator and composer. Born in Hungary in 1880, De Takacs immigrated to America in 1901, and he soon became established as an artist in New York. Most of his work on sheet music covers dates from 1906 to 1919.

  • Image 23. Sheet music for “In the Land of the Buffalo” New York, 1907. Cover drawn by Andre de Takacs. Autry Museum; 94.133.4
  • Image 24. Sheet music for “Denver Town” published in Detroit, 1908. Cover drawn by Andre de Takacs. Autry Museum; 96.99.4
  • Image 25. Sheet music for “My Pony Boy” published in New York, 1909. Cover drawn by Andre de Takacs. Autry Museum; 96.99.5

Helen Van Doon Morgan (1899-1963) was one of the few women creating sheet music covers.  In 1919, she started producing sheet music cover art for F.J.A. Forster. Helen moved to New York City in 1927 and began providing images for DeSylva, Brown and Henderson as well as the Red Star music publishing company. After a lengthy career, Helen died in Sarasota, Florida in 1963.

  • Image 26. Sheet music for “Pale Moon: An Indian Love Song” published in Chicago, 1920. Cover drawn by Helen Van Doon Morgan. Autry Museum; 96.144.10