Posted for: John Banionis, Director of Resource Management & Description
Falvey Library’s Distinctive Collections are full of digitized treasures available in our Digital Library, including many rare and obscure printings of historical American sheet music. Following the encouragement of our Director of Distinctive Collections and Digital Engagement, Michael Foight, and given my own involvement singing with several local choirs (including the Villanova Faculty-Staff Choir, currently on hiatus), I embarked to record a vocal rendition of Billy-Boy: the Kidnapped Child, with expert technical assistance from Distinctive Collections Librarian, Meg Piorko. Adding an audio recording to a PDF manuscript provides a much more accessible version of the music itself, and provides greater context to researchers without musical training. (To access the audio, click on the “Download” link at the bottom left of the page and select “Audio (mpeg)”.)
The sheet music’s stunning cover is presented as a strange hybrid of pictorial sheet music and a crime broadside or reward poster. Surrounding a half-tone image of Billy and his mother is a detailed physical description of the boy and the clothes he was last seen wearing when he was abducted in Sharon, Pennsylvania near the Ohio border: “This exact life-size photo of Billy Whitla just as he was dressed when he was taken from school.” This is followed by the offer of a “$1000.00 Reward” from the Scripps-McRae League, the first modern newspaper chain. Not only does a sensational kidnapping help sell newspapers, but it also is fodder for sheet music, a medium that was always in need of fresh, contemporary content. That its cover should resemble a broadside is very clever marketing. An affecting musical chorus also pulls on the heartstrings: “I want to go home to my mamma / Oh won’t you please take me away / I want my dear daddy to hear me / when I kneel down to pray.” The lyrics also mention the $10,000 asked for Billy’s return and Pat O’Reilly who “brought to justice those who caused sweet Billy Boy to cry.” James Boyle was later convicted of kidnapping Billy. Additional music printed here includes the song “I Love Thee My Irish Home.”
Be on the lookout for more recordings, including a Philadelphia-themed tune this Fall!