ReSounding the Archives gives new life to old tunes

Singer Jimmy Stevens works on a song with pianist Faith Ellen Lam. Photo by Chris Preperato.

Students at George Mason University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media are revisiting the past with ReSounding the Archives, a new database of sheet music and recordings. 

"It is bringing music from that pre-recording era back to life,” said project manager Nicole Springer, also CVPA’s assistant dean for academic affairs and assistant director of arts management undergraduate studies at Mason. 

The project is a product of a 4-VA grant collaboration with the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. Spearheaded by Mason, the project invited UVA students to select and study the pieces before sending them to Mason to be performed and recorded. Virginia Tech also provided selections and recordings. 

The database features World War I hits such as the 1917 song “When Yankee Doodle Learns to ‘Parlez Vous Francais’” and the 1918 tune “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” Selections include the original sheet music, a student essay and two recorded performances of the song: one live and one in studio.  ​

The database addresses the problem of finding historically accurate music that is also accessible. Currently, only works published before 1923 are in the public domain and free to use for personal and commercial projects. ReSounding the Archives is an entirely digitized database, and sheet music and songs are available to the public to use how they please under a Creative Commons copyright license. 

While the database currently features music selections from World War I, Springer said they plan to expand the collection and add new music from other eras, including the Civil War and World War II.

She said she hopes the database can be a resource not only for teachers in their lesson plans but also for creators looking to use historically accurate media in documentaries and presentations. 

In the future, Springer said, selections will include lesson plans for K-12 teachers. Jessica Dauterive, a PhD student who works at the center and is a project manager for ReSounding the Archives, hopes that teachers will find this free database helpful. 

"For teaching, it's incredibly valuable. Students already are living musical lives. It's a big part of how people are navigating the world,” said Dauterive. “Being able to give them a different vantage point to think about history—so often it’s told through dates and static documents—this can help them to think about primary sources in new ways.”

Dauterive added, for instance, that in the current collection of WWI songs, listeners can hear the difference between early wartime music, when people were more reluctant to send their boys to war, and music by the end of the war, when people were more proud to serve and created songs such as “I’m Raising My Boy to Be a Soldier to Fight for the U.S.A.” 

"Popular culture, in general, has a lot to say about the time period it was created in,” said Dauterive.