Lester Levy, a Baltimore businessman and philanthropist, began collecting sheet music in 1929. His first acquisition was a dozen song sheets from the 1850s and 1860s, purchased for fifty cents each. It was six dollars wisely spent, and this modest investment marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for sheet music. As his collection grew, it quickly became more than a hobby; Levy recognized the significance of his collection as a window into the past. In his book Grace Notes in American History: Popular Sheet Music from 1820-1900 (1967), he wrote: "Everywhere, and especially in this exuberant young country of ours, the song after the event has been the reporter and interpreter of history, free to describe and to criticize, to praise and to scoff, and to retell events in his own particular way."
By 1976 when Mr. Levy began donating the music to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, the collection had grown to over 29,000 pieces of sheet music. The collection was small but focused. According to one authority: "Among the major collections that were assembled in and just before Levy's day, his is one of the smallest, mainly because it perhaps reflects the best taste of any of them. He was not interested in 'junk' (of which there is an appalling lot)."
As he collected, Lester Levy selected music that could tell a story with lyrics and illustrated covers. Among the pieces in his collection are those that vividly record momentous milestones like the California Gold Rush and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. Wars are commemorated from the Revolutionary War to World War I. Inventions that altered the course of history are celebrated in song, such as the automobile, airplane, telephone, and telegraph as well as those destined for obscurity like the pathephone and velocipede. Fleeting fashions and fads like bloomers and the "Grecian Bend" are illustrated, as are those that have become a way of life such as the bicycle and cigarette smoking. There are pieces recounting disasters, natural and manmade, and praising triumphant successes.
The collection is one of the most actively used in Special Collections—consulted for dissertations, teaching materials, books, scholarly and popular articles, television programs, and exhibits, both museum-based and virtual. A Peabody Conservatory student, who learned of the collection through a musicology course, wrote and produced a chamber opera based on a song from the collection.
Mr. Levy enjoyed sharing his collection with others, and the Sheridan Libraries continue that tradition. The Levy sheet music was one of the first collections to be searchable online. In 1992, before the advent of graphical web interfaces, patrons could search the Levy database and view scanned images. Today the Sheridan Libraries continue to take advantage of new technologies to improve access to this remarkable collection.
Collection Profile and Overview: Cynthia Requardt
Illustrations: Kelly Betts