Free Thing of the Week: The Public Domain Song Anthology

Here at The Seattle Star we all love the public domain. But we’re also sober enough to know that the public domain suffers from citizen neglect. One recurrent problem is that in many cases the public domain remains inaccessible.

If you’re a musician, or even interested in music composition at all, you’ve probably run across this frustrating reality many times. You go looking for sheet music to a piece of classical music or a folk song, only to find that no such thing exists — or where it does exist, someone is charging a ridiculously large sum for you to access music that should be freely available. Liszt and Czerny and W.C. Handy’s heirs ain’t getting a dime, but music publishers are still locking up their work behind paywalls and other absurdities, because God forbid people want to play music other than contemporary pop.

Some organizations, such as MuseScore, have taken on this problem with varying degrees of success but they are greatly tilted towards European classically composed music. If you’re an American folksinger or jazz musician or western shouter, you’re unlikely to find them helpful.

This week’s Free Thing offers you some hope — and some tunes.

David Berger and Chuck Israels are two of the most respected names in the history of jazz. After founding the first two jazz repertory orchestras in the country (Berger heading up Jazz at Lincoln Center and Israels the National Jazz Ensemble) both found themselves teaching. And while teaching they found themselves scrambling to find materials that should have been readily available. They set out to collect it all in one place for the first time. This is the result.

The Public Domain Song Anthology collects almost 350 songs previously scattered all over the public domain and brings their music to you. Study, perform, roll into a hat — it’s up to you. Most songs have been arranged compactly. Several of them contain Berger & Israel’s suggestions for modern harmony along with the traditional chords. Along with the sheet music are three excellent introductions discussing the American musical tradition, the public domain, the problems of lyrics and minstrelsy, and some other intriguing historical notes.

In addition to the book, you can download all of the sheet music individually in any of three formats — PDF, Sibelius, or XML — from the University of Virginia’s Dataverse. Excelsior!

From folksong to spirituals to blues to Tin Pan Alley jingles, you can find it here.

It’s your music, folks. Lift your voice and sing.

Download The Public Domain Song Anthology PDF from here.
Download PDF from The Seattle Star here.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.