Everybody Has a Story: Leak leads to lost-and-found project

A 1935 song book that includes “Happy Birthday,” “Dixie,” “Silent Night” and a Schubert-Shakespeare collaboration warrants some attention.

After the book emerged from three decades in our basement, what initially caught my eye was its cover. Velma, a teenager in Eastern Washington, wrote her first and last names in light blue ink on the cover of “Songs of the Show Boat” some 85 years ago. Just below, Velma wrote the name of her rural high school.

It was enough information for me to find her family, and I was able to contact Velma’s daughter. I had read about this sort of literary lost-and-found project: People find a note or inscription in an old book and try to track down the original owner or a family member.

My opportunity popped up after a recent downpour, when our basement sprung a leak. We brought up several boxes of sheet music and song books that my wife, a music teacher, had collected. She inherited some of the material from her grandmother de ella, a pianist who accompanied silent movies in Spokane theaters a century ago.

As we sorted through the rescued items, I checked publication dates, with some material going back to 1893. And then I saw Velma’s name on “Songs of the Show Boat.” Through Google, I found a photo with a caption that included Velma’s maiden name as well as her married name of her. That led to her 2010 obituary for her, which listed Velma’s children for her. Less than hour after I started, I was talking to her daughter Ella Linda, a Portland-area resident.

Turns out that my wife and two of Velma’s daughters were born in the same Whitman County hospital, so our families have that in common. But we will never know how our family acquired Velma’s song book.

The “Maxwell House Show Boat” radio program aired on NBC from 1931 to 1935. There was no boat. The show was a studio production, and the riverboat photos in the book came from the 1929 film “Show Boat.”

The song book was distributed by Maxwell House Coffee as a promotional item. It features 55 songs, with plenty of traditional hymns, patriotic favorites and nursery-rhyme tunes. There are even light classics such as “Who is Sylvia?” (Franz Schubert paired his music with a William Shakespeare verse from “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”)

The book also includes performer profiles. One photograph illustrates a cringeworthy aspect of 1930s entertainment. The program’s comedy team was a blackface act, Molasses and January, portrayed by two white vaudevillians. That was a time when “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was the most popular show on radio, drawing 40 million listeners at its peak.

As vintage documents go, “Songs of the Show Boat” doesn’t seem to be a premium item. At an online sales site, its value ranges from $5 to $15.

But there are different ways of measuring value. After Linda received the package, she emailed me. “Thank you so much for sending this wonderful song book that belonged to my Mom,” Linda wrote. “So many of the songs in this book are what we learned to sing from Mom as kids.”

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or PO Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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