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Our Rich History: A New Year releases classic music, movies, and literature to the public domain

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

Happy New Year — this salutation is heard at the start of every new year as it brings renewed hope and resolutions for another year. It celebrates the passing of time and allows us to look back and reflect upon happy times with friends and family. It’s also a time to review what we’ve learned and how to make positive changes. The Our Rich History column today looks back 96 years to 1927.

The year 1927 is considered by many music and theatre historians as a turning point in Broadway musical history. In that year, the musical Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, debuted on Broadway. It was based upon Edna Ferber’s book of the same name from the year before. Despite its serious and racially controversial storyline, Show Boat is considered an epic work that revolutionized the musical art form. The landmark musical score by Kern and Hammerstein is as fresh today as it was in 1927.

December 28, 1927 review of Show Boat, appearing in the New York Times.

As Miles Kreuger, president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, states in the annotated booklet for EMI Records’ Show Boat studio cast recording in 1988: 
“The history of the American Musical Theatre, quite simply, is divided into two eras: everything before Show Boat, and everything after Show Boat. This seminal work revealed that a Broadway musical was free to embrace any kind of theme, however controversial, could deal with serious issues in a suitably mature fashion, could counterpoint light and cheerful scenes with those of human anguish, and yet never need to sacrifice popularity and a memorable, tuneful score.”
Show Boat was the first stage musical where the music and lyrics grew out of the plot, themes, and characters, thereby advancing the story. Up to this time, stage musicals were often theatrical revues (such as the Ziegfeld Follies) or light, fluffy stories with songs sprinkled throughout, featuring little support for the script. Ironically, the debut of Show Boat and other 1927 stage successes peaked, just as sound motion pictures arrived on the scene, followed two years later by the Wall Street crash of 1929.

A treasure trove of American popular songs of Broadway from 1927 have just this year— in 2023 — entered the “public domain.” Public domain coincides with each “new year” in a direct fashion, namely that on January 1st, published versions of musical scores, popular music, books, and movies become open and free to use without permission by the copyright holder 96 years after original copyright registration. In fact, some works that did not renew their original copyright registrations may have entered the public domain even earlier. Ironically, one of the top tunes from 1927 was “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” from the collegiate-themed musical Good News.

Why are new public domain works from 1927 so important? The creative works highlighted here remind us that each year copyright protection expires on certain creative intellectual works published in the United States. Copyright is a form of intellectual property protection by the laws of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code) to authors of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. These intellectual creations reflect our past popular culture. Once a work’s copyright term expires, the work is free for everyone to use. Scholars, scientists, artists, musicians, media producers, writers, and publishers may repurpose, republish, or build upon these published works in any way, without the need to locate the original copyright owner for permission to do so. To verify and discover additional public domain works from 1927, see Copyright Registrations from 1927 in the Catalogue of Copyright Entries at https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/cce/.

Highlights of Broadway musical composers and their New York hit shows from 1927 now in the public domain include: Vincent Youmans’ Hit the Deck, George Gershwin’s Funny Face, Richard Rodgers’ A Connecticut Yankee, Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, and Ray Henderson’s Good News. Copyrighted librettos and music scores from these shows (in the same order) feature top tunes from 1927 now in the public domain such as: “Sometimes I’m Happy (Sometimes I’m Blue),” “’S Wonderful,” “Thou Swell,” “Old Man River,” and “The Best Things in Life are Free.”

Haven Gillespie (1888–1975) was a Tin Pan Alley lyricist of this era from Northern Kentucky. Born in Covington, Kentucky, Gillespie only completed fourth grade in school. He worked as a printer before writing ragtime tunes. Subsequently, he collaborated with leading popular composers such as J (John) Fred(erick) Coots, Egbert van Alstyne, Victor Young, and Richard Whiting. Last year, in 2022, Haven Gillespie’s 1926 popular song entitled Breezin’ Along with the Breeze entered the public domain. This American Songbook standard was revised throughout the years by the likes of Bing Crosby on his radio broadcasts and even Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the motion picture The Long, Long Trailer in 1954. Years later, regional hometown favorite Rosemary Clooney reinterpreted one of his earliest hits from 1923, now in the public domain and entitled, “You’re in Kentucky (Sure as You’re Born).”

Haven Gillespie, ca. 1949 (Courtesy of the Kenton Co. Public Library)

Gillespie is most famous for his lyrics for “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” accompanying the music of J. Fred Coots and published in 1934. However, a sleeper tune forgotten for many years featuring Gillespie’s lyrics—that many music aficionados will recognize—is the song “Right or Wrong” (1921), with its 1927 copyright registration expiring this year to enter the public domain. Collaborators Arthur Sizemore and Paul Biese composed this catchy tune with Gillespie, which has transcended multiple generations—ranging from its premier performances by various jazz orchestras in the 1920s to a western swing dance tune by Bob Wills in the 1930s, then reinterpreted later as a popular country ballad by George Strait in the 1980s. A country swing performance with a jazz twist was featured recently on YouTube by the Ian Lee Quartet: https://youtu.be/r5OperKINrU.

The year 1927 also witnessed the release of The Jazz Singer, the first feature sound film with dialogue. It swept movie theaters across the United States. Audiences were amazed to hear the voice of Al Jolson. Movies with sound soon displaced the silent visual art. Movie studies and theaters rushed to set the stage for sound cinema. Famous 1927 silent movies entering the public domain in 2023 include the science fiction classic Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang), Wings (directed by William A. Wellman and winner of the first Academy Award for outstanding picture), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (the first thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock), The King of Kings (directed by Cecil B. DeMille), and Upstream (directed by John Ford).

1927 sheet music cover of Surrender

Silent films were accompanied by music played live at movie theaters, often by an organ or piano player following the cue sheet (musical score) provided by the producer of the movie. In addition, popular musical composers capitalized on the popularity of film fans by composing and publishing song sheets about favorite actors and actresses, or songs associated with specific films that were not representative of the official cue sheets.

One of Haven Gillespie’s significant 1927 songs entering the public domain was tied to a popular silent movie from Universal studios. Gillespie collaborated with Jeff Edmonds and Egbert van Alstyne to provide a “star” song for Mary Philbin and her performance in the silent film Surrender (1927). Philbin’s memorable roles at Universal often were cast as young women loved by monsters. She played the opera singer Christine pursued by Lon Chaney, as the mysterious phantom, in the silent film Phantom of the Opera (1925). In Surrender, she played the daughter of a rabbi associated with a Russian prince (Ivan Mosjoukine) during an outbreak of war. The cover of the sheet music for the song “Surrender” by Gillespie, et al. features a glamour image of Philbin, including a statement that it is “dedicated to Mary Philbin, Universal star.” Such “star” songs projected an intimacy and adoration that early film fans held for their favorites.

Books entering the public domain from 1927 include the last of the Sherlock Holmes series, entitled the Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women, Agatha Christie’s The Big Four, and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse also enter the public domain in 2023.

Elizabeth Madox Roberts (Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte)

Copyrighted literary works of prominent Northern Kentucky authors from Covington have also entered the public domain. In 2022, Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ (1881–1941) highly acclaimed novel about the human spirit entitled, The Time of Man (1926), entered the public domain. This year Roberts’ succeeding novel, My Heart and My Flesh (1927), is now a public domain work. Covington, Kentucky is the inspiration for the fantastic city of “Mome” in the prologue to My Heart and My Flesh. It a story of a Southern girl and her attempt to find happiness through three different love affairs. The novel’s themes include maladjustment, self-discovery, fulfillment, and the search for home, set in the landscape of Kentucky.
Roberts was born in Perryville, Kentucky in 1881. She spent her teens (attending high school) and twenties in Covington. After success with publishing poetry, Roberts returned to college and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1921. Her novels have been labeled as southern women’s literature, yet recent literary scholars have acknowledged her as a modernist writer compared to the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and James Joyce. For more about the works of Roberts and the 25th Anniversary of the Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society Conference, see http://www.emrsociety.com/.

George Hill Dillon (1906–1968) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1932 for his collection, The Flowering Stone (1931). His first published book of poems, entitled Boy in the Wind (1927), enters the public domain this year. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he spent his childhood in Covington, Kentucky. In 1923 he entered the University of Chicago to pursue poetry. As an undergraduate during his last two years, he worked part-time as associate editor of Poetry magazine in Chicago. Dillon eventually served full-time as editor of this prestigious magazine of verse from 1937 until 1949.

Finally, hundreds of thousands of sound recordings from before 1923 also passed into the public domain as part of the Music Modernization Act. Some of these include historic recordings from Gennett Records, located in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Cincinnati. Such significant recordings from the Jazz Age are found at sites like http://openculture.com and http://great78.archive.org/. For more details associated with Copyright Term and the Public Domain see the insightful Cornell University Library guide at: https://guides.library.cornell.edu/copyright/publicdomain.

John Schlipp is the Head of Research Services and Intellectual Property Librarian Professor at Henderson Library at Georgia Southern University. Schlipp is the author of the textbook Intellectual Property and Information Rights for Librarians (2019, ABC-CLIO) https://www.abc-clio.com/products/a6068p/. John also manages a Patent & Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) representing the US Patent & Trademark Office on the campus of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro near Savannah, Georgia. PTRCs offers free assistance to everyone from inventors to musicians, to understand and utilize patents, trademarks, copyrights, and more: https://georgiasouthern.libguides.com/intellectual_property/ptrc. For additional information, email John Schlipp at: jschlipp@GeorgiaSouthern.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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One Comment

  1. Toni Daniels says:

    Very interesting. Thankyou.

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