Dusting Off Sheet Music Collections in Blue Hill, Maine

Loose pages, handsomely hard-bound volumes with ornate covers, and every configuration in between of sheet music are stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves, cascading out of boxes on top of filing cabinets, strewn across tables, and piled precariously on every available surface including the floor. Inching along the narrow path that wanders through the claustrophobic space brings to mind the homes of hoarders. I’m told there are over one million pieces of sheet music in this long rectangular room that seems to go on and on and on.

I’m torn between awe and bewilderment. “But who,” I ask David Gautschi, Board Chair and our volunteer tour guide, “would borrow sheet music, rather than just buy it?”

Hot Jazz Jubile

A lot of people, it turns out.

It’s a warm, summer day in Blue Hill, Maine, a beautiful coastal town of just over 1,200 residents—the town sits on a peninsula, which puts it just out of the way of the millions of tourists beating a path to Bar Harbor every year—and I’m at Bagaduce Music, a creative endeavor unlike any I’ve ever encountered. Their main “line of business” is a lending library for sheet music—they hold physical copies of over 300,000 titles—though, in recent years, they have expanded to include music education, public performances, and support for musicians. In fact, it’s through this latter programming that I’ve found my way here: I’ve come to attend a ragtime piano lecture by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a NY-based force-of-nature multi-instrumentalist performing blues, jazz, ragtime, and old-time spirituals.

The performance space is intimate (there’s only 80 or so chairs, placed in eight semi-circular rows near the piano at the front of the room), brightly lit, crisp, clean, and modern. After the show, the audience is offered a tour of the lending library, housed in a separate building a short, outdoor path away. The first floor looks just like most libraries—rows and rows and rows of orderly bookshelves, carpeting, soft lighting, and a customer service desk. After a brief introduction, which includes the fact that the materials here are organized by instrument (a curiosity unto itself), rather than genre, composer, or year, we’re then led into the “staff only” areas and the magnitude of the collection is made apparent.

Evergreen

First up is a small, narrow room lined with full-to-bursting filing cabinets on one side and stacks of overflowing cardboard boxes on the other—all sheet music. Then through another door, down a set of steps to the basement where a narrow path has been carved through the mass of sheet music covering every square inch. Here is where intake and sorting and cataloging take place. Here is where “clean up”—the painstaking hand erasure of marks made on the paper by musicians during their use of the sheet music—takes place. Here, then, is the living, breathing heart of a monumental undertaking.

Bagaduce Music’s sheet music collection is composed of every genre you can think of and then some—except brass band music. There’s a lending library in Minnesota (Chatfield Music Lending Library) that specializes in that, and Bagaduce Music staff direct donations of such there. But everything else is fair game—including Maine specializations such as lumbering and lumber camp songs, sea shanties, Shaker songs, fiddle tunes, and music for steel pans (yes, steel pans, strangely enough—but that is a story for another day). I’m fascinated by everything I see and hear on our tour and have to contain the impulse to grab handfuls of materials from the nearest surface and start sifting through them to see what treasures I might unearth.

The Bagaduce Performance Hall in Blue Hill, Maine, adjacent to the Music Lending Library. (courtesy Bagaduce Music)

So, who needs a lending library for sheet music? After all, the “learn to play piano” and “easy piano music” books we bought when my husband was learning to play weren’t so very expensive.

To answer my question, our tour guide pulls a red-covered book about the thickness of Jane Eyre off a shelf. It’s a copy of Handel’s Messiah, and for a chorale group or symphony orchestra, buying a copy of this lengthy work for every one of their twenty, fifty, a hundred (or more) members for just one performance or season would be prohibitively expensive—and a storage nightmare (after the performance/season, most copies would likely end up in landfills). Large trad jazz ensembles and bands and newer bands learning or trying out as many songs as possible to build their repertoire face the same issue. Enter Bagaduce Music.

So how did Bagaduce Music get started—and in such an unlikely place as Blue Hill, Maine?

Nauck

For that, we turn to the organization’s current staff. I was able to sit down (over Zoom) with Executive Director Bennett Konesni, music director Jeremy Gibson, and Administrative & Outreach Assistant Lydia Reifsnyder and learn more about the history.

Bagaduce Music Lending Library grew out of the private sheet music collections of composer, pianist/organist, and chorale director Mary Cheney Gould (1924-2015) and pianist and conductor Fritz Jahoda (1909-2008) who met after both moved to the downeast region of Maine (Cheney Gould from Ohio and Jahoda from NY).

According to Gibson, “These were professional musicians and educators that had their own private libraries. And I think they, in their more senior part of life, were maybe discouraged the music wasn’t serving any purpose, and it was a lot more meaningful to have it out and circulating in the hands of people who could use it to make music. I think that was the crux of the idea. It goes hand in hand with how Fritz grew up as a kid in Vienna, Austria and had a childhood where he could pop into music stores and borrow music whenever he wanted—for violin, for piano, or whatever he was working on—but found no equivalent in New York or South Carolina or anywhere really in the United States. So, after meeting the right people and having the right ideas, they decided to make a music library in the United States that would allow people to borrow printed music in the same way they borrow books from other libraries.”

Elvis

The pair, along with friend Marsha Chapman, incorporated the idea as a nonprofit located in Brooksville, Maine in 1983. The library’s collection has grown tremendously since then through donations from around the globe and moved several times to ever larger spaces. The new, modern location in Blue Hill was opened in 2017.

The library has a diverse collection, encompassing “all the major areas for winds, strings, percussion, voice, and vocal ensembles.” Because the materials are donated from personal collections from all over the world, there really isn’t any particular focus. Konesni adds, “I think of our collection as kind of being like the community’s music bench. Everybody had piano benches stuffed with music, and periodically, they wanted to clean them out [or] parents die and the kids don’t know what to do with the music, and they send it over here. One of the things I love about this library is that it reflects the tastes of people and their music making over the last 40 years.”

It’s an interesting point that the focus of the collection changes with the time period and what was popular or in style—what was in my parents’ versus my grandparents’ benches is going to be very different, resulting in the collection being a living, evolving archive of tastes. In fact, during my earlier tour of the facility, I asked our guide if the library had any trad jazz or ragtime music. He gestured to the nearby wall of filing cabinets of popular music. “Trad jazz and ragtime were the popular music of their time,” he said, “so, yeah, we have quite a bit of it.” A quick search of the library’s online catalog for Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, and Bix Beiderbecke reveals what appears to be each artist’s complete (compositional) works. A more extensive search, I’m sure, would reveal the full extent of the library’s trad jazz, swing, blues, and ragtime pieces.

Nauck

I’m told the library also has a book of music by Mellie Dunham, who, according to Konesni, was “Maine’s most famous fiddler… who traveled all the country in the 1920s. He was a rock star of the fiddler genre from Norway, Maine.” More “old-timey” fiddle playing than trad jazz, but the piece I listen to online reminds me of some of the pieces from Jerron Paxton’s “history of ragtime” lecture and definitely fall within the fuzzy evolutionary dividing line between trad jazz, “old-timey fiddle playing,” Cajun fiddle music, and bluegrass. Five minutes in to exploring the library’s catalog and I’m already headed down some fascinating rabbit holes.

Borrowing sheet music from the library is straightforward, though borrowing privileges are limited to members (membership, which is open to everyone, starts at $25/year [$15 for students])—it can be requested via email, online request form, phone, or in person (in-person browsing of the collection is encouraged). There is a nominal handling fee plus shipping costs, and titles can be borrowed internationally and for up to two months at a time.

I ask Gibson and Konesni if the library holds any rare pieces of music that would never be lent out.

Gibson: Sure, yeah, we have a number of private collections that were given to us from various prominent people that we would not circulate. We have some pieces that are autographed by the composers… One of the biggest ones belonged to Fritz Reiner… He was a very important conductor in the early to the mid 20th century. He studied with [Bela] Bartok. He studied with Richard Strauss. He taught Leonard Bernstein. We have several of his scores that have original conductor markings. We would never loan those out. Some have inscriptions from prominent composers like Edgard Varèse; we have multiple scores that he signed for Fritz Johoda. Things like that we do have in our collection that people are welcome to come browse in person.

Konesni: If you came to the Sunday matinee with Jerron Paxton, he probably mentioned Chaminade—we have about 200 of her pieces, and Jerron told a really interesting story about how one of his musical inspirations as a jazz and blues banjo player, Fred Van Eps, claimed to have played all the Chaminade pieces; Chaminade made these little picture postcard musical pieces that were really easy to adapt for tenor banjo.

[Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944) was a French composer and pianist who wrote more than 400 pieces of music and was the first female composer to receive the Legion d’Honneur.]

Part of Fly With Pop Music, a “borrowable” exhibit at the Bagaduce, this song may even lurk in your grandma’s piano bench. (courtesy Bagaduce Music)

That feeling of wanting to spend hours sifting through the stacks of sheet music in search of lost treasures comes back in full force. I mention my love of reconstructing missing links in history and tracing the evolution and mutation of myths and stories across time and cultures from source materials. A million-piece library of sheet music seems like a prime location for the type of research that is often discussed in the pages of The Syncopated Times: things like the evolution of the trad jazz genre or of individual songs, tracing and authenticating authorship of songs or particular techniques, and discovering missing or unknown artists and composers who contributed to the rise of trad jazz, ragtime, and blues.

Gibson laughs. “You can look at YouTube later; there’s an earlier pops concert that is associated with Bagaduce Music maybe from ten or twenty years ago where [pianist and composer] Paul Sullivan tells a great story about exactly what you’re talking about, about coming across a piece of music he had been looking for for years and years and years that was a very ornate arrangement of the Blue Danube and he hadn’t been able to find it after searching the most prominent music libraries in Boston and New York, and then out of the blue comes to Bagaduce Music in Maine and finds not one but two copies.”

It may be worth a trip to Maine for some of my favorite TST columnists who conduct historical trad jazz research.

Bagaduce Music’s catalog of sheet music is available online, though searching it is, by their own admission, a bit of a challenge as the music is cataloged primarily by instrument (and from there searches can be refined by composer, arranger, and subject matter); however, the library is undertaking the Herculean task of re-cataloguing all 300,000+ pieces of music to make the online search easier. It’s just one of several improvements they have planned as the center enters its 40th year of operation (they are seeking both volunteers and donations to help with the project).

Bagaduce Music has a full, year-round offering of live performances by top musicians from around the country, musical education programs for people of all ages, and in-person jam sessions. Konesni is particularly proud of this latter item. “One thing… we’re looking to [do is] bring the music out of the stacks and into the community even more, getting young people–people of all ages, really– playing music. One thing we’ve done that’s been really successful this year has been… group lessons in fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, cello, bass, and other things besides.” There are also guided jam sessions led by professionals in the field (if there’s any trad jazz folks in the area who’d like to lead jam sessions or teach an instrument, get in touch with the Bagaduce Music staff).

Of course, this brings the conversation around to the trad jazz demographic and the future of traditional jazz. The crowd at the Jerron Paxton lecture and concert was 99% aged 70 and above.

Konesni: Yeah. We’re slowly turning the tide. The thing Belfast Summer Nights has going for it is that’s it’s free, supported by the city and businesses– and we aren’t. So, we have to charge for concerts if we are going to make it work. That said, we have a lot of things that people can do that are more affordable – and those generally tend to bring in a younger crowd. For example, a steel drum/pan fest that happened here in May had a really very young crowd.

Gibson: The Undertow [Brass Band] Concert did as well.

Konesni: That is true. It varies. It all depends on almost the day of the week. The contra dances have a really young crowd… It’s hard to draw a lot of conclusions because we’re also in an area with a lot of older folks. But the action is out there. Tuba Skinny is a great example of how people can be engaged—it’s mostly about relaxing and letting go of hang ups about what it needs to be or sound like and be about having a good time… If it’s fun and affordable, young people will show up.”

I conclude by asking, “If people want to get involved, are you looking for board members, donors, volunteers?”

Konesni: All of the above! Participate in our programming, take a class or join an ensemble, come take out music, run your own ensemble or learn some solo stuff, come help us clean up the materials when they come back from a loan, come help us learn to reshelve and help us keep it orderly in here, come help us with physical projects–there’s buildings and grounds type stuff people can get involved with, there’s planning and media type stuff, putting up posters around town. There’s stuff people can do from afar as well.

And, of course, donate your own collection.

Learn more about all Bagaduce Music has to offer and how to get in touch at www.bagaducemusic.org

By day, Terri Bruce works in the government and nonprofit sector, helping to eradicate poverty. By night, she’s a science fiction and fantasy author. In between, she’s a trad jazz fan. 

Or look at our Subscription Options.