Name That Toon: Sheet Music's Partnership with Comics

Name That Toon: Sheet Music's Partnership with Comics

Editor’s note: Throughout the story, click an image to enlarge it.

Of the many objects on which cartoon characters appear, sheet music is a particularly fascinating example. Published song sheets—typically sporting artwork on the cover and music with lyrics inside—not only offer visual and tactile appeal, but they also offer clever tunes and lyrics. More than 1,000 song sheets featuring cartoon characters have been published, including cartoons known primarily from animated productions (such as Mickey Mouse and Popeye) and those known primarily from being in print media like newspapers (such as Barney Google and Mutt & Jeff).

What connection does music have with cartoons? Take a quick look at animation, which is a cartoon in motion. Music and movement have long been linked in the human psyche: The ballet icon Georges Balanchine wanted his audiences to “see the music, hear the dance.” Walt Disney, who might as well have been a choreographer himself, intended Fantasia to present “music you hear and pictures you see.” Animation therefore found music an ideal partner because music can reinforce cartoon movement.

A George Cruikshank sheet music illustration (click to enlarge)

And print cartoons? Research into electronic games uncovered associations between music and cartoons. Psychologist Annabel Cohen, in her 2000 study “Film Music: Perspectives From Cognitive Psychology,” suggests that people can perceive objects as alive when accompanied by synchronized sounds. Songs help us enter the world of the cartoon character, which is why songs were just as fitting a companion to motionless print cartoon images as they were to animated images.

 And they became so at a much earlier time than animation. While the earliest animation cartoon song sheets—such as “Out of the Inkwell,” which featured Koko the Clown—did not appear until the 1920s, print cartoon drawings were already showing up on song sheet covers in the 1800s. In fact, the very first lithographed cartoon graced the cover of a song sheet: The Log House was published in 1826 with artwork by American cartoonist David Claypool Johnston. In 1839 Johnston produced the lithographed cartoon for the cover of the song sheet The Schoolmaster—A Very Popular Glee. George Cruikshank, who greatly influenced the work of twentieth-century cartoonists, also illustrated sheet music during this early period.

In 1895 sheet music covers featured Palmer Cox’s Brownies. And in 1897 the Yellow Kid—the early master of merchandising—appeared on Dance of the Hogan’s Alley Kid.

By the turn of the century, sheet music featured cartoon and comic-strip characters of Eugene Carr, F.B. Opper, and Carl “Bunny” Schultze. Occasionally cartoon figures from different artists were brought together like an old home week. In 1902 Happy Hooligan’s Reception brought the hapless vagabond together with the Kaztenjammer Kids, and cover signatures of Opper and Rudolph Dirks blessed the celebration. At The Funny Page Ball featured Mutt and Jeff, the Gumps, Krazy Kat and Izzy Mouse decked out in their dancing finest. As people took in these jolly scenes and played the songs, music and art conspired to pave the way for audiences not only to enter an abstract world but also to embrace it.

Once comic-strip characters adorned song sheets, it didn’t take long before entire four-panel comic strips found their way onto music covers. Examples from the early 1900s include work by T.A. Dorgan (TAD), Harry Lewis and F.M. Howarth. With such comic scenes on the covers and then the accompanying music played over and over inside homes, songs served to ingrain these beloved characters into people’s minds. No doubt many of this article’s readers can recall, a full 72 years after its publication, the song that begins “Bar-ney Goo-gle, with the goo-goo-googly eyes!”

Science tells us more about the link between music and images. Sound can actually associate positive characteristics to what we see. Cartoon music is generally upbeat and lively. Adding lyrics to the music further expands this fictional world. Songs can bring cartoon characters to life. This potential for influence was not lost on publishers, syndicates and advertisers in whose businesses—as we shall see—cartoon sheet music played a noticeable role. But first consider how important song sheets were to the average turn-of-the-century American. At that time, families had no radio or television. The entertainment center for the typical home was the piano, around which family members and guests would gather to sing and play instruments. Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1870 had already led to greater popularization of music. People suddenly wanted to play what they were hearing. Annual piano sales in America, which had languished around 20,000 units during 1850-80, jumped to more than 230,000 by 1890 and increased for the next two decades. If pianos formed people's entertainment diet, song sheets fed their appetites. And people were ready to load up.

Sheet music was commonly sold in specialty shops and stores that stocked hundreds of items. But publishers didn’t leave purchases to chance. They hired musicians and singers to perform the music right in the stores, and they colorfully decorated music covers to draw a shopper’s attention. What better way to compete for that attention than to adorn those covers with popular cartoon characters?

Newspaper publishers that employed cartoonists and printed comic strips welcomed the association with song sheets as long as it helped boost visibility of their publications. So newspapers demanded that song sheets using cartoons give proper credit. Comic strips with a smaller national following, such as Gasoline Gus and His Jitney Bus, stood to gain much from such exposure. For lesser-known publications like the Youngstown Telegram and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a citation would be especially important.

Some song sheets only cited the comic strip, dispensing with newspaper credits. Abie the Agent, Long Sam, Silly Milly and Ella Cinders were featured this way.

Other sheet music acclaimed the cartoonists. A photo of Palmer Cox appeared on an 1896 song sheet along with a few of his Brownies. Clare Briggs, Harold Gray, F.B. Opper and many others were displayed on music along with their comic creations.

Another way that newspaper publishers leveraged cartoon popularity to boost newspaper sales and increase exposure was “song supplements.” Produced as an insert to the paper and usually placed in the weekend edition, these song sheets were typically printed on news stock rather than the thicker and superior stock of ordinary sheet music. Those that survive today are relatively brittle.

Popular print cartoons appeared in other venues such as movies, books and magazines. Companies used cartoon characters to advertise their products, while publishers did the same just to promote highly favored items. Sheet music was a popular means to get the word out. In some cases, cartoon figures were adopted as the principal icon or mascot for a company’s product. Theodore Geisel, known to most as Dr. Seuss, created the bug-spray-bearing soldier that served as the mascot for Flit Insecticide. As evidence that publishers left no stone unturned, cartoons were even used to advertise sheet music itself. Jimmy Swinnerton’s drawings appeared on the back cover of a 1905 song sheet titled Our Grandfathers’ Days in which Joseph Stern & Co. endeavored to yank up its own bootstraps by promoting another Stern song, Peter Piper.

Catchy terms and phrases used by cartoon characters occasionally formed the basis of an entire piece. Andy Gump’s plaintiff cry of “Oh Min!” jumped from comic strip to song title in 1918. The term “foo,” which appeared often in Smokey Stover, was further popularized in a zany 1939 composition. The phrase “Time’s a wastin’ ” wasted no time passing from Snuffy Smith into common parlance, helped in part by a published song with the same title. A comic character known for popularizing many slang phrases among 1930s teenagers, Harold Teen inspired several musical works whose lyrics referred to the infamous “gedunk sundaes" and his girlfriend Lillums.

Broadway show creators weren’t content to wait for the public’s imagination to bring cartoon figures to life. They made it happen by anchoring entire shows around the likes of the Gumps, Jiggs and Maggie and many others that took their turn on the Great White Way. To spark attendance, producers and music publishers partnered to market a show’s more popular songs. George McManus drew two different renderings of Pan Handle Pete on the 1906 song sheet When Two Hearts Beat As One as well as 1908 song sheet Columbia You’re My Girl. When producers issued entire collections of a show’s songs into booklets, they were called songsters.

Sometimes publications promoting a Broadway show were more haphazard in nature. Doings of the Duffs contains a cast list and a description of production scenes, but the music in the songster has nothing to do with the show numbers. Publishers of a Boob McNutt songster from 1921 bewilderingly celebrated the Broadway show based on that cartoon character by proceeding to slap a mish-mash of then-current popular songs inside the publication.

But even when Broadway investors leveraged the popularity of cartoon characters to promote their productions, no one lost track of who was boss. Bud Fisher may have created the characters and furnished the artwork, but there was little doubt after viewing most Mutt & Jeff songsters that show producer Gus Hill had top billing.

In the early 1900s, Americans not only sang and played instruments in their homes, they also kicked up their heels. Most were well-acquainted with steps to dances such as fox trots, waltzes, schottisches, one-steps and two-steps. Dance was an important part of popular recreation, so music publishers stepped up to take full advantage. Using cartoon characters, they showcased every major dance style, reasoning that if Buster Brown did the dance, families would want to follow suit. 

Even though their bread and butter came from festooning books and posters, even illustrators could not resist the pure fun of cartooning for sheet music covers. Examples of this sprang from the pens of Jack Lustig, Elenore Plaisted and even Frederick Manning, who started out as a cartoonist with Chicago’s Tribune and Evening Post before devoting himself full-time to illustrating.

Business needs generally required that print cartoon characters already be well established before they appeared on the covers of sheet music. But in some cases entirely new cartoon characters were devised to illustrate a song. Clare Victor Dwiggins had already developed the comic strip Ophelia when James Scott chose that character for the cover of a ragtime piece. But when Scott composed Ragtime Betty, Dwiggins invented a new cartoon character to be associated with that title. Frederick Manning originated a cast of characters for the song sheet Queen Isabella.

One of the more unusual examples of cartoon art on music positioned cartoon characters so that their figures represented the letters of a song’s title. In 1862, a civil war song sheet cover used cartoon soldiers to spell the title Skedaddle, military slang for a hasty flight from battle. On a song sheet published 67 years later, cartoon figures of children huddled together to spell Just Kids, based upon A.D. Carter’s comic strip of the same title.

While copyright laws already existed in the nineteenth century when comic sheet music began to appear in volume, their enforcement on behalf of publishers and composers was a mixed bag. The least protected of all seemed to be the cover artist. Publishers paid journeymen sketchers pennies to imitate familiar cartoon characters to attract sheet music buyers without having to pony up the higher wages expected by established cartoonists such as George McManus, Al Capp, Bud Fisher and R.F. Outcault. 

Illustrators of sheet music borrowed ideas with little remorse, such as the 1912 song sheet depicting a boy and girl who bear a strong resemblance to the Campbell Soup Kids. Though Grace Drayton originated the cherry-cheeked youths eight years earlier, this knock-off artist still helped himself to a serving. In fact, Drayton herself found the practice too hard to resist—she ended up borrowing from her own work when illustrating The Night Before Christmas, by inserting into the artwork a pair of sleeping children who look a lot like the Campbell Kids.

Yet the mimicked artists were thrown a sop in at least one important way: Copying meant extra exposure for the subject. For some cartoonists, emulation was the sincerest form of flattery. The song sheet Happy Hooligan: Comic Song, published only two years after Hearst papers introduced the character to its readers, featured an amateurish rendering of the beloved bum. But as proof that this plagiarism incurred no wrath, the song cover proudly displayed a favorable note signed by Opper himself. The benediction reads in part: “Thanks for your friendly offer . . . which I greatly appreciate and accept with pleasure.” One could surmise that Opper believed the extra attention generated by the song—however modest in extent—couldn’t hurt.

The science of music and images explains in part why print cartoons and song sheets initially became associated. The business of publishing strengthened this link, and development of leisure in American cemented it. As they always do, other forms of popular entertainment came along to supplant sheet music. But the offspring of the marriage between cartoons and music is a body of cartoon work that will continue to delight and engage collectors, dealers, archivists and cultural sociologists for decades to come.

Your Hit Parade: A Bounty of Tuneful Toons

This article originally appeared in  Hogan’s Alley  #14. To purchase a complete, high-resolution PDF of this sold-out issue, just click the cover image!

This article originally appeared in Hogan’s Alley #14. To purchase a complete, high-resolution PDF of this sold-out issue, just click the cover image!

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