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Friday, Aug. 15, 2014

Ward Irish Music Archives Make History Accessible

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Established in 1992 by Milwaukee Irish Fest founder Ed Ward, the Ward Irish Music Archives are home to 5,000 CDs, 6,000 LPs and 78s, numerous video recordings and 5,000 pieces of historic Irish and Irish American sheet music dating back to the 18th century. Located in the beautiful Irish Fest Center (1532 N. Wauwatosa Ave.), the archives also feature artifacts such as wax cylinder Edison phonographs and early flat-disk recording apparatus.

Since October 2013, Ward has also been building a website featuring digitized versions of public-domain sheet music and decorative covers: irishfest.com/music-archives.htm. Off the Cuff sat down with Archivist Jeff Ksiazek to discuss the collection.

Ward recently won an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History for its new website. How will this distinction impact the archives going forward?

I think that’s going to be very positive for us. It’s going to give us a lot of exposure from other institutions that probably don’t realize we exist because we’re such a small entity and are associated with Irish Fest. We don’t get noticed as much as an archives or a library that’s associated with a university or a school or foundation.

I’m sure it will also just attract attention to the website itself. It’s important to have more people look at the sheet music and use it for their own research.

Can you tell me more about what the website has to offer?

We’re trying to provide a unique context to the material, rather than just presenting it as a catalogue. On the website there are different galleries that you can look at. For example, the Alfred Concanen Collection has a bio on Concanen. He was an artist born in Galway in the 1800s. As a lithographer he found his niche making these elaborate sheet music covers for a variety of subjects. It was really beautiful artwork and it’s nice to have that all in one place. We can talk about Concanen and who he was so you get an idea of who made that art rather than just seeing the art and not realizing the times or the personality.

What are some of the ways community members have put the archives’ resources to use in the past?

We’ve had musicians come in and take unique settings of the tunes that they’ve found in the manuscripts and actually start playing them again. There’s a local band called Myserk that took some of the recordings we had and then reinterpreted them and performed them in a concert here in 2010.

And just a couple days ago I received a phone call from a man on the East Coast whose grandfather was a Tin Pan Alley-era composer. His name is Bert Potter. The grandson, Bill, had found a piece of sheet music on our website and I was able to digitize it and send it to him. In return, he had a bunch of biographical information on his grandfather that he forwarded to us.

What are some of your favorite pieces of music found in the collection?

The “Milwaukee Carnival March” (1898). This was published in Milwaukee by Joseph Flanner. I like the tie to Milwaukee history, and the cover features a number of notable Milwaukee figures from the time, including Alvin P. Kletzsch who served on the Park Commission for 34 years and is known as the founder of organized football in Milwaukee.

And just a fun one: “Hippity Hop” (1919). It’s a silly aviation-themed song, and I find it amusing that the beginning of the chorus starts with “It’s hippity hop, I’ll never stop”—even though it predates “Rapper’s Delight” by 60 years.

Admission to the archives is free and open to the public Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 414-476-8999 or email archives@irishfest.com to make an appointment.