Ragtime to riches, a musical legacy at the Bodleian Library

A display until 29 January 2012, Bodleian Library - Admission Free

10 January 2012

Miniture-theatre_smallThe Bodleian Libraries’ first display in 2012 showcases a selection of material from the largest donation ever made to the library. 

Bequeathed to the Bodleian in 1974, the collection belonged to Walter Harding who worked as a ragtime pianist in Chicago. He built the largest collection of popular music and verse from the 17th and 18th centuries in the world. Packed in 900 boxes weighing 20 tonnes, the donation was flown from Chicago to Oxford in two chartered aircraft.

The display will tell the story of Walter Harding, his collection, and its journey to Oxford, and will showcase a selection of the remarkable and varied holdings of the collection. These range from rare Italian part books to broadsheet ballads, miniature theatres and eighteenth-century French opera. It will also explore the act of collecting: Harding’s meticulous indexing of his library, and his relationship with his books.

Walter Harding’s legacy is also celebrated with a concert and talks on 18 January. Dr Abigail Williams, English Faculty, will recount the surprising history of how Harding’s collection came from the basement of his shabby suburban family home in Chicago to the Bodleian Libraries. Professor Michael Burden, Music Faculty, will assess the legacy of Harding in the Bodleian music collections. The evening will include a short concert of music from works in the collection, performed by voice and violin duo, Alva. This ranges from seventeenth-century dance music to Harding’s own parlour song ‘All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go’.

Abigail Williams, display curator, said: ‘Walter Harding’s ability to collect on such a scale, despite modest means, is impressive and inspiring. The display tells his story for the first time, reconstructed from the archives. It is a detective story about obsession, philanthropy and one extraordinary man’s passion for the past. Harding is an unsung hero, and a man whose foresight preserved a lost world of popular music, at a time in the early 20C when it was not really valued. His legacy is still living and we have only just begun to uncover the riches in this varied and unusual collection.’

Clive Hurst, Head of Rare Books, Bodleian Libraries, said: ‘Walter Harding collected on a grand scale: books, ballads, music, ephemera; and he catalogued most of it on hand written cards. His collection constitutes a remarkable resource for scholarship in many fields. The Bodleian was delighted to receive his bequest, and we hope that his story will inspire similar generosity in others to support our libraries.’

The son of an East-End bricklayer who emigrated to Chicago in the 1900s, Harding earned his living playing ragtime music, in silent cinema, and later in a church in downtown Chicago. He had no musical or academic education. His collecting was the product of his sense of himself as a displaced Englishman, and the songs he collected provided a point of contact with a past he had never known. His ability to collect on such a scale was partly due to the contemporary lack of interest in these ephemeral and lowbrow publications, and also to the flood of books generated by the depression and crash. Harding gradually collected the world’s largest collection of popular songbooks and miscellanies.  Before he died in 1972, Harding chose to give his treasure trove to the Bodleian, despite never having visited Oxford. 

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