Welcome again, travelers, to yet another installment of my award winning blog series Cohen Quest. Today, hear the whistle of the archival train as we pull into our next stop, the Sheet Music Consortium. An initial search of “Cecil Cohen” proves fruitless; confining the search to “Names” seems to break the database even further (but maybe the website is just bad). A search of “Charles Cohen,” however, pulls up an interesting piece of music entitled “Baby Lou,” held in the Duke University Digital Collections. Let’s follow it down the proverbial rabbit hole, shall we?
I have many questions to answer regarding this particular entry, such as: when was this piece composed and/or published? who is Vandersloot Music Pu. Co? who is Kenneth Lacey? is this our same Mr. Cohen? And this is where Sheet Music Consortium, or the archivist who entered this data, has failed us. There is no outside link to the material, and when I searched “Charles Cohen,” “Baby Lou,” and “Vandersloot” in the Duke University Digital Collections, it came up empty. After some deeply frustrating searches through WorldCat and the UMKC audio archives, it seemed as though, yes, this “Baby Lou”, which really is the B-side to a record called “My song of the Nile”, was in fact composed by our same 1894-1967 Cecil Cohen. Great, now we have another piece of his to add to the collection!
The next two search results under “Baby Lou” are a pair of entries for a song called “Carnival Bingo”. The first doesn’t give us much besides that its also held at Duke University (no results when searched in the Duke digital collections) and the publisher being Vandersloot. The second gives us a bit more: actual images for sheet music to “Carnival Bingo,” this time held at the Mississippi State University Library. Excellent! Sheet music! I never thought I would get this excited over sheet music. Let’s look at the entry in the MSU database and… oh. The composer is listed as “Cohen, Charles, 1907-“. No matter, maybe they just credited his dates wrong? Let’s click the name to pull up the other entries to see if the pieces we recognize are there, and…
Now I’m confused. The other two pieces listed, “River Side Rag” and “Fashion Rag”, both include a portion on the front page listing “Chas Cohen” as composer of “Carnival Bingo,” “I love you still,” and “Baby Lou”. A search in WorldCat for “I love you still” brings up yet another piece found in the Duke University Collection, but this time with a link to a piece by “Cohen, Charles, 1878-1931”. Clicking this name, I find an entry for “Baby Lou,” and putting “Carnival Bingo” in WorldCat brings me to the same guy.
Y’all, it was a red herring. There are two Charles Cohen’s: both mixed-race composers and pianists, born late 1800s, and died early/mid 1900s. The major points of differentiation are that this Chas Cohen composed primarily rags and stayed around the East Coast (New York and Pennsylvania), whereas the guy I’m looking for wrote mostly art song, was born in Chicago, and worked at Howard University in DC until his death. There is a very real possibility that our Cohen started going by his middle name of Cecil so as not to be confused by the other Charles Cohen.
There is a real issue going on: it seems as though these two black composers are being conflated by various databases simply because no one has done the necessary work to separate them. Composers of color are not given the same care and attention to identify them as distinct, with rich inner lives; this is a tragedy that needs remedying. The best way to do this, of course, is to encourage archivists and librarians to focus more on composers from marginalized backgrounds and identities; unfortunately this is a lot more difficult than it sounds because the powers that be make more money by upholding white supremacy in Western music.
See you next time on Cohen Quest, dearest reader.