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Melodies of enchantment: Exhibit features relics of New Mexico’s musical history

Elizabeth Garrett's "O, Fair New Mexico" was chosen as the state song in 1917

Elizabeth Garrett’s “O, Fair New Mexico” was chosen as the state song in 1917. A recording of her singing the song is part of at the New Mexico History Museum’s latest exhibit.

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

As beloved as she was during her time, singer-songwriter Elizabeth Garrett’s voice has been lost to modern-day music lovers.

Until now.

Garrett was born in southern New Mexico in the late 19th century. Her father, Pat Garrett, was the sheriff famous for shooting Billy the Kid. The blind musician studied voice in Chicago, entertained soldiers during World War I and was an advocate for women’s suffrage and the blind.

Eventually, she returned to her home state, and her song, “O, Fair New Mexico,” became New Mexico’s official state song in 1917.

Though Garrett gave countless performances throughout the early 20th century, New Mexico didn’t have a recording industry then. That’s why Santa Fe music expert James Keller, who describes Garrett as his “hero” and has spent years researching her, never considered the existence of any recordings made by Garrett or of her historic song.

But during a Google search a few years ago, Keller stumbled across an old auction listing from a music dealer in Germany. In a batch of records offered for sale, there was one from Chicago in 1924 labeled “O, Fair New Mexico.”

“This kind of did not compute,” Keller said.

The batch had been claimed by a buyer who never paid for it. He sold it to Keller instead. Upon receiving it, Keller noticed the label – oddly written in French – listed Garrett as not only composer, but also as singer. As far as he knows, this is the only existing copy.

“Why that label was in French, why the record ended up in Germany, I really have no idea,” Keller said. “But it has now made its way home.”

Composers and lyricists from New York's Tin Pan Alley wrote songs for places all across the country, including New Mexico, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Composers and lyricists from New York’s Tin Pan Alley wrote songs for places all across the country, including New Mexico, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

That long lost-recording and more than 200 other relics of New Mexico’s musical history will be featured in a News Mexico History Museum exhibition opening tonight. “The Land That Enchants Me So: Picturing Popular Songs of New Mexico” will stay up until February 2019.

The exhibit centers around dozens of pieces of sheet music dating from the 1840s to 1960s from Keller’s personal collection. For 30 years, Keller – music critic for the Santa Fe New Mexican and the program annotator for the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony – has combined his love for music and geography by collecting “geographical ballads” for all 50 states.

Of the estimated 10,000 pieces he owns, about 100 have New Mexican ties. He said New Mexico was one of the more difficult states to track down songs for because of how remote it was during the sheet music heyday.

In the History Museum's exhibit, sheet music includes songs about Deming, Carlsbad, Gallup and other places in New Mexico

In the History Museum’s exhibit, sheet music includes songs about Deming, Carlsbad, Gallup and other places in New Mexico.

“(The songs) tell a story that ostensibly takes place in New Mexico or are attached to figures in New Mexico history or have to do with specific places in New Mexico, which frankly astonishes me as much as it would anyone else.

“Who knew there were over 100 golden-age songs printed about New Mexico?”

The sheet music now on display was mostly produced from the mid-19th century until about 1920, when phonographs and later radio took over the role of pianos in the home.

The display includes sheets made in production houses in major cities like New York and Chicago. Composers and lyricists, who would turn out songs daily, wrote them based on a “fantasized” idea of the Land of Enchantment.

“New Mexico had a reputation for being exotic,” he said. “What people knew about New Mexico is that Indians lived there, there was a U.S. military presence there, and then this general exoticism and this being a land of three cultures.” At the height of New York’s Tin Pan Alley in the early 20th century, he said, the New Mexico genre included love songs about cowboys and cowgirls.

But the museum exhibit also includes locally written and produced songs. Keller said it was common for local music teachers or church accompanists to write songs about their hometowns and send them to major cities to print copies. Over the years, he has found sheet music from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Ruidoso, Carlsbad, Gallup, Deming and other New Mexico locations.

His collection includes the 1947 sheet music of Santa Fe’s Fiesta Song – complete with Zozobra as painted by Old Man Gloom creator Will Shuster on the cover – and a 1924 song titled “Back, Back, Back to Albuquerque.” The Albuquerque tune, like many written at that time, served local boosterism as a promotional song for the Duke City.

"Back Back Back to Albuquerque," from 1924, was an example of a locally written song that was sent elsewhere to be printed

“Back, Back, Back to Albuquerque,” from 1924, was an example of a locally written song that was sent elsewhere to be printed. Sheet music collector James Keller said songs like this were often used for local boosterism. (Courtesy of James Keller)

Keller pointed out his favorite hyper-local find: a Navajo lullaby from 1939. The music came from and was then sold in Toadlena, a tiny Navajo community with just a trading post and post office, after the sheet music was printed in Cincinnati. “Even in a tiny little place like Toadlena, we have music being written and (then) published,” he said.

The show is divided into different “chapters,” Keller said. Sections cover specific topics such as transportation – many songs were written about the Santa Fe Trail and railroad – and Native American contributions to the musical era. There’s also a display dedicated to music inspired by the 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” The most popular book of the 19th century was finished while its author, territorial governor Lew Wallace, was living in the Palace of the Governors.

The exhibit also features old western movie clips with songs about New Mexico, a piano that belonged to Museum of New Mexico founder Edgar Lee Hewett, and local memorabilia such as record needles made from cacti.

The collection is a chance to interpret state history through a unique lens, says Meredith Davidson, the museum’s curator of 19th- and 20th-century Southwest collections. She worked with Keller on this project for the last two years.

She noted that there are several listening stations throughout the space for songs from the exhibit. These include Garrett’s “O, Fair New Mexico” and a new recording of the UNM Wind Symphony performing John Philip Sousa’s “New Mexico March,” written in 1928.

“I always think getting into someone’s heart and soul through the ears is the greatest way to get through to people,” Davidson said. “To hear some of those pieces really gives you the idea of the breadth of ways people have interpreted what New Mexico means to them in song form.”