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Class, Race, & Sheet Music at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition

In 1904, the city of St. Louis, Missouri hosted the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a world’s fair commemorating the Purchase and celebrating the world-changing idealism, energy, and ingenuity of the United States. While marking the nation’s economic and geographic expansion, the Exposition’s presentation of the United States as Europe’s cultural heir struggled to balance elite, Euro-centric cultural values with the expanding relevance of a popular culture partially rooted in non-white traditions.

Gaylord Music Library’s collection of sheet music from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition demonstrates how the intersecting values of education and entertainment, high and low culture, class and race played out in the musical publications surrounding the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Three Musical Styles explains the various kinds of sheet music available in the U.S.A. at the turn-of-the-century.

How can sheet music explain popular culture? Westward Expansion presents Neil Moret's march, A Deed of the Pen, as a multimedia commemoration of the Louisiana Purchase.

Education and Entertainment intermingled at the Exposition. Learn how the fair's sheet music demonstrated the appeal of non-white music as a source of entertainment, even though European traditions were still prized as the source of intellectual ingenuity.

Exposition sheet music was full of references to European culture, particularly pieces published in St. Louis. Read about these European Ambitions here.

White Popular Culture included certain stock figures who appear all over Exposition-themed songs and stories.

While the Exposition was not officially a segregated event, Jim Crow laws made it difficult for African American patrons to participate fully in the fair. Even so, Black Popular Culture (and white imitations of it) contributed significantly to the Exposition's sheet music production.


About the recordings featured in this exhibit:

Wherever possible, we have provided links to period recordings, so that you can hear the music as it was performed by early twentieth century artists.

Period recordings are not available for all of the pieces. An Innovation Grant from the Washington University Libraries funded a live recital of music from the Exposition in November 2016. These performances by student and local musicians were recorded for this exhibit. Washington University makes these recordings available to the public under the terms of the Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 license. 


Please do not distribute them without crediting this exhibit and the performers.


For questions or concerns, please contact music@wumail.wustl.edu

Last update: 03/03/2021


Scores and images digitized by Washington University Library staff, unless otherwise credited; accompanying text by Karen Olson, Gaylord Music Library; updated 11/27/2017.