Public Domain Day advent calendar #25: Christmas Day at Sea by Joseph Conrad

“In all my twenty years of wandering over the restless waters of the globe I can only remember one Christmas Day celebrated by a present given and received.”

By the time Joseph Conrad wrote that line in 1923, he had not only his twenty-year career at sea behind him, but also most of a writing career pursued on land for thirty years afterwards.  Readers familiar with his work, which includes novels like Heart of Darkness (1899), Nostromo (1904), and Lord Jim (1900), as well as short stories like “The Secret Sharer” (1910), know not to expect a light and cheery Christmas tale from Conrad.  His only earlier story set at Christmas was Typhoon (1902), where sailors fight for their lives in a storm that strikes their ship on a day that happens to be December 25.

Though Conrad himself had little use for Christmas (or Christianity generally), he had noted in a letter to his agent that stories with a link to Christmas were given ample space in December periodical issues.  That may have had something to do with his decision to write the short memoir “Christmas Day at Sea”, which ran in the December 1923 issue of the American magazine The Delineator and the December 24, 1923 issue of London’s Daily Mail.  It joins the public domain in the US seven days from today (and is already in the public domain in most other countries).

Conrad writes that on a working ship, Christmas was a day to note, but not to make a fuss over.  He underlines this last point by noting how distraction from one’s job at sea on any day of the year could be disastrous, as on the Christmas Day that his ship narrowly misses colliding with a steamer that suddenly appeared out of a thick fog.  The mood that dominates Conrad’s Christmas memoir is the sense of isolation of those at sea.  The present-giving occasion Conrad describes takes place in 1879, “long before there was any thought of wireless message”, when his ship is eighteen days out of Sydney, and encounters another ship with its sails oddly furled.

The other ship turns out to be an American whaler, two years out of New York, that has not touched land for over two hundred days.  The captain of Conrad’s ship has “an enormous bundle” of newspapers they had picked up in Sydney placed in a keg along with two boxes of figs, and tossed into the rough seas towards the whaler.  Despite “rolling desperately all the time”, the whaler manages to lower a boat, pick up the keg, and signal seven words of greeting and news to send back to America before the ships part company.

As it happened, Christmas 1923 was Joseph Conrad’s last Christmas.  He died the following August, and his younger son John renewed the copyright to his Christmas memoir in 1950.  To me, the starkness of Conrad’s 1923 essay on Christmases at sea (which he characterizes as “fair to middling… down to plainly atrocious”) helps reveal by contrast what many of us seek out in Christmas.  Specifically, there’s a yearning for connection, whether it’s in the religious sense of “God-with-us”, or in the person-to-person connections we make and renew in giving gifts, exchanging cards and letters, or sharing a festive meal.

I’ve valued being with people I love on Christmas, though there have always been some people that I can’t be with this day, for one reason or another.  So I plan to make some phone calls later today, remember some of the people I’ve spent past Christmases with, and do a little sharing online, including sending out this post.  (I’m also gratified for initiatives like the  #joinin hashtag being used on Twitter, to promote connecting with strangers over the holiday.)  I hope all of you reading this make or renew some connections today that you or others crave.   To all who celebrate it, however you do so, merry Christmas!

2019 update: Link to full text of “Christmas Day at Sea” as published in the December 1923 issue of The Delineator, now in the US public domain, courtesy of Conrad First.  (This version is somewhat different from longer versions published elsewhere.)

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #24: The Night Before Christmas (recitation with music and drawings) by Hanna van Vollenhoven and Grace Drayton

Christmas Eve is a good time to revisit Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.  In the public domain since the mid-19th century, it’s been adapted many times, and I’ve already featured a chorale adaptation by Frances McCollin in a previous calendar entry.  But there’s no limit to the number or variety of adaptations people can make to works in the public domain.  And there’s another adaptation from 1923 that’s somewhat better-known, and worth a look.

In 1923, the Boston Music Company published “The Night Before Christmas: A Spoken Song or Recitation, by Hanna Van Vollenhoven”.  Van Vollenhoven, a Dutch woman who had immigrated to New York around the time of the first World War, was a fairly well-known pianist and composer at the time, with performances on the radio and articles and tour promotions in magazines like The Musical Monitor.  It’s not surprising, then, that she was billed prominently on the cover of the piano music she wrote to accompany a recitation of the classic Christmas poem, and that the copyright to her music was renewed in 1950.

But the edition featuring Van Vollenhoven’s music may now be better known for the contributions of its other creator, artist Grace Drayton.   Trained in Philadelphia, Drayton was an early cartoonist for the Hearst syndicate, sometimes in collaboration with her sister, Margaret Gebbie Hays.  She also illustrated books and stories in magazines like St. Nicholas, and created a popular line of “Dolly Dingle” paper dolls.

Her most lasting creations are the Campbell’s Soup Kids, who she designed in 1904 and who continue to appear in Campbell’s advertising and publicity items to this day.  The Campbell Kids cast has grown and changed somewhat in appearance since Drayton’s initial unsigned drawings were published, but they still have a notable resemblance to the originals. A 2017 article by Kate Kelly at America Comes Alive shows examples of Drayton’s drawings of the Campbell Kids and other characters.

The Boston Music Company’s 1923 “Night Before Christmas” featured a color illustration by Drayton on the cover, and additional drawings by Drayton made appearances through the book’s 16 pages.  The cover illustration shows a jolly man in a red suit with white fur lining, carrying a sack full of toys leaning over two children in bed.  All the figures have the sort of round faces and rosy cheeks that also appear on Dolly Dingle and the Campbell Kids– St. Nicholas himself looks like he could be an overgrown child.  Drayton’s illustrations were copyrighted and renewed as well, and both Drayton’s pictures and Van Vollenhoven’s music will join the public domain in the US eight days from now.

I haven’t to date featured other artwork in this advent calendar, largely because it’s often difficult to say with certainty whether a given piece of art created in 1923 is joining the US public domain in 2019, is already in the public domain, or will remain under copyright.  The copyright system in the US in the early 20th century was largely designed for widely copied work, with the time of publication being the start of that work’s copyright term, or its entry into the public domain if copyright was not then claimed as required.  But it’s usually not obvious when a one-of-a-kind work of art, like a Picasso painting or a Duchamp sculpture, was “published” for the purposes of US copyright law, or if its publication met requirements for claiming copyright (requirements that themselves have changed over time, particularly for non-US works).  It’s somewhat easier to tell for artworks designed for publication, such as Drayton’s book and magazine illustrations, which tended to published, registered, and renewed (or not) much like books and magazines were.  But most such works of art, if renewed at all, were renewed as part of the publications in which they appeared.  Very few works of art have their own renewed copyrights.  The renewal for Drayton’s illustrations for “The Night Before Christmas”, for instance, is one of only 114 renewals for “prints and pictorial illustrations” filed in 1950.

Because of that renewal, and the 1950 renewal for Van Vollenhoven’s music, I can be sure that their “Night Before Christmas” book will be among the new arrivals in the American public domain in eight days.  I hope that it will be a welcome gift in the coming new year.  And I hope that all those waiting for presents from St. Nicholas tonight get welcome gifts as well.

2019 update: Link to illustrated score of The Night Before Christmas: A Spoken Song or Recitation, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music at  Baylor University.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #23: Great is Thy Faithfulness by Thomas Chisholm and William Runyan

My wife once went to a folk festival in Canada where a French-Canadian  singer talked about a folk song she’d recently discovered that she wanted to sing for the audience. She then launched into “The Water is Wide“, doing a lovely rendition of a song that the vast majority of the anglophone folk fans in that audience already knew well.

Music lovers who get together from different backgrounds often have similar experiences.  I grew up singing Catholic hymns in the US, while my wife grew up singing in a Protestant church in Canada.  Often, when attending services with our families, we’d encounter hymns that were an old favorites that everyone in the local congregation knew but that were completely new to the visiting spouse.  In some cases the hymns expressed a theology that was more compatible with one church’s doctrines than the other’s.  More often than not, though, the songs could have been sung in either church without compunction, but they simply had arisen in one community and not crossed over to the other one.

I was reminded of this the other day when looking for hymns from 1923 that will be joining the public domain shortly.  Searching online, I came across lots of references to “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, a hymn taking its title from a verse in the Book of Lamentations, with words by Thomas Chisholm and music by William Runyan.  Popularized by the Moody Bible Institute, and spread internationally through its use in Billy Graham’s crusades, the song has been printed in dozens of hymnals, was featured on The Voice, made the Billboard charts as recently as 2015, and has multiple Youtube performance videos that have over a million views.

I hadn’t heard of it before this month (though my wife had).  Having heard it now and looked over the music, I find it a lovely song that could be sung just as easily in a Catholic church as in a Protestant one.  Indeed, Lead Me, Guide Me, a Catholic hymnal emphasizing African American musical traditions, includes it in its second edition.   But that’s the only Catholic hymnal I recognize on Hymnary’s list for this song, and I don’t often see that hymnal in the whiter Catholic churches I’ve been to.

Nine days from now, this hymn will join the US public domain, along with thousands of other songs with renewed 1923 copyrights.  At that point, it will become much easier for it to spread across communities, when everyone in the US can freely copy the sheet music, sing it in public and on records without a license, and arrange and adapt it for their own communities as they see fit.

Maybe you’ll introduce this or other new public domain arrivals to new people.  If you do, even if it’s something familiar to most other people you know, I hope you’ll treat the new audience as members of what Randall Munroe calls the “lucky 10,000″.  Don’t let yourself or your audience miss out on the fun.




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Public Domain Day advent calendar #22: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton

In 1915 Edith Wharton published Fighting France, a collection of reports from her work aiding the French in the early days of the first World War, and a plea for Americans to intervene on France’s behalf.

Wharton continued to publish on the war in France over the next several years.  Her nonfiction works on the topic included French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), and her fiction works included The Marne (1918).  After all of these, though, came A Son at the Front, published and copyrighted in book form in 1923. It’s not one of the novels Wharton is best known for– by 1923, a war-weary public was not enthusiastic about a novel on this topic. But some critics have more recently written that it deserves revisiting, particularly in its treatment of people left behind in the war, those who came back from it, and those who did not.

Writers who revisit a subject often show an interesting development of perspective over time.  In my introduction to an online edition of Whose Body? (another 1923 novel mentioned in a previous calendar entry), I note how Lord Peter’s character, and his ideas of justice and relationships, evolve from the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel to the last.  One can also see evolution in thought and expression between Wharton’s firsthand experiences in the early days of the war, and her fictional treatment of the war, its social impact, and its devastating cost, years after the war had ended.

Ten days from now, A Son at the Front joins the public domain in the United States, and it should subsequently become readable online at places like HathiTrust.  When it does, it will be easier for many to see how the war changed people over time, and how war often looks different looking backward than it does looking forward.

2019 update: Link to full text of A Son at the Front, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #21: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Jimmie Cox

The winter solstice arrives today in the US, the day when the sun is down and out of sight for the longest time all year. It’s a good day to break out a song with a similar theme that also comes around year after year, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, by Jimmie Cox.

Just as the seasons change as the sun gets higher and lower through the year, the narrator of this blues standard finds his company to be quite different when living the life of a free-spending millionaire than when falling on hard times.  It’s a sentiment that many of the song’s listeners could relate to.

Cox published and copyrighted the song in 1923 (with the title in the registration record saying “…When You Are Down and Out”, eschewing contractions like no one I’ve heard singing the song).  Its first known recording, by Blind Bobby Baker, didn’t come out until 1927.   But in 1929, Bessie Smith released her own recording just in time for the big crash of the stock market that heralded the start of the Great Depression.  The combination of her performance and the sudden topicality of the song for many listeners made it a big hit.

Since then, the song has been performed and recorded by a wide array of musicans, keeping it fresh even as other songs I’ve discussed so far in this calendar seem more tied to their time.  Wikipedia’s list of artists who’ve covered the song reads like a Who’s Who of popular musicians of the last century, with names like Count Basie, Leadbelly, Janis Joplin, Odetta, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, and Otis Redding.  I’m probably most familiar with Eric Clapton’s version, which is a staple of his live performances, and still gets played on the radio fairly often.

For me, the song is also a reminder that while the world often is the way that the singer relates, it shouldn’t be that way.  True friends stick together, and support each other both when they’re riding high and when they’ve fallen low.  Gary Burnett discusses the song in his “Down at the Crossroads” blues and faith blog, and notes that those of us celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday in a few days are particularly reminded not to ignore the down and out.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he will consider our treatment of the “least ones” to be how we treat him, and that if we simply invoke the name of the Lord without doing his will, he may say to us “I never knew you”.

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” joins the public domain in the US eleven days from now.  By then the sun should be making notably longer appearances in the sky here.  I hope, and plan to work, for brighter days for all of us in the year to come. And I hope that a growing public domain will be at least a small part of that.




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Public Domain Day advent calendar #20: The Vanishing American by Zane Grey

The American West has long been a cherished place of myth in American imagination. Frederick Jackson Turner may have pronounced the western frontier “closed” in 1893, but in the decades that followed, stories set in the frontier-era Western US, with varying degrees of resemblance to the actual historical West, made up one of the most popular American fictional genres.  Owen Wister set many of the conventions of the Western genre with his 1902 novel, The Virginian, and many other authors followed in his footsteps.  One of the most popular of those authors was Zane Grey, who’d found success with novels like Riders of the Purple Sage.  By the 1920s his reliably popular books were not only selling widely, but were also frequently adapted for film and radio.

In 1922 and 1923, however, Zane Grey tried publishing a story that didn’t hew to the expectations of his audience, and caught enough grief for it that he eventually retreated to safer, if less sincere, territory.  The Vanishing American, his first novel with a Native American protagonist, began running in serial form in the November 1922 issue of the Ladies Home Journal.  Over six installments, Nophaie seeks reunion with his people after having been separated from them by whites at a young age, but finds them exploited by government agents and Christian missionaries, and himself changed enough from his separation that he can’t go back to living among them as before.  Eventually, he meets Marian, a white missionary, and they fall in love, and make plans to marry (while discussing frankly the problems they expect their “half-breed” children to face).  The story ends with Nophaie lamenting the “vanishing” of his race, but if he ends up being “absorbed” by Marian’s love and their children, “it is well!”

Many Native Americans, as well as many other present-day readers, may look askance at the “vanishing” trope that Grey uses for his Native American characters.  But in the 1920s, that wasn’t the cause of the loudest protests.  Westerns were written largely for a white Christian audience, and letters from them started pouring into the Journal complaining about the general portrayal of the Christian missionary characters.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs likewise denounced the book’s description of their work.  And in an era of increasingly prominent white supremacist movements (as I noted in a previous post), a mixed-race marriage was not what many white readers were ready to see as a happy ending, whether it involved “absorption” or not.

Something had to give, if the story was going to turn into the popular film and best-selling book that his publisher and film company now expected.  Ultimately, Grey agreed to change his story rather than forgo expectations. In the film adaptation, delayed until 1925, a designated villain was given the bad qualities that the missionaries and officials had more generally in the original story, and the Native American protagonist ends up dead rather than wed.  Grey also made changes for the book version that came out the same year.  He didn’t sanitize as much as the movie did, but he still changed the ending, making his protagonist die on the page as he does on the screen.  “This is the first time in my life I have been driven away from the truth,” he lamented in a letter to his editor, “from honor and ideals, and in this case, from telling the world of the tragedy of the Indian.  It is a melancholy thing.”

You can still find the book The Vanishing American for sale online, and in many libraries, but you may well end finding the sanitized version.  The first three magazine installments are in the public domain now, and 12 days from now the last three will join them.  Once that happens, the story as Zane Grey meant to tell it will be free for all to read and evaluate for themselves.

(My thanks to Thomas Pauly’s 2005 biography Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women, for most of the information I relate here about Grey and his novel.)

2019 update: Link to full text of The Vanishing American as published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and 1923, now in the US public domain.  The link goes to scans of issues provided by HathiTrust.  One correction from my original post: The ending even in this serialization is different from Grey’s original ending, though also different in some ways from the movie and the 1925 book publication.  Pauly’s description of Grey’s original ending is based on a later book edition published in 1982, with an introduction Zane Grey’s son Loren.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #19: Souls for Sale (photoplay) by Rupert Hughes

“Anything you can do, I can do meta” is a quip that’s been gleefully adopted (literally or in spirit) by philosophers, geeky computer scientists, and performers.  It’s a tweak of a line from Annie Get Your Gun, a show about show business, and a reminder of how we often enjoy entertainment that’s in some way about itself.  Some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed movies are themselves about the movies, such as Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and La La Land.

Robert Hughes’ Souls for Sale (1923) is an early silent movie in that tradition that will be joining the public domain in the US thirteen days from now.  It’s a Hollywood movie about Hollywood, the movies it made, and the scandalous behavior it was already known for.  Based on Hughes’ 1922 novel of the same title (now readable online), it features aspiring actors, jealous and murderous lovers, and directors who insist on keeping the cameras rolling through danger and disaster in order to get the perfect shot.  Many of the stars of the silent era make appearances in the film, either as featured characters or in cameo roles.  For instance, the film shows Charlie Chaplin, as himself, filming a scene from A Woman of Paris, one of his 1923 films that will also be joining the public domain in January.  The film even turns its sardonic commentary on itself.  After a character on a train makes a head-scratching (but plot-advancing) decision not to do anything about his bride’s sudden disappearance, a title card appears asking “Why didn’t he tell the conductor and stop the train?”

Souls for Sale was popular when it was released, but isn’t as well-known today as the other films about Hollywood that I mention above.  That may be in part because it disappeared for decades, and until recently was believed to be one of the many “lost forever” films from the silent era that I noted in a previous calendar post.  Luckily, prints were eventually found in various vaults, and the film was restored, in time for Roger Ebert to see it and write a memorable appreciation of the film in 2009 for his “Great Movies” series.

Unfortunately, many other films and videos, both from that era and from much later, have not escaped the fate we once thought this movie had suffered.  Limited numbers of copies combined with fragile media doom much of our audiovisual cultural memory to oblivion, unless active steps are taken to preserve it.  An article in the latest issue of the Science History Institute’s Distillations magazine describes the ways in which various film technologies remain vulnerable to deterioration.  Videotape also degrades faster than many people think; a 1995 CLIR report for libraries warns that tapes can easily deteriorate beyond use within 10-30 years.

The migration of audiovisual media to the digital realm introduces new preservation problems.  While digital video files can be refreshed through copying, those in digital-restriction management (DRM) formats, like much of what’s released to consumers, may not be easily replayed or reformatted, particularly if the DRM scheme becomes obsolete, as eventually tends to happen.   Even when DRM is not an issue, the specialized, high-information formats that are often used in video and movie production (and which are often the best sources for later remastering for new technology) can become unsupported alarmingly fast.  Apple recently posted a warning to users of Final Cut Pro and Motion, two software packages popular with many video creators, that many formats they supported would no longer be viewable or convertible after installing versions of macOS released after Mojave.

The perils for audiovisual content are severe enough that in 2014 Joshua Ranger posted a plea to libraries and archives to stop digitizing paper, and redirect their resources to preserving what they can of their more rapidly deteriorating audiovisual holdings.  But even if libraries don’t shift their priorities that radically, they can still invest in relatively low-cost equipment and services for rescuing not only their own audiovisual works, but also those of their users.  Examples of such services include the portable PROUD and PRAVDA systems developed at the University of Wisconsin, and the Memory Lab services offered by the DC Public Library.

Once works enter the public domain, the legal barriers to copying them drop, and preservation through propagation can become much easier.  With long copyrights and short shelf-lives for audiovisual works, we in cultural institutions have a lot of work to do to ensure that the works we should preserve outlive their copyrights.  In less than two weeks, though, we can celebrate, and copy, Souls for Sale and other 1923 films that have done so.

2019 update: Link to full silent video of Souls for Sale, now in the US public domain, at the Internet Archive.

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