Biography of Lester S. Levy
Lester S. Levy was a pioneer in American musicology, a far-sighted philanthropist and a warm and generous friend of The Johns Hopkins University. Although he was born in Philadelphia, Lester came to Baltimore as an infant and was an engaged witness to the many changes that have marked the city's history in this century. He began early: he liked to recall that during the Great Fire of 1904 he was on the roof of his grandfather's hat factory stamping out flying embers. In this as in so many other things he made a difference; the fire was finally contained just short of M.S. Levy Co., which was for a number of years the country's largest manufacturer of straw hats. Throughout a long and active life, Lester Levy managed to combine his private predilections and his deep sense of communal responsibility.
He was educated at Friends School and The Johns Hopkins University, receiving his B.A. and election into Phi Beta Kappa in 1918. Following graduation he served in the U.S. Army during the last year of World War I. He returned to Baltimore to play an active role in its business and philanthropic community, eventually as the president of Men's Hats Inc., the successor firm of M.S. Levy. Along with his dedication to hats, he also inherited a love of music: "All my life I have been a pianist, a very poor one it is true, but one who would sit down at a piano at the drop of a hat." As a young businessman he found time for another, related pursuit, one that also brought pleasures he enjoyed sharing with others. Sixty years ago he was steered by a friend, who knew of his love affair with the piano, to a stamp-dealer's shop on Charles Street that had some old sheet music. Lester made the princely investment of 50 cents each for a dozen song sheets from the 1850s and 1860s. Thus, almost by chance, like so many collecting passions, began a lifelong hobby that became a focus of study and, ultimately, a priceless resource for other students and scholars of American popular culture.
As the variety and scope of Lester's collection grew, so did the stories about the joys of the hunt shared with other pioneers in this field of collection. He and his friends had begun at a time when the academic study of American popular culture was not yet firmly established and before most institutions had realized the archival importance of the musical scores and lithographs that mirrored so vividly our social, political, and domestic history. Perhaps the best known (and most revealing) of Lester's stories was the account of how, 50 years ago on a tip from a collecting friend, he located a copy of the first printing of The Star-Spangled Banner in Hagerstown. After a hugger-mugger purchase from the "scout" who was selling this rarity, and the subsequent discovery that it must have been stolen from an album owned by a local furniture dealer, Lester proceeded to buy what was the crown jewel of his collection a second time! With the years, he added many "high spots": the first printed edition of The President's March, composed in 1789 for Washington's inauguration, and Hail Columbia, set nine years later to the same score; the only known copy of the march played at Washington's funeral; and rare examples of presidential campaign songs of two centuries. The collection became a mirror for many other facets of American history — the celebrations and the disasters, movements such as abolition and women's suffrage, national events as epochal as the Gold Rush and the Civil War, technological innovations such as the railroad, the bicycle, the automobile, and the airplane; domestic adjustments as momentous as the bustle and bloomers; changing tastes in popular humor and sentiment; varieties of American hero-worship, sport, and satire. The outpouring of song that characterized the formative years of the Republic was accompanied by the rise of color lithography, which made the collection a graphic as well as musical resource, an encyclopedic record of the costumes, decor, architecture, landscapes, and folkways of succeeding generations.
His retirement from business in 1958 meant only that Lester could devote more time and energy to exploring the significance of his collection. It had already been a resource for exhibitions and concerts, a research trove for musicologists, and the source of illustrations for journals. In the ensuing years, Lester devised a flexible system of topical cataloguing that allowed access to the rich subject matter of the songs, eventually stabilized into 38 major categories. It was a resource mined by television producers, composers, and editors, as well as musicologists and historians of popular culture. He also extended his own historical studies and published four volumes that reflect both the range and diversity of his collecting and his unfailing pleasure in its artifacts: Grace Notes in American History (1967), Flashes of Merriment (1971), Give Me Yesterday: American History in Song (1975), and, turning from the melodies to their illustrations, a study of the lithographer's art, Picture the Song (1976). As Alan Fern observed, "He began by collecting music and has ended up by writing history." (And one could add, he came upon the uses of popular culture decades before "the New History" became a fashionable academic watchword.)
By the time he presented his collection to the Milton S. Eisenhower Library in the Bicentennial year of 1976, the Levy archive included more than 30,000 pieces of sheet music as well as bound volumes and books about American popular music, all lovingly cross-indexed. Like that of any genuine collector, his affair was a lifetime commitment, so he continued to supplement and refine the collection. (A recent project involved deciphering some Cherokee lyrics among the Native American items.) To extend public awareness of popular music in our culture, his devoted family supported in his honor a lectureship that has brought distinguished performing artists and scholars to Hopkins to discuss American music, usually "in concert." Although Lester seemed genuinely embarrassed that this event bore his name, he took a very lively interest in suggesting artists and speakers who would attract a new generations of enthusiasts. In 1984, the Eisenhower Library also published and distributed nationally a guide to the Levy collection.
Reared in the tradition of tzedakah, Lester Levy understood the meaning of friendship in ways that embraced communities as well as individuals. Throughout his life he was an active friend of many institutions. He served as president and fund chairman of the Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund. He headed a mayoral commission on fund-raising and served on both the Baltimore and Maryland welfare boards. He was the chairman of Baltimore Hebrew College, which awarded him an honorary doctorate. He was an officer of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland and an active member of the boards of other organizations that suggest the range of his concerns: the Baltimore Symphony, the Maryland Historical Society (whose library he also enriched), the Jewish Theological Seminary, the American Friends of Hebrew University, and Chizuk Amuno Congregation. As a book lover, he had served as president of the Baltimore Bibliophiles and as the senior honorary Council member of the Friends of the Hopkins Libraries. To all of these responsibilities he brought both a generous heart and a mind alert to ways of engaging the conscience of others.
In 1986, on his 90th birthday, the University awarded him the President's Medal honoring more than 70 years of dedication to Hopkins. At his alma mater, Lester's love of music and the rich variety of its historical representations will continue to engage the imagination of new generations of students and scholars, thanks to the vital cultural archive that bears his name. In his life as well as in his books he taught the lesson that the arts of the past can be a source of both illumination and enjoyment. Those fortunate enough to have known the unfailing hospitality of Lester and Eleanor Levy have vivid memories of his enthusiasm for the hunt and his delight in the songs. As citizens we all have been enriched by the example of his steady dedication to sharing, to those labors of community to which he gave of himself so generously. Irving Berlin, another great and modest American, richly represented in the Levy collection, left us but a few days after Lester. Near the end of an exceptionally long life he observed, "Age is no mark of merit unless you do something constructive with it." What Lester did, both for those who knew and admired him and for those who will follow, will live with the songs he loved.
Richard A. Macksey Humanities Center, The Johns Hopkins University
Reprinted from ExLibris 12 (Fall 1989)