The Phenomenon of the Liberty Chorus

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Bandshell Pavillion in City Park, c. 1918, BHC Research Library Collection

The Great War was a constant exercise in patriotism for the citizens of Reading and Berks County. Citizens were asked to support the war effort through Liberty Loan drives, which were followed by Red Cross drives and ongoing petitions to purchase War Savings Stamps. Meanwhile, the YMCA and YWCA required more young men and women to do their part in the name of victory for the soldiers fighting overseas. Amidst all these demands for local citizens to fulfill their patriotic duties, leaders in Berks worked tirelessly to keep the spirit of patriotism alive in Berks County. And thus, the Liberty Chorus was born.

On July 17, 1918 a meeting was held in the Chamber of Commerce to organize committees and appoint lieutenants to arrange community sings throughout the summer. The meeting consisted of leading musical representatives from the Reading Rotary, the Penn Wheelmen, the Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and other musical organizations.  The lieutenant’s role was to recruit choir singers and musicians to create a community singing chorus to lead the community in popular war songs. They believed a singing community would never know the burdens of war.

Reading had a reputation for its excellent singers and strong church choirs. Reading also had a prize-winning choral society under the direction of Edward Berg. With this rich history in organized singing, the Liberty Chorus was formed on July 18, 1918 with a membership of 350 men who were ready to keep the fires of patriotism burning in Berks County. The men present at the meeting that night could not have envisioned just how popular the Liberty Chorus would become.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 18 Jul 1918, Thu

The Liberty Chorus was headed by “sing leader” George F Eisenbrown. Before the American entry in the Great War, Eisenbrown was busy developing Muhlenberg Park, Illustrious Potentate of the Rajah Temple, and was partnered with his brother Charles in the family business, Eisenbrown Granite Works (P.F. Eisenbrown & Sons).

What began as a summertime experiment became a local phenomenon. Within a few weeks of their first sing at the 7th and Laurel playground on July 23, 1918, the Liberty Chorus had stoked the fires of the Reading’s patriotic spirit, making them a popular attraction in the community. They performed before crowds of 15,000 on Sundays in City Park. This was significant at a time when 19 men could be arrested for violating the Blue Laws for playing baseball.

Whether it was a pre-planned community sing or an impromptu appearance to celebrate good news from the Western Front, the Liberty Chorus made themselves available whenever the need to promote patriotism arose.  One such instance was a Sunday night/Monday morning gathering in front of the Berkshire Hotel. Despite unfortunate timing and weather, the Liberty Chorus sang their hearts out and led a parade of 5,000 citizens in joyous celebration through the rain-soaked streets of Reading (more on this topic in a future article).

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After the war, their popularity didn’t diminish, but their role in the promotion of patriotism drew to a close. Their performances were less frequent but still popular among the community. The Liberty Chorus was scheduled to lead a Christmas Carol sing-a-long on Christmas Eve in Penn Square, only to have it cancelled due to rain. Later they performed to honor the late, former President, Theodore Roosevelt at the Rajah Temple and they set an attendance record at the Colonial Theatre. Their last performance was on June 3, 1919 at the Auditorium on South 5th St to welcome home Company A, a fitting farewell to Reading’s Patriotic Singers.

On November 10, 2018, the Reading Choral Society will be bringing the sound of the Liberty Chorus back to life when our 1918 time capsule will be opened at the Berks History Center. The Reading Choral Society will be performing popular songs sung by the Liberty Chorus during the Great War. Click here for more information on this historic event. (for more on the Liberty Chorus, see the Historical Review of Berks County, Winter 2017-2018).

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

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WRAW’s Fabulous Forty

 

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Today, local radio station WRAW, channel 1340 AM, is a Spanish language station that specializes in a range of modern Latin American music. This new format reflects recent demographic changes to the Reading area.

Back in the 1960s, WRAW sounded much different. The station broadcasted in English and played a broad selection of the popular music of the day. What were the popular songs in August? The Berks History Center library houses an extensive series of weekly top forty lists played by the station.

In August of 1963 Dean Martin’s ballad “Everybody Loves Somebody” was the number one song. In 1966, Napoleon XIV’s psychedelic “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” occupied the top spot. Cream’s rocker “Sunshine of Your Love” hit number one in WRAW’s Fabulous Forty on August 11, 1968. In the last year of the century, “Soul Deep” by the Box Tops went top. It is clear that from ballads to energetic rock, these end of summer playlists reflected the changing musical landscape of the 1960s. 

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

Daniel Rose: A Reading Clockmaker

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Portrait of Daniel Rose  by Jacob Witman (1769-1795) from the BHC Museum Collection

Born in 1749, Daniel Rose of Reading became a talented watch & clock maker capable of building musical mechanisms that few in America could rival. He also sold and repaired clocks, watches, and jewelry in addition to musical instruments. In 1775, Rose instructed the drummers and fifers of the 1st Battalion of the Berks County militia. The following year, he joined the Committee of Safety in Reading, and in 1777, was appointed a captain in the militia. He served in the State Legislature from 1799 -1804, 1806 – 1808 and 1811-1812. Rose even opened his own museum in Reading in his home on Penn Street. He was also a talented musician. At the time of his death in 1827, Rose owned two organs, a piano, clarinet, hautboy (oboe), bassoon, flute and a French horn.

The Berks History Center Museum is home to several Rose tall case clocks and a full length portrait of the famous clockmaker. In the portrait, Daniel Rose is depicted as a dashing figure wearing his double-breasted coat and red silk vest by Jacob Witman. His hair is cut short and brushed forward in a style that became fashionable in the late 1790s. Rose is wearing an extensive amount of jewelry, which was all in the height of male fashion at the time, including oval knee buckles, steel cut shoe buckles, and a gold ring. Four musical instruments are also included in the portrait: a violin, flute, clarinet, and square piano. Look carefully at the piano to see where the artist, Jacob Whitman, cleverly painted his own name instead of that of the instrument maker.

Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer: A Berks County Musician

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Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer (1900-1986) was a Berks County woman of many talents. Many may not know her by name, but her legacy carries inspiration far beyond what anyone would expect from a small town music teacher. Julia Nagel Shanaman started the Shanaman Studio of Music in Reading, Pa around 1924 after receiving her teacher’s diploma. In 1927 she received her diploma in music theory and in 1929 she received her Piano Soloist Diploma. She later attended the Philadelphia Music Academy, receiving her Artist Diploma in 1935, in addition to gracefully achieving her Bachelors in Music in 1937 just after her marriage to Jasper Elmer in 1936.

Music Theory Diploma 1927

Despite adopting a new surname, Julia kept moving above and beyond in the music world. She was a skilled pianist and music teacher. She received her Graduate Certificate in Piano from Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia in 1951, and served with them for the next five years. Afterwards she served the Combs College of Music for the next ten years.  Elmer became involved with the Community School of Music and the Arts in Reading as a piano and theory instructor in 1966, overlapping with her time serviced to the Music Club of Reading as their president for two consecutive terms. In addition to all of her glowing achievements, Julia was elected to the American College Musicians Hall of Fame in 1968.

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Her legacy as a profound musical educator and instrumentalist was honored with the establishment of the Julia N. Shanaman Elmer Piano Scholarship in 1987 by the Music Club of Reading, just after her passing. She was a marvelous teacher, musician and friend who had an unsurpassable enthusiasm for her craft. Her legacy lives on through her only son, Cedric Nagel Elmer, whose donation of concert recordings, programs and photographs to the Berks History Center has made all of this information and acknowledgement possible for the late and great Julia Nagel Shanaman Elmer.

Researched & Written by Mackenzie Tansey