The George Peabody Library in Mount Vernon has opened an exhibit featuring sheet music from the 19th and 20th centuries. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries.

Baltimore’s “Cathedral of Books” just opened an exhibit that explores the evolution of American pop culture as traced through its music.

The George Peabody Library in Mount Vernon is the setting for “Grace Notes in American History,” a display that features more than 100 popular songs and instrumental compositions drawn from the Johns Hopkins University’s collection of 19th century and early 20th century sheet music.


The compositions on view include works from The Great American Song Book and the Harlem Renaissance to Baltimore-based music publishers and national movements for suffrage, emancipation and labor.

Highlights include songs autographed by Ira Gershwin and Amelia Earhart; sheet music from Baltimore jazz singer Ethel Ennis; a recently-rediscovered manuscript that may have a connection to Edgar Allan Poe, and a collection of songs lithographed by Hoen & Company of Baltimore.

The library at 17 East Mount Vernon Place is a landmark on the Mount Vernon campus of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Designed by Edmund G. Lind and built in 1878, it’s widely recognized as one of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Its much-photographed stack room contains five tiers of ornamental cast iron balconies leading to 300,000 volumes on a wide range of subjects.

The library is part of the Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries, which organized the exhibit. The music comes from the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection at Hopkins, which spans 30,000 songs written over 200 years, making it one of the largest digitized sheet music collections anywhere.

Levy, a 1918 Hopkins graduate and musicology pioneer, was an authority on the role sheet music played in American history. He assembled his collection over six decades, organizing it by subject rather than title or composer.

Peabody’s “Grace Notes” exhibit opened yesterday and runs until July 31. It comes less than a week after two other Mount Vernon-area cultural spots opened shows, the “Majolica Mania” exhibit at the Walters Art Museum’s Hackerman House, and “The Worst of Waters” exhibit of conceptual art by John Waters, at C. Grimaldis Gallery on Charles Street.

Peabody’s Exhibit Gallery is open Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. It’s closed Fridays and Saturdays, Easter and the Fourth of July. Admission is free.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.