The Black Hills have awakened many a composer’s muse.
Grace Mickelson has the notes to prove it.
The 84-year-old Rapid City woman has inadvertently amassed a collection of sheet music over the years. All of it pays homage to the Hills.
The retired teacher and her late husband, John, never set out to collect sheet music inspired by local landscapes. In their quest to gather rare books on South Dakota history, the couple stumbled upon several songs that celebrate the land they call home.
The Mickelsons acquired their collection from auctions. They bid on books, newspapers and magazines that recorded events in South Dakota or chronicled the history of Mount Rushmore.
Sometimes sheet music came with their purchase.
Mickelson initially didn’t think much of the notes and lyrics that occasionally found their way into boxes of books she purchased at auction.
“I was bidding on books,” she said. “I wasn’t into bidding on music. That was not a special interest of mine.”
But then she began to notice where and when the sheet music originated. From what she can tell, much of it was published in western South Dakota during the first half of the 20th century.
Such local ties made those unintentional treasures too good to part with.
“I save anything that has to do with the Black Hills,” Mickelson said.
It only made sense, she added, to keep sheet music that commemorates the Hills.
Most of the lyrics are a bit sentimental.
“Our Beautiful Black Hills,” written by Olive Lathrop and published by Lathrop Publishing House in Deadwood in 1935, goes like this:
Of valleys and lakes, of rolling prairie
But pine forests tall and the clean mountain streams
Make the Black Hills the land of my dreams.
Then there’s “The Black Hills of South Dakota.” Ruth Gammon Brown of Lead wrote and published the music in 1948.
Ever they’re calling me
I sit and dream
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And then I seem
Once more all their beauty to see.
A song by the same name was composed for the 1953 musical film “Calamity Jane.” American actress and singer Doris Day recorded the song on the film’s soundtrack album and as a single.
Not too many people are familiar with “The Black Hills of South Dakota” in the United States. The song, which speaks to one’s love for and desire to return to the Black Hills, was more popular overseas, said Janeen Larsen, professor emeritus at Black Hills State University.
Songs that reference the Hills tend to remain in relative obscurity.
“Musically, they’re just not that good,” Larsen said.
Mickelson’s sheet music collection is in good condition, however.
The former state lawmaker and Rapid City Council member framed a few choice pieces and hung them on the walls of her home.
Sheet music became widely available to the public in the 19th century. American households increasingly had the means to purchase a piano or other musical instrument and the leisure to make music in their homes. Sheet music was essentially the cassette tape or compact disc of its time, Larsen said.
A number of American publishers of popular music were based in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th century. This concentrated collection of music houses came to be known as “Tin Pan Alley.” But small local publishers thrived as well throughout the country.
Much of Mickelson’s sheet music was composed and printed locally. Don Tuttle, one of Mickelson’s teaching colleagues, published “’Neath Freedom’s Shrine” in Rapid City in 1950.
At the time, Tuttle taught music and Mickelson taught math at the old Central High School.
“I had no idea he was composing music,” she said.
Sheet music’s popularity began to decline in the 1920s, Larsen said. Widespread use of the phonograph and the rise of radio lessened that medium’s importance, and the record industry eventually replaced publishing as the music industry’s driving force.
Sheet music’s significance may have waned, but the Black Hills continue to inspire.
Local artists still base much of their work on nearby sights and sounds.
“The local landscape is so much a part of life here that it’s hard to come across a work that is not inspired by the Black Hills,” said Mary Maxon, collection curator at the Dahl Arts Center.
Maxon points to paintings by Grace French, whose watercolors and pastels give a sense of Rapid City’s early years.
French and her sister, Abigail, moved to the Black Hills in 1885 and taught their craft to hundreds of students in Rapid City.
More contemporary artists James Van Nuys, John Lopez and Dale Lamphere take their cues from western South Dakota settings, as well.
Mickelson wonders if other long-lost lyrics are sitting on an auction block somewhere.
“I would just like to know if there is more,” she said.