Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Popular Music Imagery as an Information System: Perceptions of Race and Ethnicity in Historical Sheet Music

Maurice B Wheeler.

Regardless of what period in American history is being considered, the imagery in popular music (songs) has historically reflected the social and political issues of that time. Because race and ethnicity have remained a constant among nationally debated issues in the United States, they are ever-present as a topic in both historical and present-day popular music.

By the time the Civil War approached an end, Americans had become comfortable with expressing their personal opinions and attitudes about race and slavery, and those attitudes were readily expressed in all aspects of society. Popular songs from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s provide a uniquely fertile ground for the exploration of social and political attitudes about race in America. The early 1890s witnessed a sharp increase in the inclusion of illustrations on the covers of popular sheet music, using human subjects and a limited range of primary colors. This form of artistic and political expression, along with the song lyrics provide a extraordinarily vivid record of white Americans' attitudes about blacks as they attempted to assimilate into American (white) society.

The imagery created by the visual illustrations and lyrics of historical sheet established an information system of attitudes and perceptions about race and ethnicity that has lasted into the 21st Century. The findings of a study that examined the components of this information system will be presented and discussed.


Maurice B Wheeler  (United States)
Associate Professor
School of Library and Information Sciences
University of North Texas

Dr. Maurice Wheeler is Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of North Texas. He has been a leader in diversity and related issues in the library profession for the past 15 years. His professional positions include director of the Detroit Public library and a variety of administrative posts at the University of Michigan Library. Maurice possesses a Ph.D. in library administration from the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Racial Images in American Society
  • Historical Sheet Music

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)