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Seven Original Lyrics by Beatles are in Music Library

January 22, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Considering that John Lennon once penned a book called "In His Own Write," a good name for the Beatles memorabilia stored in the Northwestern University Music Library might be In Their Own Write.

The collection consists of the handwritten lyrics of seven Beatles songs: "Eleanor Rigby," "Good Day Sunshine," "For No One," "The Word," "I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Yellow Submarine."

The Beatles didn't read music, so the words aren't accompanied by musical notes jotted on a five-line staff.

"Eleanor Rigby" (All the lonely people/Where do they all come from) is scrawled on a torn-out page of lined notebook paper. "Why Did It Die," the original title of "For No One" (And in her eyes you see nothing/No sign of love behind the tears/Cried for no one/A love that should have lasted years), is written on a 10-by-13-inch manila envelope.

The only lyric sheet meant to be seen is the one for "The Word" (Say the word I'm thinking of/Have you heard, the word is love). Framed, it is neatly transcribed and illustrated -- in watercolor, by Paul McCartney -- with a tree and a few abstract shapes. All seven songsheets were part of a collection, brought together by John Cage, of 400 manuscripts by 274 composers who were active in the '60s.

"Cage was the 20th century's most experimental and revolutionary composer," said D.J. Hoek, who heads the Music Library. "He was interested in how composers notated music, and issued a call to hundreds of them asking for samples." All but the Beatles were writers of classical music, but Cage decided the Fab Four were worth making an exception for. "As wonderful as Boulez' Second Piano Sonata is, it's not music everybody knows," Hoek observed.

Through Yoko Ono, a friend of Cage, he asked Lennon and McCartney to contribute. The Beatles were familiar with Cage and other avant-garde composers. Their own work had become more experimental, especially in their later recordings.

Witness the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album and its use of electronic music and instruments from other cultures. The image of the groundbreaking composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is among those on the album cover.

Why did the boys choose these particular seven songs to donate? "I think it is just what they were working on at the time," Hoek said. All the selections are from the 1966 "Revolver" album except "The Word," heard on "Rubber Soul," a 1965 recording.

How did the song sheets -- along with the others given to Cage by composers -- end up at Northwestern? Hoek's predecessor, Don Roberts, had begun amassing music written since World War II. "The word went out that Northwestern was collecting this music, unlike any other research library in the country," Hoek said. "Cage learned of it and contacted Roberts."

The importance of the manuscripts, Hoek said, is that they offer the viewer a connection with the artistic impulse, the spark of creativity. "They are the initial expression of a musical idea on paper," he said. The scribblings afford clues as to how the songs came together. For examples, some of the lines in "Eleanor Rigby" are written in a different color ink, indicating the refrain may have been written later than the rest of the song.

Apart from their scholarly value, the manuscripts "are important pieces of memorabilia that would interest any Beatles fan," Hoek said. He wouldn't hazard a guess as to their monetary value.

"I don't think it occurred to Lennon and McCartney that these scratched-out lyrics would be worth a lot of money some day," Hoek said. "These are probably some of the most valuable items that the Northwestern library holds."

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