COLLECTION OF ILLUSTRATED AMERICAN SHEET MUSIC, ca. 1790 - 1987
Sam DeVincent was born Salvatore DeVincenzo on January 8, 1918, in Chicago. By the time he
was six, he was picking out tunes on the piano. He became fascinated with the "National
Barn Dance," a program broadcast on the Chicago radio station WLS. The program mixed old
popular songs, folk music, and early country songs, and it deeply influenced young Sam's musical
By about age ten, he had already acquired several old song sheets and music books. When he
met his future wife, Agnes Gross (who took the stage name Nancy Lee), in 1940, his collection
had grown to several thousand music sheets.
Late in 1940, Sam and Nancy joined radio station KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, as part of a musical
group called the Melody Rangers: Sam on accordion and vocals, Nancy on guitar and vocals. They
were married in 1941, and in 1942 Sam began war time service in the U.S. Army.
In 1945, they moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to work as entertainers fronting their own group,
"Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers," on the 50,000-watt
radio station WOWO. Sam estimates that as part of the Hilltoppers he arranged the music for
over 25,000 broadcasts and personal appearances. In 1960 Sam became WOWO's music director, a
position he held until retiring in 1983. As of mid-1989, Sam and Nancy are still performing
with Nancy Lee and the Hilltoppers once a week on WOWO.
As a boy Sam had initially been attracted to song sheets for their music. Over the years, his
sheet music provided a nearly endless source of material for his performances. He also developed
a fascination for the sheets themselves, with their colorful covers and amazing range of topics.
Sam tracked down inventories of out-of-print music in old music stores, sorted through stacks
in antique stores, and haunted garage sales and attics. Through shrewd purchases, swaps, and
occasional donations, Sam built his collection bit by bit.
Eventually, the collection filled a bedroom, the living room, and the entire two-car garage
of their home. Numbering about 130,000 pieces, the DeVincent material became legendary among
sheet music collectors and historians. Yet relatively few people could see and use the collection
in depth, because Sam was busy raising a family, holding down a full-time job, playing in a
band, and enlarging and organizing the collection.
I first met Sam DeVincent in about 1978. A graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington,
I had chosen ragtime as the subject of my doctoral dissertation. When I first heard of Sam's
collection, I at once hoped to be allowed to explore it. Uncertain of how I would be received,
I wrote to Sam to ask if he might assist me. He replied by inviting me to come to Fort Wayne
and visit him. The moment I encountered the collection, I was flabbergasted. Sam pulled out
piece after piece of ragtime that, despite some research in the subject, I had never seen before.
Then he brought out more fascinating material: several hundred songs written about Ford automobiles,
unusual pieces of Hoagy Carmichael's, and all sorts of pieces rich in Americana. Sam showed
me so many rare and interesting songs that I was left almost speechless.
Just as Sam had graciously opened his collection to me, he and Nancy welcomed me into their
home on a number of occasions. Sam generously provided access to some of the rarest of rare
ragtime pieces, which helped me with my dissertation and a book I was editing, called Ragtime:
Its History, Composers, and Music. In time we became good friends, with conversations always
centering on family and music, music, music. I came to admire Sam greatly for his energy, persistence,
sacrifice, knowledge, and vision in building this unmatched collection from scratch, and Nancy
for her sacrifice, flexibility, moral support, and love in also making it possible.
After my first visit to the DeVincents, I knew that this exceptional collection someday had
to find a good home where a professional staff could ensure its future, organize it more thoroughly,
and open it to researchers. This became a private dream. Cautiously, I suggested to Sam that
his collection should eventually move to a first-rate archives.
After I joined the Smithsonian, I kept in touch with the DeVincents through periodic visits.
In August 1987, we began to discuss in earnest the possibility that the Smithsonian would become
the new home of the collection. Through good fortune and splendid cooperation from a number
of parties, my dream was realized: the Sam DeVincent Collection of American Music did come to
the Smithsonian. The acquisition occurred through the magnificent generosity of the DeVincents--people
of modest means whose public-spiritedness is exemplary--the support of the National Museum of
American History and its Director and staff, and funding from the Smithsonian Major Acquisitions
It took a week of packing, and three trips by moving van, but the collection finally arrived
safely at the National Museum of American History in March 1988--coincidentally, the same month
that we were transferring the Duke Ellington Collection to the Museum.
At the time the Smithsonian acquired it, the Sam DeVincent Collection represented evidently
the largest American sheet music collection in private hands. It will be of enormous value for
the understanding of our musical past: the mainstream, tributaries, and streamlets of American
music. It also will shed light on American social and cultural history and the history of graphic
The Division of Musical History, National Museum of American History, is charged with the preservation
and interpretation of the musical life of the United States. In the pursuit of this mission,
the division has collaborated with the Museum's Archives Center to acquire the Sam DeVincent
Collection. The collection is housed in and administered by the Archives Center, with intellectual
and programmatic contributions from the Division of Musical History. Separately, in its own
storage space, the Division maintains a collection of several thousand musical instruments,
works of art documenting the history of music, music-related artifacts, and associated documents.
Warm thanks to John Fleckner and Robert Harding for their efforts towards acquiring and housing
I also gratefully acknowledge the support of the James Smithson Society, which has provided
funding for the preparation of registers of three sections of the collection: songs related
to the military, transportation, and African Americans. I hope that the Museum can develop sources
of funding that will allow the remainder of the materials to be similarly organized so that
the potential of the Sam DeVincent Collection of American Music can be realized to the fullest.
John Edward Hasse
Curator of American Music
Cultural History Division
National Museum of American History