“Commissions accepted to write for
Anybody, Anywhere, Any Time”
— Harry Castling and Fred Godfrey
trade paper advertisement, 1908
“Fred Godfrey, Worton David, and Lawrence Wright...
have been responsible for
more popular songs of late than
any other combination of song-writers”
— The Stage, 22 July 1915
Fred Godfrey sometimes worked alone, but usually he collaborated with
other songwriters, among them some of the busiest and most successful
of the Music Hall era. Typically, however, the songs were published as
“written and composed by...”, making it impossible to ascertain
who was responsible for what aspect of the creative work unless the collaborator,
such as Harry Castling, is known to have been primarily a lyricist.
Another complication is that the publishers and artists themselves frequently
had their names added to the composing credits as a condition of acceptance
for publication or performance. One is thus left wondering just how many
of the songs published by, for example, Star Music and with composing
credits to Fred Godfrey, A.J. Mills, and Bennett Scott were actually the
product of these three men, considering the latter two were owners of
the publishing company. The same holds true for Lawrence Wright Music
and the many songs with credits to Godfrey and Wright (or “Horatio
Nicholls,” Wright’s pseudonym) and for Worton David Music
and the songs credited to Godfrey and David. Mills, Scott, Wright, and
David were, of course, accomplished composers in their own right, but
it is easy to imagine writers such as Godfrey showing up at the music
publishers with an essentially finished song already in hand. Some of Godfrey’s reminiscences and those of Dorothy
Ward with respect to, for example, Take
Me Back To Dear Old Blighty suggest strongly that this was indeed
often the practice. As for the artists, such as George Formby Jr., Max Miller, and Mark Sheridan, whose names appear in the credits, it is almost certainly
the case that they had little if anything to do with writing the songs
they accepted, as very few of them — Harry Lauder is a grand exception
— wrote their own material in those days.
A final comment is that nearly all of the songwriters of the British Music
Hall, including Fred Godfrey, toiled away in obscurity and earned comparatively
little money from the songs they wrote. Unlike many of their American
contemporaries the Von Tilzers, Cohan, Fisher, Herbert, Berlin,
Kern they enjoyed no popular recognition, and except perhaps for
the likes of Leslie Stuart, Noël Coward, and Ivor Novello, no biopics
would be made about them. Even such basic personal details as dates of
birth and death are unknown for the writers of some of the most imperishable
classics of the era. Much has been written about the great artistes
and performers, the impresarios who built the Halls, and even the magnificent
theatres themselves, most now sadly lost. But the songwriters who created the music upon which they all depended have been largely overlooked.
Perhaps Fred Godfrey, at least, can be rescued from oblivion, but his
collaborators and the other writers who made everybody sing deserve no
Until the passage of the Musical Copyright Act in 1906, the songwriters particularly struggled, but even afterwards attempts to organize for their own protection failed. One such effort, full of hope for a more prosperous future, took place in 1907, as the trade paper The Era attests:
Combination and federation are the order of the day in variety circles, and from the scene-shifter to the star comedian, from the musical conductor to the drummer, everyone has an organisation. Even song-writers have come out of the cul-de-sac of obscurity and neglect to demand the recognition that is their due, but in their case the question of coalition is no new one....One very potent cause of delay in the formation of an organisation of “ballad-mongers” was the pirate, who carried out his nefarious traffic with such success that the publishing trade was paralysed. Better times, however, loomed on the horizon when [journalist and MP] Mr. T.P. O’Connor succeeded in passing the Musical Copyright Act, and we may be excused if we regard the new league of lyric authors and composers, known as “The Scribes,” as an inevitable result of that measure. It is not the first association of the kind, however. The Nibs started in 1896 with like ambitions and similar aims, and it was then felt that the despised music hall bard, having emerged at last from the by-ways of neglect, could, by unity and concord, assert himself as a decided factor in the economy of public amusements....There is ample evidence...not only of the vogue of our leading music hall stars in America, but also of the keen appreciation of the Yank of the songs they sing, and, incidentally, of course, of the writers thereof. With such an extended field, with increased demand, the price of his wares must of necessity rise, and therefore we quite agree with Mr. David Day, who in his speech at the inaugural dinner of The Scribes...spoke of greater prosperity for the song-writer in the near future....
The Chairman [Charles Wilmott] said...[s]ome years ago the leading spirit of the dramatic world had attacked music halls, which he said enshrined the pathos of the pantry and the wit of the wash-tub; but though the contributions of music hall authors and writers did not claim to be literature, they had not descended to write drama that was simply the apotheosis of the harlot [take that, G.B. Shaw! For who else could have said such a thing?]. (“‘The Scribes’ at Dinner,” The Era, 26 October 1907, p. 23)
Those in attendance at The Scribes’ dinner — including Fred Godfrey, already making a name for himself in these circles — were a true who’s who of the songwriting and publishing world. But in the end nothing came of it, and the songwriters struggled on as before, selling their creations for a pittance. Things improved somewhat only with the creation of the Performing Right Society in 1914.
In 1910, The Era reported on the opening of Star Music’s new quarters in New Oxford Street, London, the firm’s third new premises since its founding in 1906. The story provides a fascinating insight into the music publishing world of the late Edwardian period, and again is worth quoting at length:
An Era representative calling on Mr. Bennett Scott, the energetic and enterprising manager-director,...was shown over the comfortable and commodious quarters that will house the staff and many “winners.” On the ground floor, beyond the shop and trade counter, a cosy reception-room has been arranged, comfortably furnished, with the walls adorned with photographs of many a music hall and pantomime favourite. Passing through this room, a corridor leads to the professional department... and to the clerks’ and cashiers’ offices. Below are large basements, where extensive racks contain the firm’s many publications. Here busy hands are packing and despatching parcels to all parts of the United Kingdom and the Colonies.
Returning to the “upper regions,” one ascends the staircase to the sanctum sanctorum, where Mr. Bennett Scott interviews the ever-increasing stream of clients who wish to be fitted with songs. This is a handsome apartment, where the scheme of furnishing and decoration combines artistic elegance with business-like utility. Here Mr. A.J. Mills, Mr. Scott’s well-known collaborator and co-director, will also be found....On the floor above, a large room is available for rehearsals, etc., and here the musical editor and his assistant have ample room to carry out their important duties....
On Thursday, an informal reception and “house warming” was held, and a number of friends entertained, amongst whom were the following: Mr. and Mrs. J.P. Harrington,...Miss Ella Retford,...Messrs R.P. Weston,...C.W. Murphy,....George Arthurs,...Worton David,...Fred Godfrey, Bert Feldman, G.H. Elliott, and Max Dreyfus. (“Star Music Co.’s New Premises,” The Era, 27 August 1910, p. 23)
The ringer in this group of notables is, of course, Max Dreyfus, the American song publisher, who, a few years later, would be instrumental in giving George Gershwin his big break. Evidently, Max was a regular visitor to Albion’s shores, on the lookout for material that might appeal to US audiences; as well, he had signed a deal with Francis, Day & Hunter to market his company’s stuff in Britain.
From the British Pathé archives comes a fascinating glimpse into the business of songwriting in Fred Godfrey’s world: Britain’s Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, London, as it was in 1951 (the photo below is from 2006). No Godfrey material here, but it includes a brief look at Lawrence Wright, Vera Lynn, and a very young Petula Clark. See
B. Feldman & Co., publishers of Fred Godfrey songs for many years,
explains the company’s approach to putting songs over.
For information on some of Fred Godfrey’s collaborators and the
music they created, please click on the names below: