Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Edgar Wood's Untraditional Fake Book

Edgar J. Wood's untraditional fake book--created from scratch!
My late dad-in-law Edgar James Wood (1903-1986) played piano to pay for his college education at Tufts.

He also played piano with college jazz bands to pay for summer trips to/from Europe during the Roaring Twenties.

Impressing Gershwin

After leaving college one course short of graduation, Ed tried to break through as a professional musician in New York City.

However, he felt like a little fish in a big musical pond, he told his son 50 years later. So he returned home to Cleveland, Ohio, with the hope of being a bigger fish in a smaller musical pond.

In 1934, Ed won a prestigious songwriting contest judged by George Gershwin. The newspaper headline read: "Gershwin Winner Plays for Meals." Even though he was talented, Ed simply couldn't make a living playing piano during the Depression.

Fortunately, Ed landed a job as an insurance adjustor, and stayed with the same company for 30 years. During that time, he married, had a family, and still got to play piano professionally on weekends and holidays. He liked the extra income--and he really loved to play.

An Untraditional Fake Book

Performing with bands at dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other social events, Ed needed a wide-ranging repertoire. That's where his untraditional fake book comes in. ("Fake" because even if the musicians didn't know the song very well, they could fake it by following the basic melody--and fake because the real composers didn't get royalties on these non-officially-published versions.)
Edgar J. Wood (1903-1986) playing Christmas
carols on his Steinway Baby Grand Piano

Fifty years ago, Ed wrote out the musical notes by hand and typed in lyrics for dozens of old-time standards like The Sidewalks of New York, Deep in My Heart, and Silent Night. 

Today, commercial fake books are widely available--but back then, Ed chose the unconventional route of creating his own from scratch. He assembled all the songs he wanted into a loose-leaf binder to take when playing for an audience.

Flipping through the fake book, Ed could quickly read the notes and chords (and cue the guitarist or bassist) for nearly any song the band planned to play or was asked to play. Each song was on one side of the page, for his convenience, with chord changes noted here and there.

Sharing the Story Along with the Heirloom

The fake book has been in the family for a long time, but now it's about to have a new home. The original is being gifted to one of his grandchildren, along with a booklet telling the story of Ed's musical career (with photos, of course). I've scanned every page and created a replica fake book for other descendants to save, complete with the story of Ed's musical training and career.

Thanks to Amy Johnson Crow for this week's #52Ancestors prompt of "Tradition." Only two more prompts left in this year's challenge!


  1. I had never heard of a "fake book!" Very interesting!

  2. I have never heard of a "fake book". How is it different from sheet music? It certainly sounds like Ed loved music & it is great that he could share it often with others.

  3. Never heard of a "fake book", how interesting! He must have been very talented with a very good ear for music and a knack for lyrics. Did he ever finish his degree? one course...

  4. Ladies, let me thank you for reading and commenting! Barb, Ed never finished his degree but he went to Tufts reunions over the years and enjoyed seeing his classmates--he went even at the age of 80! Colleen, the fake book has only one stanza and chorus, typically, just the bare minimum for the pianist to be able to sight-read and play. Ed loved playing and it was a joy to gather around his piano at holidays and sing!