What could the songs sung, composed, and/or danced by Americans from the colonial period to the present teach us about the history of the United States? How could U.S. history help us to better understand American songs? These are questions explored in the new online presentation The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America. Over 80,000 digital items are available in the collection database along with articles, a timeline, and interactive maps. Video recordings present concerts, talks by Library of Congress curators, interviews with artists, and lectures by guest experts speaking at the Library. For added interest there are videos using photographs from the Library’s collections to illustrate individual songs, such as “God Moves on the Water,” a song about the sinking of the Titanic sung by Lightnin’ Washington and chorus and recorded by John Lomax in 1933. The presentation brings together collection items from several parts of the Library. For example, the Music Division provides sheet music, scores, and song books; the American Folklife Center provides ethnographic recordings; the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division provides published recordings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division presents song sheets from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – among other items. (See the Resource links below)
The broad range of materials presented together allows users to explore songs through American history. Articles help to get this exploration started, and search tools are available to assist users in exploring on their own. For example the “African American Songs” article presents songs of various periods in history — popular, classical, and folk — as well as information on some of the different ethnic groups of peoples of African descent. A user can go from there to read more about “African American Gospel” or “Bahamian American Song,” read a biography of Vera Hall, view a talk by Stephen Winick about the song “Kumbaya,” experience a concert by Reverb with songs from the Civil Rights Movement, or search the collection for more examples of the types of songs, concerts, composers, singers, and folksong collectors that interest them. (Follow this link for access to articles on various ethnic groups.)
Songs may tell stories about history, such as the ballad “Jesse James,” which presents a popular nineteenth century point of view about James as a hero. Songs may also play a part in making history, such as protest songs of the suffragist movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and songs for and against Prohibition. The emergence of each new style of music, such as jazz, country, blues, and western and cowboy music, was an event in American history in itself, and can shed light on the social and historical changes going on at the time. Articles about various periods in American history discuss songs as both testaments to and catalysts in these periods.
So visit Songs of America and take a look around. There are lots of discoveries to be made!
- The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America press release.
- Read the Library of Congress Blog post, “American History, an-NOTE-tated,” by Erin Allen.
- Read the In the Muse blog post, “The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America: ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,'” by Pat Padua.
- Get the Songs of America Educator’s Guide [PDF, 2pp., 1,333KB]
- Read the Teaching With the Library of Congress blog post, “Songs of America: A New Online Collection from the Library of Congress,” by Stephen Wesson.
- View the YouTube presentation by singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash.
- View the YouTube talk by singer and pianist Michael Feinstein.