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A Historical Tour of Poetry and Song: Lyrical Legacy

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April has been set aside as a time to celebrate and explore the rich and varied legacy of poetry. This is the first in a series of three posts to explore resources for reading, writing and studying poetry.

Lyrical Legacy

The legacy of American poetry and song is rich and complex, and the stories that it tells are the stories of the nation. Lyrical Legacy: 400 Years of American Song and Poetry invites teachers to explore eighteen American songs and poems from the digital collections of the Library of Congress.

Each song and poem is represented by an original primary source document, along with historical background information and, in many cases, sound recordings and alternate versions. The songs and poems are arranged by historical era, so it’s easy to enrich a lesson on any historical era you might be studying. The primary sources also facilitate working across disciplines, supporting collaborations between a music teacher and a history or language arts teacher, for example.

Analysis tools for students and ideas for educational activities are also included to allow easy use of these unique primary sources in the classroom. Teachers may focus on the interplay between poetry and music; consider what can be learned by studying the cultural output of an era; or focus on how the poetry genre changed across 400 years.

Sample activity ideas include:

“O Captain! My Captain!”
  • Compare the songs or poems from one historical era to current music or poetry. Consider what has changed and what has not.
  • Study sample songs and poems and create a chart of similarities and differences between the two genres.
  • Create a timeline of events immediately before and after a poem was written. How does understanding the historical context enrich a close reading of a poem?
  • Help students identify social issues presented in a song or poem from the past. Encourage them to use clues in the song lyrics or poem to determine the artist’s point of view.

I hope you’ll check out next Thursday’s post on helping students write poetry. Until then, let us know in the comments how you have used poetry or songs to help students understand history…Or how you have used history to help students understand poetry.



  1. Very interesting post! One of my main interests growing up has been music. Throughout high school, I was always surprised at how often songs of the past were glossed over. For instance, the slaves often did sing slave songs in order to facilitate information such as where the safe house would be. However, facts like this were often skipped and replaced with facts that were deemed more significant by my teacher. Now that I have found this particular blog (and its link to the part of this site that details songs more thoroughly), I’ll be sure to find ways to include these songs in my upcoming lessons.

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