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Musical Inspiration Revealed in Interviews and Letters

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The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize medal
The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize medal

This post is by Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.

“I had a very good teacher when I was in high school, my chorus teacher; his name was Chuck Arnold, at Hicksville High School.  He was the first adult in my life who ever said ‘you should consider being a musician’  . . . which was shocking, because no one had ever said that to me. . .”

Billy Joel, one of the most popular recording artists and respected entertainers in the world, shared this story in an interview with the Library of Congress in August 2014.  Later this month, Joel will receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The purpose of the award is to celebrate the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding.

Joel is the sixth Gershwin Prize Honoree, and all previous winners were also interviewed upon receipt of their awards. In each case, they too, spoke of individuals–parents, other musicians, and teachers–who inspired them or in some way influenced them.

For example, the 2010 Gershwin Prize Honoree, Paul McCartney, recalled (13:33-15:00-ish):

“I loved English Literature.  I had a great teacher [Alan “Dusty” Durband]. He gave me an appreciation of Shakespeare, which a kid from Liverpool would never have gotten. It was just too, sort of awkward; the language is just too old fashioned; and Chaucer, which was impossible to get, until he showed me the way. And he made it very accessible to me.  So I grew up, going into the Beatles, loving literature, loving Charles Dickens . . .  When I came to write things like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Penny Lane,” I knew what was good. I knew what people had written that was good and I wanted to emulate that.”

Beyond the Gershwin Prize interviews, the online collections of the Library of Congress hold countless other primary sources where influence, particularly of a teacher, is acknowledged.

One musically-inspired example from the collections is in the form of a letter from the papers of Aaron Copland.  Perhaps best known for Appalachian Spring and Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland was at times called “the Dean of American composers.”  Early in his career, he studied in Paris under Nadia Boulanger.  She, too, was a composer and a conductor. In November 1950, she sent Copland a birthday card in honor of his fiftieth.  He sent back to her a handwritten thank-you note on personalized stationery that read, in part:

“It’s almost 30 years (hard to believe) since we met–and I still count our meeting the most important event of my musical life.  What you did for me–at exactly the period I most needed it -is unforgettable.  Whatever I have accomplished is intimately associated in my mind with those early years and with what you have since been as inspiration and example.  All my gratitude and thanks go to you, dear Nadia.”

Invite your students to watch the interview with Paul McCartney, read the letter from Aaron Copland, and complete a primary source analysis tool for each. Lead a class discussion comparing the influences their teachers had on both men, as well as the way the two men acknowledged those influences.

As an extension activity, ask your students to name the individuals who have influenced their lives, and those whose lives they have influenced. You might also encourage them to think about what primary source documents they have created that will provide evidence of their personal chain of influence for future generations to discover.


  1. These are wonderful! Thanks for this . . . and keep them coming!

    –I’m an LC retiree, by the way (CRS)

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