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Storytelling and Songwriting: Making Connections through Primary Sources

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Private Dalto playing the piano, 1943

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

In July 2014, when Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced that Billy Joel would receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, he described Joel as being, “a storyteller of the highest order.”

Talented songwriters can be great storytellers!  Not only do their songs often include elements of a short story, but they do so in ways that listeners can easily imagine and relate to.

Inviting students to explore the collections of the Library of Congress for primary sources that remind them of the characters, setting, plot, theme, and mood/style of a song may lead to greater student understanding and recognition of the elements of a short story.  Songs by Billy Joel provide great examples that may help reinforce student understanding of similes, too.

For example, I personally see the following connections:

  • The fisherman preparing his boat to leave the New York docks, who was captured on film in 1943 by Gordon Parks, a photographer working for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, is like the characters whose experiences were described in Joel’s 1990 song “The Downeaster Alexa.”
  • A bird’s-eye-view map of Allentown, Pennsylvania shows the setting of Joel’s 1982 hit song “Allentown,” as it was in 1922.  The factories mentioned in the song’s second line are clearly visible.
  • A photograph taken at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, in 1943, of “Private Dalto playing the piano” almost suggests the plot of “Piano Man,” the first single released by Billy Joel thirty years later.
  • The mood set by the illustration on the cover of Puck Magazine on December 14, 1904, is like that of Joel’s song “She’s Got A Way.” A fashionably-dressed young woman ice skating on a pond in a park seems to attract the same attention and admiration as the woman in the song.
  •  The theme of Joel’s song “Honesty” is like that reflected in an engraving from ca. 1867 by John C. McRae entitled “Father, I cannot tell a lie: I cut the tree.”
Nature's Cattle, by Charles Russell
Nature’s Cattle, by Charles Russell

Analyzing primary sources from the Library’s online collections can lead to further connections. You might ask students to search the Library’s online collections for notated music or recordings of a song and use the Library’s primary source analysis tool to make inferences about the songwriter’s purpose and methods. Then, you could encourage students to find other primary sources in the Library’s collections that reflect some of the short story elements that the students see in their chosen songs.

For example, an analysis of a field recording of “Home on the Range” might lead students to identify setting as an important element in the song, and prompt them to search for images that deploy setting in similar ways, such as this image by the western artist Charles Russell.

The Library’s Songs of America online presentation is an excellent source of songs from throughout U.S. history.

What other connections can students make between the crafts of songwriting and storytelling?



  1. I love this post and the ideas that it triggers.
    Thank you for suggesting the literacy connections with primary sources.

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