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Tangible and Intangible Legacies

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

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

As our fourth and final blog post this fall related to the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, it seems appropriate that its theme focus on the concept of legacy. What a singer-songwriter leaves behind, from recordings, to manuscripts, to lyrics, can be thought of as their tangible legacies. The impact of his or her work, the connections listeners and concert goers make to the music, and the emotions the music inspires–these are some of the intangible legacies.

The Gershwin Prize celebrates both types of legacy by recognizing the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding.  This year’s honoree, Billy Joel, has certainly had such a career.

After 50 years in the entertainment industry, Joel is the sixth top-selling artist of all time and the third top-selling solo artist of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Until 1987, however, his music had rarely been heard in the former Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc nations.  That year, as the Cold War was beginning to thaw, Joel accepted an invitation from Mikhail Gorbachev to perform in the USSR, and he played a total of six concerts behind the Iron Curtain.

All the songs Joel has written, recorded, and sold over his career will be part of his tangible legacy. But the impact of his words and his concert performances (perhaps particularly those in the former USSR in the late 1980s), will be part of his intangible legacy.

Primary sources from the Library of Congress can help students further understand the concepts of tangible and intangible legacies. The documents and artifacts created by the artists themselves are immediately apparent physical legacies, and reward close examination as products of the creative process. However, primary sources created by others can serve as evidence of the personal impact or widespread cultural influence that an artist has had.

"O Captain! My Captain!"
“O Captain! My Captain!”

Analyzing these artifacts using the Library’s primary source analysis tool can help students examine artists’ physical legacies closely, and can guide informed speculation about the intangible legacies that resulted.

Invite students to explore items in the following three collections, and to identify the tangible and intangible legacies reflected in each:

  • Lyrical Legacy: 400 Years of American Song and Poetry. This site features eighteen American songs and poems from the digital collections of the Library of Congress, represented by an original primary source document, along with historical background information and, in many cases, sound recordings and alternate versions. The proof sheet of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” with Whitman’s handwritten corrections is an especially personal example of one artist’s physical legacy.
  • Local Legacies. This project was initiated by members of Congress and individuals across the nation to commemorate the Library of Congress Bicentennial and to celebrate America’s richly diverse culture. For more than a year, Local Legacies teams documented the creative arts, crafts, and customs representing traditional community life; signature events such as festivals and parades; how communities observe local and national historical events; and the occupations that define a community’s life.

Ask students to consider the kinds of tangible and intangible legacies they will leave behind for their family and friends.

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