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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Singing for Women’s Suffrage: A New Digital Collection from the Library of Congress

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Throughout the month of March, Teaching with the Library of Congress celebrates Music In Our Schools Month by recognizing America’s Changemakers in Song. This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Equal Justice Song Sheaf. Eugénie M. Rayé-Smith, 1912

A new digital collection at the Library of Congress, “Women’s Suffrage in Sheet Music,” provides an expansive look at America’s nineteenth amendment changemakers in song. The introductory essay notes that, “For as long as socially and politically aware citizens have gathered to protest laws and voice dissent, music has served a paramount role; the women’s suffrage movement proves no exception. From local community suffrage meetings, to large-scale city-wide marches, to prison cells – suffragists consistently unified, rallied, and asserted their unbreakable spirit in song.”

Ask students to recall examples of activists uniting in song, whether in support of women’s suffrage, civil rights, or more recent causes. Do students ever wonder how the marchers are able to sing together? They probably didn’t hold a massive choir rehearsal the night before the march! Exploring the Equal Suffrage Song Sheaf may help students understand how music can support a movement and may also inspire them to use their own voice to seek change.

What can students infer about the use of music in the suffrage movement by examining the diminutive, 18-centimeter high cover? Throughout the booklet, lyrics are paired with familiar tunes.  This is a common historical practice, older than America itself. Why might activists use familiar tunes to further their cause?

Ask students to name a tune that everyone in the class would know. How do their choices compare to the repertoire listed in the Equal Suffrage Song Sheaf table of contents? What can we infer about the activists by examining the melodies they chose?

Table of Contents of Equal Suffrage Song Sheaf. Eugénie M. Rayé-Smith, 1912

Song, “Votes for Women, Sure to Win” from the Equal Suffrage Song Sheaf. Eugénie M. Rayé-Smith, 1912

Dig deeper with a familiar tune – perhaps “Votes For Women, Sure To Win.” Notice the main ideas and persuasive techniques employed. Then, try singing it.  Notice that higher and longer notes are naturally emphasized when singing. How are the lyrics enhanced by the melody? After singing the Yankee Doodle tune, it may be illustrative to invite the class to sing the preceding “Suffrage Hymn: God Bless Our Noble Cause!” “Russian Hymn” is likely an unfamiliar tune to your students, and the resulting cacophony will clearly illustrate the importance of choosing widely-known tunes!

After students synthesize their primary source analysis and their knowledge of women’s’ suffrage, they might express it by creating a class Song Sheaf of their own. What familiar tunes would they choose? What lyrics would they compose to communicate the ideals of the movement? How would the lyrics work together with the pitches and rhythms of the tune to deliver a message?

How might students be inspired by the Equal Suffrage Song Sheaf to advocate for their own cause today?

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