Library of Congress > Collections > The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Songs of Immigration and Migration

Playlist for Immigration, Migration and American Expansion

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections provide contrasting impressions of America's expanding populace and geography.

  • How Columbus discovered America

    A humorous monologue and song by Murry K. Hill about Columbus' travails.

  • Honolulu, America loves you

    The American Quartet, a male vocal quartet, accompanied by orchestra, expresses American citizens' excitement about Hawaii coming on board as a member of the Union.

  • My homeland

    Soprano Ema Destinnova and baritone Dinh Gilly sing a duet full of longing about their beautiful Russian homeland.

  • Mein Schweizerland

    Sadly echoing yodels remind soprano Marcelle Grandville and tenor Fritz Zimmerman of Switzerland in this patriotic duet.

  • Passage-birds' farewell

    Soprano and contralto duet composed by Eugen Hildach about saying goodbye.

As Europeans colonized North America, beginning with the Spanish and French in the 1500s and the British and Dutch in the early 1600s, colonists brought their cultural entertainments along with them. Songs brought to colonial America continued to be sung in their early forms, so that later scholars of songs and ballads, such as the British ethnomusicologist Cecil Sharp and American ballad scholar Francis James Child, looked to North America to find early versions of songs, and songs no longer sung in their country of origin.[1] Ethnomusicologist Juan Rael documented folk dramas and passion plays -- sung performances -- that preserved early versions of Spanish religious songs in what had been the relatively isolated colony of New Mexico (modern New Mexico and western Colorado). With the development of sound recording, scholars attempted to record the earliest versions of songs that they could find, such as the ballads Child had identified. An example of a rare pre-industrial work song in this presentation is a Scottish song that women used when fulling cloth, called a "waulking" song. See "Fhillie duhinn s'tu ga m'dhi," sung by Mary MacPhee in 1939.

African Americans in Early America

Africans were brought to North America as Europeans first began to create settlements. The Spanish attempted to enslave American Indians in many of their efforts to establish trading ports and colonies, and brought slaves from Africa in a failed attempt to establish a colony on the southeastern coast in 1526, abandoning the slaves when they left. They also brought slaves to the colony of San Agustin in present day Florida in 1565. The British first brought Africans to the colonies in Virginia in 1619. In the early colonial period, Europeans paying for their passage by becoming indentured servants for a period of years provided much of the menial labor. As this source of labor diminished, more Africans were brought to the colonies, often imported from the Caribbean. The practice of slavery was not codified in the early colonial period. Africans in the Chesapeake region in the 1600s, for example, were often treated as indentured servants who could earn their freedom. Some slave owners in the South allowed slaves to own a small amount of property and cultivate their own gardens. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, more slaves were brought directly from Africa, and the institution had evolved into enslavement for life. The French imported slaves to work in Louisiana and Indiana territory beginning in 1719. Bahamian African Americans regularly visited the coast of Florida beginning in the 1700s and some eventually settled there.

Two boys perform on diddley bows (single stringed instruments) that they made themselves and play using a soda bottle as a slide. Often the string is mounted on a wall instead of a board. Photo taken at the Fort Valley Music Festival in Georgia in 1943 and published in The Peachite, Vol. II, No. 2, March 1944, p 8. .

Slaves brought with them songs from their own cultures and knowledge of musical instruments. African drums, gourd rattles, and the banjo were among the instruments African Americans made in the new world that are most recognizable today. The African banjo, with a body of wood or gourd, evolved into its present form and had a profound impact on the music of European American as well as African American music. West African cordophones, which consist of a bow with a single plucked string, sometimes attached to a gourd resonator, evolved into the American "diddley bow," a wire string attached to a wall or a board whose tone is both amplified and changed by sliding a bottle along its length as the string is plucked. This instrument is still used in African American blues music in the South today.

During the Colonial period and the early years of the Union, slave owners did not usually introduce their slaves to Christianity, and many discouraged religious gatherings of slaves. Slaves devised their own "camp" or "bush" meetings for worship. These combined ideas of Christianity with the religions brought from Africa. Early shouts and spirituals often drew on Old Testament stories as a source. "Ring shouts," a style of singing to a drum beat accompanied by a shuffling movement in a circle, became a common form of worship in the southeastern tidewater. After Nat Turner's rebellion, in 1831, slave owners decided to convert slaves to Christianity, hiring white ministers to preach to them on such topics as obedience. This practice introduced slaves to white styles of hymns and psalm-singing that they then blended with their own styles of religious songs.

Since African American songs and music were not well documented until after the Civil War, the content of songs during slavery days is largely based on that later documentation. During the 1930s, elderly slaves were sought out by scholars for their oral histories and some of these interviews included songs. Several of these are available in this collection. This presentation includes spirituals and work songs sung in styles that evolved during slavery. These include songs from the tidewater of South Carolina and Georgia where a dialect of English and West African languages called "Gullah" or "Sea Islands Creole Dialect" developed. This dialect is not spoken much today, but was documented by folksong collectors. For example, listen to H. Wyle sing "Come by Here," the song that came to be known as "Kumbayah." The word "yah" is Gullah for "here." Although Gorden's notes do not provide the location where this was recorded, census records of the era show that African Americans with the last name Wylie lived in South Carolina.

The songs and instrumentation developed during the slavery era not only became important in later African American musical forms, but were developed and used by many different American groups over time. The banjo developed into a uniquely American instrument used in many musical styles. African American religious and secular songs and the musical genres that they developed from them widely influenced the development of American music across ethnic groups and includes genres such as folk music, country music, blues, boogie woogie, ragtime, bluegrass, rockabilly, rock and roll, rythmn and blues, and jazz.

Songs of the Colonial Period

Settlers in the new colonies of Great Britain brought ballads and hymns with them, but new songs were also created to describe the experiences, hopes, and disappointments of the settlers. The ballad, "Springfield Mountain," describes the tragic death of Thomas Mirick in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, August 1761. A nineteenth century history of that period reprinted in The History of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, published in 1913, describes his death from a rattlesnake bite shortly before he married. It also records the lyrics of a ballad and the song in this presentation, "Young Johnny," a later version that is still recognizable, though it has simplified verses and gives the victim's name as Johnny.[2]

The settlers of the Russian colony in Alaska also sang ballads of their adventures. "Alaskan Promyshlenniki," sung by John Pannamarkoff, is a chronicle of the experience of the settlers' journey from Arkhangel'sk to western Alaska in 1808.

A number of Spanish colonies north of what is now Mexico were attempted by the Spanish before 1600, but, among the settlements that succeeded to the present day, was a colony in what is now southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, settled in about 1600. These settlers were relatively isolated from both the settlements in Mexico and from other European pioneers moving westward. This resulted in a distinctive culture. In 1940 folklorist Juan Bautista Rael documented the songs and sung folk dramas of the descendants of these settlers, who had preserved examples of early songs and singing styles over many generations.[3]

Early settlers of what came to be the United States came mainly from Spain, France, England, Scotland, Ulster (Scottish settlers in Ireland who later left for the colonies), the Netherlands, Germany, Wales, Poland, Sweden, and Russia. Both Christian and Jewish settlers from Europe immigrated, in many cases to find greater religious freedom. By the time of the American Revolution, twenty percent of the population of the colonies was of African descent. In some southern areas, such as the Chesapeake region, about half the population was Black. The census of 1790 records that about eight percent of the African American population was free.

Early colonies often kept particular ethnic and language groups together in one place. But as colonial populations came into contact with each other over time, the various songs and musical styles often influenced each other, sometimes developing into entirely new genres of song. Yet many song traditions of various ethnic groups were also preserved intact. When we hear folk or popular songs that sound "American" to us, it helps to remember the many traditions that contributed to the "Americanness" of our songs and music.

American Indians, Native Alaskans and Hawaiians During the Colonial Period

The settlement of North America had a profound impact on the indigenous peoples. American Indians and Native Alaskans were displaced, removed, and often brutally killed by European explorers and settlers. Many died of diseases brought by the Europeans and spread among the Indians through trade. Many tribes were decimated long before they had any contact with the Europeans who brought the illnesses, and so did not connect the illnesses with their source. For a variety of reasons, including western contact, some tribes, along with their languages and cultures, died out. "Konomihu lullaby," sung by Ellen Brazill in 1926, documents one of the last speakers of the Konomihu language (related to the Shasta languages of northern California).

European explorers and settlers were often seen as dangerous enemies, but also as opportunities for trade and a source of wonder. A Yup'ik song about a vision of a sailing ship in 1777, describes a Yup'ik holy man's vision of a large sailing ship one year before its arrival off the coast of western Alaska. The ship that would have been visible to the Yup'ik in summer of 1778 was Captain James Cook's Resolution, on an expedition to map the coast of Alaska. The Yup'ik had little further contact with Europeans until the latter part of the nineteeth century.

Hawaiian history was also being profoundly influenced by western contact by the late 1700s. Captain Cook's arrival in 1778 meant the introduction of diseases that Hawaiians had no resistance to, causing epidemics similar to those that affected American Indians. It was partly because of Western European influence, and the availability of Western weapons, that King Kamehameha I was able to unify the islands under one rule in 1810.

United States Expansion in the Early 1800s

As setters in the east moved westward, they entered into lands claimed by France and Spain, and inhabited by various Indian tribes. In 1803 the United States bought a large territory of the Mississippi watershed from France, the Louisiana Purchase. This included some land claimed by, but not settled by Spain. It also included French settlers in what is now Louisiana. Some of these were the Acadians, who were forced out of Canada by the British. A concert presented by Marce LaCoutoure, David Greely, and Kirsti Guillroy showcases some of the earliest songs of this ethnic group that are still sung today. The Louisiana Purchase also included the traditional lands of many Indian tribes. Some of these tribes are represented in this online presentation: The Omaha, the Sioux, the Blackfoot, the Kiowa.


The United States gradually moved into Florida, ignoring Spain's claims on the peninsula. Parts of west Florida had been claimed as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1810. American settlers resented Spanish rule and also claimed west Florida at this time. U.S. military forces invaded Florida frequently as a result of Seminole raids on Georgia, and to attempt to recapture runaway slaves who fled the United States. The Seminole assisted runaway slaves and allowed them to live near their villages, protecting them from being recaptured. This caused the first conflicts between the Seminole and the United States Army, led by General Andrew Jackson, even though the territory was claimed by Spain at the time. As the Seminole and the runaway slaves not only fought effectively, but also could retreat into the Florida Everglades, these incursions on their territory were largely unsuccessful. Florida was finally established as a United States territory in 1822.

The Kingdom of Hawai'i

The 1800s brought more Europeans to the Kingdom of Hawai'i. In 1815 Russia claimed the Island of Kaua'i, to establish a port of trade. A wave of Protestant missionaries to Hawai'i from Britain and the United States arrived as King Kamehameha II made changes to the existing religious system, abolishing the kapu system of taboos. French priests also arrived to bring Catholicism to the islands, but as a result of conflicts with the Protestant missionaries and native Hawaiians, they were seized and imprisoned, leading to a conflict with France. The British also attempted to claim the islands, overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy for a short period in 1843. The Hawaiians continued to assert their independence, but under increasing pressures from the countries who used their ports for trade.

Indian Tribes

As the United States grew and more settlers came, treaties formed with American Indians were broken and their lands taken. The Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830 began the largest removal of tribes from the Southeast to locations west of the Mississippi. Tribes were removed during the years from 1831 to 1837 and included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. The Seminoles of Florida were the only tribe to successfully resist, as they once again retreated into the Everglades where the army was not equipped to fight them. Even so, many Seminoles were captured and removed to Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma) in 1837. A song sung about the removal of the Seminole sung in Seminole by Katie Smith and Courtney Parker and was recorded by Carlita Doggett Corse and Robert Cornwall in 1940. Unfortunately the sound quality is poor, but the tune can be heard. The Cherokee removal in 1835 was especially devastating to the tribe as over four thousand died on the forced march westward. This tragic event came to be called "the trail of tears."

A consequence of European contact with American Indians was the first generation of children of European and Indian heritage. Many were children of French trappers, who became citizens of the United States at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. In many cases these children did not have a home in either of their parent's cultures. In the 1820s, the Omaha negotiated with the United States government for a special reservation to be set aside for "half breed" descendants of Europeans and the Iowa, Omaha, Oto, Santee Sioux and Yankton Sioux tribes. In 1830, the United States created the Nemaha Half-Breed Reservation in Indian Territory -- now Nebraska. A song sung by Omaha descendants of these "half breeds" was recorded at the 1983 Omaha Powwow. The song is attributed attributed to Louis Saunsoci, who was of Omaha and French ancestry. An interesting part of this reservation's history is that it became a safe haven on the Underground Railroad.[4]

The Fugitive's Song. Cover for sheet music depicting Frederick Douglass escaping from slavery. Prints and Photographs LOT 10615-59. Select the link for more information and a larger image.

The Underground Railroad

While slaves were sometimes able to escape and run to Spanish Florida or other safe havens from the time slaves were brought to North America, it was in the early nineteenth century that a network of escape routes and safe houses organized by Abolitionists, some of whom were former slaves, developed. The routes now known collectively as the Underground Railroad assisted slaves escaping north and west. While there were "conductors" who led slaves to freedom, such as Harriet Tubman, most runaway slaves found their way alone along these routes. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it illegal to harbor runaway slaves even in states that outlawed slavery. At this time the traffic on the Underground Railroad was at its peak, and rather than stopping the effort, the Abolitionists helped slaves escape to Canada, where they could not be forced back into slavery. Canada had already become a destination for some slaves by 1835, as slavery had been abolished there in 1833. After 1850 a significant population of runaway slaves formed in areas of Ontario and British Columbia. After emancipation many returned to the United States, usually settling in northern cities. Though the migration of runaway slaves was relatively small, they helped to pave the way for later migrations of African Americans to the North and West.

There is great deal of debate about which African American spirituals may have been used as coded information related to the Underground Railroad. The organizers did use railroad terminology as a code for talking about the escape routes. Safe houses were "stations" and runaway slaves were "passengers" or "cargo," for example. So it has been speculated that spirituals about trains may have been used as part of this code. Because the Underground Railroad was secret and illegal, documentation of the use of songs as coded messages is sparse. Harriet Tubman, in her interviews with biographer Sarah H. Bradford, said that she would stand in a field adjacent to where slaves were working and sing the spiritual "Go Down, Moses" or a version of the hymn "Thorny Desert" as a way of signaling to slaves that she was in the area to help slaves flee to freedom.

American Indian tribes also participated in the Underground Railroad, providing safe havens first among the lands set aside for them by treaty, and later on reservations. These particularly involved tribes in the southeast, Florida, and tribes on the western shore of the Mississippi.[4] In fact, this participation in the protection of runaway slaves was one of the reasons that President Jackson particularly targeted the southeastern tribes for removal to the west. In a webcast of Choctaw music and storytelling, Tim Tingle tells why there is a version of the spiritual "Bound for the Promised Land," in Choctaw, singing the song while telling of members of the Choctaw Nation asisting a fleeing family of slaves. The story may be somewhat fictionalized, but the background is based on historical fact, both of Choctaw assistance to fugitive slaves, and of the existence of this song.

Immigration in the Mid-1800s

As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and changes in the economies of countries in Europe, many young Europeans could no longer support themselves. The prospect of owning land in new developing countries such as the United States made immigration a solution for many. The 1820s marked the beginning of a period of increased immigration from Europe that grew throughout the nineteenth century.

The immigrations of Irish to the United States were a result of the failure of potato crops leading to mass starvation in 1845. This period lasted until 1852. While some Irish settlers had come to the United States beginning in the colonial period, most settled in rural areas. This large migration in the mid nineteenth century brought many settlers to urban areas.

In 1847, pressured by persecution for their religious beliefs, Mormon pioneers began a western migration from a settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, as well as other states, with smaller numbers from Iceland and some European countries. Their goal was to create a Mormon enclave on lands near the Great Salt Lake in what is now Utah. At the time this was an unsettled region of Mexican territory. The area had been chosen by an advance party in 1846, followed by pioneers, many of whom set out on foot without horses or mules, pulling handcarts filled with their belongings. A song from that journey, "The Handcart Song," is still remembered by descendants of these pioneers today. These settlers of Utah later participated in the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, building the last portion of the railroad thorough Utah. The song "Echo Canyon" is an example of the song sung by the workers building the railroad.

A large wave of German immigrants came to the United States in 1848, resulting from revolutions and conflicts of the various German states. These included political refugees, many of whom were well educated. They settled in cities, mainly Baltimore, Hoboken, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York, Omaha, and St. Louis, as well as several cities in Iowa. These immigrants brought skilled labor. They also opposed slavery and many fought for the Union during the Civil War. Another wave of German-speaking immigrants came from Russia. Under the reign of Catherine the Great, who was Prussian, Germans immigrated to western Russia. But in the 1800s, life for these immigrants became increasingly difficult. In the mid- 1800s the first wave of German Russians, came to the United States, many wishing to escape forced conscription in the Russian army. Songs of immigrants from Germany and of ethnicly German immigrants from Russia are available in this presentation.

Amuma Says No. Traditional and contemporary Basque music, songs, and dance from Idaho. Recorded at the Library of Congress, July 14, 2010. A wave of Basque settlers immigrated to the northest when the United States acquired Oregon Territory in 1848. Photo by Megan Halsband. Select the link for more information and to view the webcast.

In 1848 several major events took place leading to both increased migration and immigration. In January, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. In February the war between Mexico and the United States was settled, adding southwestern territories, including all of California, and confirming the addition of the Republic of Texas to the United Sates, which included present day Colorado, Wyoming, and parts of New Mexico. In August, what had been known as "Oregon Country" was divided between the United States and British Canada, including the present states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of western Montana and Wyoming. The addition of the territories coupled with the discovery of gold sent many Americans pioneering westward, with a wave of migrants arriving in California in 1849, so that they were called the Forty-Niners. Examples of songs of the California gold rush era are available in this presentation, such as "The Days of Forty-Nine." Some newly-arrived immigrants set out west in search of land that they could homestead, following in the footsteps of smaller numbers of migrants who had pioneered the territories before they were added to the US. For example, a wave of Basques immigrated to the northwestern territories, many working as sheep ranchers.

As the United States now spanned the continent, railroads were needed to connect distant cities for both travel and the transportation of goods. Chinese workers immigrated in order to build railroads and to work in service trades that supported the western gold and silver mines. As railroads were built and the mines required labor, many also went to work in the mines. Most of these were Cantonese speakers from southern China, often leaving China via the British port of Hong Kong, as the Chinese government restricted emigration. The vast majority were men, many of whom hoped to return to China or to earn enough money to bring their families to America at a later time. This presentation also includes some recordings of Cantonese songs made in the early 1900s by Victor, for the American Chinese market. The titles of these have not been translated, but select this link for the earliest of these, recorded in 1902.[5] The Chinese immigrant's look, culture, and language led to fears, ridicule, and prejudice among European American pioneers and the development of many misconceptions about them. An example of this is found in the impersonation of the Chinese accent and misadventures in the song "Hop Sing."

Alaska Purchase

When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Russian settlers were treated as new citizens, but Native Alaskans were not. The agreement with Russia included language that the inhabitants of Alaska" with the exception of uncivilized native tribes, shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States."

In 1875, a major eruption of the Askja volcano in Iceland hit a population already suffering from a series of cold winters and an economic depression. Farms and farmland in eastern Iceland were destroyed, causing widespread famine. The consequenses of this downturn affected Iceland for much of the latter nineteenth century. One group of prospective immigrants petitioned the United States government to settle in Alaska. An advance group was allowed to consider a possible site in Alaska, however the United States did not follow through with this plan. Some refugees of the volcanic eruption settled in Washington State and Michigan, where some of their countrymen had already settled. Many other emmigrated to Canada. Some of the Canadian Icelanders and their descendants later immigrated to the Northwestern United States.

Indian Reservations and Assimilation

Following policies of earlier reservations set up in states just west of the Mississippi, during the latter part of the 1800s, American Indians of the Plains and the West were forced onto reservations as well in order to open these lands to settlement by pioneers. The United States had prior treaties with the tribes, but broke those treaties. The slaughter of bison for their hides created starvation of the Plains tribes dependent on the buffalo for food, as well as shelter and clothing. Much of this was done by companies that sold hides to markets in Europe and the Eastern United States for industrial machine belts, as well as for souvenirs of America for railroad companies, western pioneers and tourists. The United States Army also was a major particiapant in this slaughter, as many felt that they were cutting the supply line of Plains tribes they saw as enemies. These circumstances brought about a period of wars with Indian tribes. The Sioux and Cheyenne fought efforts to force them onto reservations, leading up to an intervention led by George Armstrong Custer, who was defeated by a larger force of Indians in 1876. Warde Ford sings a popular ballad about this battle, "Custer's Last Charge," that casts Custer as a hero, the common European-American view at the time. This victory was short-lived and ultimately disastrous for many tribes, as efforts were redoubled to forcibly remove Indians to reservations.

Under the Dawes Act of 1887, Indians could become citizens if they broke all ties with their tribe and "adopted the habits of civilized life." Literacy tests were used to create barriers for Indians to become citizens and to vote. Beginning in 1879, boarding schools were set up to forcibly indoctrinate Indian children into western customs. In many of the schools the children were punished if they spoke their own languages, and were kept from seeing their parents for long periods. Indian customs on the reservations were also curtailed, with dances and drumming commonly outlawed. It was commonly assumed that Indian culture would naturally disappear. Ethnomusicologists, such as Frances Densmore, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, and Omaha tribal member Francis LaFlesche, recorded Indian songs, stories, and ceremonies for the Smithsonian Institution in order to preserve these for scholastic research. A selection of Omaha recordings and an example of a Menominee song, "Manabus Tells the Ducks to Shut Their Eyes," from this period, are available in this presentation.

Assimilation policies towards American Indians and Native Alaskans were less than successful, although some tribes did lose their languages as a result. Indians generally rebelled against efforts to destroy their culture. Also, the reality was that Indians, regardless of how well they spoke English and adopted European-American customs, were not accepted into White society. While in some areas some version of Indian boarding schools continued until the 1970s, some states began enrolling Indians in public school beginning in the early 1900s.

Growing out of the reservation system and the "civilizing" forces at work in the West, were the Wild West Shows, such as the one run by Buffalo Bill, that included cowboy stunts, music and songs, and "wild Indians" performing for audiences across the country. These continued into the early 1900s. A popular and romantic view of all things western were spread by such shows, along with confused popular ideas about Indians. Some of the more widely known versions of cowboy songs became known to easterners through popular cowboy performers.

Immigrant Mario Olmeda sang "La Piave," a song about a major Italian victory during World War I, for ethomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell, February 13, 1939. Select the link to listen to the song.

Immigration 1880-1918

From the 1880s to about 1918 the United States saw the largest immigration of Europeans in its history. These included many European groups who had not immigrated to the United States in large numbers before this period. Immigrants came from Poland, Slavic countries, Italy, Greece, Hungary, and Finland, among others. Due to persecution of Jews in Russia, many immigrated first to western Europe, then to North America. Some of these new immigrants created city neighborhoods or whole towns of people who spoke the same language. An example is Tarpon Springs, Florida, settled by Greeks during this period. It remains today the city with the largest proportion of Greek inhabitants in the United States. Examples of songs and music of immigrants to Tarpon Springs are included in this presentation. This influx of people bringing cultures and languages different from previous settlers was not wholly welcomed by all Americans, leading eventually to strict immigration quotas after World War I.

For the music industry, this wave of new immigrants brought diverse cultures to cities, contributing an array of talent. Immigrants brought talent to collaboration to the vaudeville stage as well as songwriters and publishers to the developing popular music called Tin Pan Alley. Irish and Jewish immigrants were key players in this mix, often collaborating. As sound recording technology developed from rare curiosity to a fixture in American homes, the voices of performers reached a wider audience. Along with this ethnic mix, comic impersonations of ethnic groups also became part of the entertainment. Some artists of these ethnic groups participated, exaggerating their own accents for comic effect. A webcast of a lecture by folklorist Mick Molony, "If it Wasn't for the Irish and the Jews: Irish and Jewish Influences on the Music of Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley," is available in this presentation.

Fears about Chinese immigrants and resulting cultural conflicts in the West prompted the Chinese Exclusion Act signed by Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, which banned new immigration from China. Most of the Chinese immigrants were men, and they were forbidden by law from seeking European American wives, so this placed a great hardship on the immigrants already in the United States. A few exceptions were made for family members who were "non-laborers," that is wives, "mail order brides," and dependent children. However, the enforcement of the regulations made it extremely difficult even for wives and children to be allowed into the country. For example, "non-laborers" had to show that they had the permission of the Chinese government to immigrate, which was extremely difficult to obtain. The "Drum Song of Fenyang" is an example of a Chinese folk song that was widely known, and, though sung in Mandarin, would have been known to Cantonese-speaking immigrants.

In the interest of sugar and rice plantations that had been set up in Hawai'i, an agreement with the Hawaiian government had given the United States the port of Pearl Harbor in 1875. But after a period of political unrest in Hawai'i, the economic desire to exploit Hawai'i as a port of trade among other business interests overcame more prudent efforts to respect Hawai'i's monarchy. In 1893, business interests from Britain and the United States pressed for a military intervention. The United States Army deposed Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani, and Hawai'i became a United States territory. Hawaiians petitioned against this action, and many Americans protested, most famously writer Mark Twain. One hundred years after the overthrow of the monarchy, President Clinton signed an official apology from the United States to the people of Hawai'i.

Japanese began immigrating to Hawai'i in 1885, initially to work in sugar cane fields and pineapple plantations. Earlier the government of Japan had opposed workers emigrating to Hawai'i, but the government of Hawai'i made efforts to assure the Japanese that workers would be well treated, and a positive diplomatic relationship between the two nations was fostered. By the 1920s the Japanese population would grow to make them the second largest ethnic group in Hawai'i.

Music from the new territory of Hawai'i had a great impact on American culture, thanks in part to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 coupled with the advent of commercial sound recordings. The ukulele became a popular instrument in American parlors. An Hawaiian innovation dating from about 1885 based on the western guitar was the Hawiian lap slide guitar, played with a slide of metal or glass. This new sound spread rapidly in America and influenced many later musical styles such as bluegrass, "sacred steel" Gospel, and rock and roll. Hawaiians also began migrating to the western United States, often working as entertainers playing these new instruments, particularly in Nevada and California. An example of Hawaiian performers from Nevada are Gary Haleamau and his band, recorded at the Library of Congress in 2008.

At the conclusion of the Spanish American War in 1898, the United States gained the territories of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans entered the United States in larger numbers after this, migrating to cities such as New York, and bringing with them a style of music and song different from the Mexican style most familiar to Americans. In the 1930s Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded Puerto Rican Americans who had settled in California. Puerto Rican songs are available in this presentation.

Alaska in the late 1800s saw two waves of fortune seekers. The Klondike gold rush led prospectors and entrepreneurs who hoped to make money selling them goods and services to the Yukon River through Alaska to the gold fields in Canada in 1897 and 1899. After that, the Nome Gold Rush of 1899-1909 brought more prospectors to Alaska. Unlike the California Gold Rush, most of these prospectors returned to the lower United States when they made their fortunes, or, more commonly, when their luck ran out. But some did stay to settle in Alaska. "Lament of the Old Sourdough" and "Buffalo Gals at Nome" are examples of songs related to the Nome Gold Rush.

The United States gradually secured islands in Samoa and, in 1911, these were organized into the territory of American Samoa. The United States also purchased the Virgin Islands from the Danish in 1917.

Mary and Hartop Goshtigian performed Armenian and Armeno-Turkish music for Sidney Robertson Cowell on April 17, 1939. In this photograph Mrs. Gostigian is playing an oud. The WPA California Folk Music Project Collection. Select the photo for a larger image.

Immigration and Immigrants During and after World War I

During World War I, immigration from Europe was severely curtailed. After the war, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924 continued to regulate immigration using strict quotas. The quotas were based on the percentage of the population of various ethnic groups in the United States, proportionately favoring western Europeans, but allowed immigration at far lower levels than prior to 1900. Asian immigration was reduced to nearly zero.

Because of the low level of European immigration during the war, there was a demand for inexpensive labor that prompted greater immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America to southwestern states. During the war, the government actively sought Latin American laborers as this work force helped to free Americans to join the military. Following the war, the United States attempted to curtail this flow of workers from its southern borders, while still severely restricting immigration from Europe. So the demand for unskilled labor caused by these policies led many Mexicans to continue to seek work in the United States despite the restrictions. Mexican Americans brought with them songs about Mexican history and Mexican life. An example is "Corrido villésta de la toma de Matamoros," a song concerning taking of the city Matamoros, Mexico (which is just across the Rio Grande river from Brownsville, Texas) by the revolutionaries in 1913 during the Mexican revolution.

Armenians were able to enter the United States despite the strict quotas, due to American sympathies with these refugees. Turkey had expelled and actively killed Armenians during World War I, taking the opportunity of war to persecute its own citizens. In some cases deportees were hunted down outside Turkey's borders, the fiction of deportation used to conceal the slaughter. Armenians were marched or taken by train into the Syrian desert Deir ez-Zor and left to die. United States newspapers condemned this as a "holocaust" and printed daily reports on the situation. There were efforts mounted to rescue the Armenians, but, for the most part, help arrived too late. Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded Armenian songs in California in the 1930s, including the song "Deir ez-Zor Collerinde" about the deaths in the Syrian desert; "De le Yaman," a traditional love song of longing that, since World War I, has taken the meaning of longing for the homeland; and "Andouni," a song whose title translates as "homeless" that has come to be associated with the deportees and was arranged by the folksong collector and composer Komitas Vardapet.

Greeks living in Turkey faced on a similar fate to the Armenians. Many were killed outright, forced on death marches, or deported. While some of these refugees made their way to Greece and Macedonia, some immigrated to the United States before the strict quotas of the 1920s took effect. In many cases Greek men came in search of work, expecting to return home. The pending new immigration laws forced some to make the decision to send for their families and settle in America.

Ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell realized that the greatly reduced level of immigration after the first World War impacted American ethnomusicologists' ability to study the music of first generation immigrants who could perform the music and songs learned in their native countries on instruments that they had brought with them. This was part of her motivation to record many different ethnic groups in central California during the 1930s as part of a project funded under the Works Progress Administration. She was able to record some groups, such as Armenians and Italians, who had immigrated during the war. In addition to first generation immigrants, she recorded second generation immigrants, Mexican Americans, singers of English-language ballads and songs, and surviving participants in the California Gold Rush. These recordings are available in this presentation.


"Everybody's Crazy 'Bout the Doggone Blues But I'm Happy" is an example of a song by African Americans Turner Layton (composer) and Henry Creamer (lyricist) both of whom traveled to New York to pursue their musical careers during what came to be called the "Great Migration" of African Americans to the North and West. Creamer was born in Richmond, Virginia, and Turner was from Washington, D.C. Select the title link to view the sheet music, listen to a recording of this song performed by Marion Harris in 1917.

Migration of African Americans After Reconstruction

After the Civil War, many African Americans migrated from southern states to the North, Midwest, and West, seeking a better life. Though northern and western states were certainly not free from discrimination, they provided far better opportunities for education and advancement than under the Jim Crow laws of southern states. Though this began in the late1860s, there was a steady increase in the number of migrants until well after the first World War. During World War I, immigration from Europe ceased, causing a shortage of inexpensive industrial labor and a demand for workers. Consequently many African Americans settled in cities, creating neighborhoods such as New York's Harlem and Chicago's South Side. Some of these migrants were aided by former slaves who had already settled in northern cities or who had recently returned to the United States after fleeing to Canada. Rural agricultural workers became urban dwellers, fashioning a very different life for themselves. What came to be called the "Great Migration" peaked in the 1920s when hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the South. The migration caused conflicts and a demand for civil rights. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded was founded in 1909, partly as a response to the consequences of the Great Migration.

From a musical point of view, this migration brought Gospel and blues music to a wider audience, and northern and western cities became a place for African American musical innovation. The search for a better life also led to changes in the way performers chose to present themselves. For example, singer Noble Sissle refused to perform in black face, which, at the time, was still common for African Americans. Marian Anderson, whose grandfather had migrated to Philadelphia shortly after emancipation, studied opera and, when she performed traditional spirituals, she did so in a trained vocal style. Composer Spencer Williams is an example of an African American who migrated from New Orleans to perform and live in Chicago and later New York during the Great Migration. Listen to his song, "I Ain't Got Nobody" performed by Hattie Ellis. Another wave of African Americans to the north and west occurred after World War II. An example is blues great Honeyboy Edwards, who left the Missisippi Delta to live and perform in Chicago in 1950. Listen to him sing "Sweet Home Chicago," a song believed to have been written by Robert Johnson.

The Dust Bowl Migrants

During the Great Depression, a series of droughts combined with non-sustainable agricultural practices led to devastating dust storms, famine, diseases, and deaths related to breathing dust. This caused the largest migration in American history. The Dust Bowl era lasted from 1930 to the early 1940s and impacted the Midwest, Southwest, and Mexico directly, but also had an impact on the states that affected populations migrated to--principally California and the Northwest. Migrants, most of whom had been farmers, went to pick crops in those states where crops would still grow. Displaced immigrants from Mexico competed with migrants from the United States for jobs. A federal study found that the migrants were spending all they earned on gasoline and housing, with nothing left to feed themselves or their children. The Roosevelt administration answered this by setting up camps to house migrants. The large number of workers resulted in low wages, which led to a series of strikes such as the 1939 Madera Cotton Strike (songs from this strike are included in the presentation). In 1941 ethnographers Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin documented the lives of migrant workers in California, recording songs, stories, poetry and camp meetings. Songs recorded in California by Todd and Sonkin are available in this presentation. Although the drought abated in the early 1940s, the loss of topsoil in the Midwest continued to have an impact on usable farmland through 1950, meaning that many people displaced by the Dust Bowl were never able to return to their farms.

Mexicans fleeing the consequences of drought in this era emigrated to the United States in large numbers. Displaced Mexican workers competed with Dust Bowl migrants in California. Mexicans were often blamed for the joblessness during the Depression. The United States enacted legislation aimed first at assisting their return with the Mexican Repatriation Act, then actively barred their entry and deported Mexicans in great numbers.

Immigration During and Following WWII

During World War II the United States began making some changes to its policy of immigration quotas, but generally on a case-by-case basis. In 1939 a well-publicized plight of Jewish refugees from Europe aboard the S.S. St. Louis first were refused permission to disembark in Cuba, then denied permission to emigrate to the United States. Because of strict immigration quotas in force at the time, Roosevelt had no choice but to refuse to accept these refugees and the ship was turned back to Europe. In 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt, under pressure from Congress and Jewish Americans, relaxed the quotas on Eastern European immigration to allow more Jews to immigrate and escape Nazi persecution. He also created a War Refugee Board to admit more refugees. Jewish immigrants after 1944 settled largely in cities, joining immigrants from the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries. The musician, folk song collector, and singer Flory Jagoda came to the United States as a "war bride" after World War II. In a webcast recorded at the Library of Congress in 2007, she performs music and songs of the Sephardic diaspora.

As had happened during World War I, a demand for Mexican labor to replace U.S. laborers lost to the war effort brought about a new immigration of workers. Pressure from growers to maintain this inexpensive unskilled work force kept the policy of importing Mexican Labor in place even following the war. The United States government instituted the "Bracero Program" in 1942, which allowed workers to come into the country provided that they had a work contract and returned when the contract was up. At that point they could be hired on a new contract and return. But when legal immigrants came in insufficient numbers, growers actively sought illegal immigrants to harvest crops. So the United States began "Operation Wetback" in 1954, deporting approximately one million illegal immigrants. During the 1960s Chicano workers in the west, whether citizens or illegal workers, became frustrated with the push-pull of United States policy towards Mexican immigration. They united to launch a civil rights battle to raise awareness and to gain better treatment for themselves and their children. [6]

In 1941, Russia began deporting Germans who had settled in parts of western Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of these displaced German-speaking people immigrate to the United States to settle in the Midwest, joining a smaller wave of Russian-Germans who arrived in the 1870s.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, enacted under the Roosevelt administration, was a law designed to return self-governance to Indian tribes and reduce losses of reservation and tribal lands. The law included Native Alaskans, but because of increased settlement of Alaska at this time and an economic desire to free land for settlers, some lawmakers continued to press for confinement of more Native Alaskan tribes on reservations. Native Alaskans fought these efforts in the courts, successfully delaying and ultimately preventing the loss of most of their tribal lands as had happened to Indians in the lower forty-eight states.

Immigration after 1965

Immigration up to 1965 had largely favored white Western Europeans. Due to pressures of the war in Southeast Asia, the United States needed to provide a safe haven for refugees of that war. On October 3, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, removing the previous national origins formula. Instead, the new law favored people with skills and education regardless of their race or country of origin. This has allowed more immigrants from Asia, the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa to enter the United States. Some examples of performers who took advantage of this new immigration policy to come to the US are available as webcasts in this presentation: Sreevidya Chandramouli, Balla Kouyate and World Vision, and the Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe of Iowa.

In the 1970s, Iranian students in the United States begin refusing to return to live under the repressive government of the Shah. Many protested, drawing attention to problems in Iran and the U.S. support of the Shah. Many of these protesters sought American citizenship, and in some cases asked for asylum, as they feared reprisal for their protests if forced to return to their country. An example of musical expressions of these Persian Americans available in this presentation as a webcast is The Sama Ensemble, a Sufi musical group that includes refugees and their relatives. Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that advocates peace through the love of God.

In 1983 The People's Republic of China removed restrictions on emigration. This led to a new wave of immigration from China, particularly scholars, artists, and musicians. [7]

See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.


  1. See the essay, "Francis James Child and The English and Scottish Popular Ballads," by Stephen Winick, for more on the life and work of this scholar. [back to article]
  2. The History of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, 1913, is available online via Cornell University Library. See pages 79-85 for an account of this story and two versions of the song. [back to article]
  3. See the biography "Juan Bautista Rael (1900-1993)." [back to article]
  4. Freeman, Darryl Omar 2012. The First Freedom Line: The Untold Story of American Indian Underground Railroad Activities During the Antebellum Period (Aiding Fugitive Enslaved African Americans Escape to Freedom in Canada 1820-1865). Dissertation, Washington State Iniversity. [back to article]
  5. A Library of Congress presentation on the Chinese in California 1850-1925 is available online. [back to article]
  6. See the article, "The Chicano Civil Rights Movement," for more information and links to recordings. [back to article]
  7. Instrumental music performed at the Library of Congress by The Ann Yao Trio, musicians who came to the United States after this change in China's emigration policy, is available as a webcast in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia.[back to article]
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Songs of Work and Industry

Playlist for Work and Industry

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections illustrate what it takes to keep a roof over one's head.

  • Down on the Mississippi

    The American Quartet sings a song to help raise the spirits of the African-American workers on a steamboat in a dramatic scene.

  • The Volga Boatman's song

    Baritone Vladimir Resnikoff and pianist Edward T. King perform this famous Russian work song in somber style.

  • Bell hop blues

    A lowly bell hop laments his position in the world in a song performed by Al Bernard.

  • All in, down and out

    Chris Smith's song about what it's like to have no work or money is performed here by Arthur Collins.

  • I love to be a sailor

    Harry Lauder performs an upbeat song accompanied by orchestra about a mariner who truly enjoys his work.

During the 400 years of the settlement, territorial expansion, migration, industrialization and urbanization of what would come to be known as the United States, the nature of making a living and the technological and economic factors on which it rested changed profoundly. In colonial North America the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural with farmers producing much of what they needed for themselves and their communities. Typically, only surplus produce would make it to wider markets and trade was principally carried out face to face. Travel could be unreliable and roads unpredictable with routes clogged with mud during winter months.

The situation changed dramatically between the American Revolution and the 1850s. First, as emblemized by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the National Road in 1833, the network of roads, turnpikes and canals expanded rapidly. Beginning in the 1830s, and accelerating in the 1840s and 1850s, railroad growth exploded. One measure of these developments can be seen in the fact that in 1800 a trip from New York City to Detroit took four weeks, while the same trip in 1860 could be completed overnight. With a transportation network in place and a growing number of urban wage earners, farmers increasingly produced for regional and national markets.

These sweeping changes deeply affected the nation's musical life. Some of these changes were quite direct. The technological refinement and industrial production of pianos made them affordable for a burgeoning middle class, and they became a widespread fixture in parlors across the country. Between 1829 and 1910 annual per capita piano sales increased twentyfold with over 365,000 sales in 1910 alone, or one for every 252 citizens. Sales of sheet music paralleled this growth in piano sales.

Other effects were more ephemeral. In particular, there was a wistful, nostalgic tone to the lyrics of many popular songs published in the mid 19th century. Songs like "Ah, Sing Again" evoked a nostalgia for a vanished past "When fortune ne'er denying/Did give us home and friends that made it dear." Such sentiments resonated with Americans who had left the communities of their youth to migrate west or to urban centers. Another example of this sentiment is J.R. Thomas's ballad "The Old Farm House" in which the narrator remembers a happy childhood in his farm house home, but the structure is currently "bowed with decay"and its "stones like dead friends lie apart."

Erie Canal at Salina Street, Syracuse. In album prepared by Detroit Photographic Co. to use as a catalog in its office. [ca. 1900] Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

But there was also a triumphal tone that reflected Americans' faith in progress in many of the song lyrics of the time. One example of this attitude can be found in the song "Riding on a Rail" by Charles Converse. The song not only celebrates the speed of the train as it is "Singing through the forests"and "Shooting under arches,"but it also imagines the train as promoting democracy by leveling the social scale:

Men of Different Stations
In the eye of fame,
Here are very quickly
Coming to the same;
High and lowly people,
Birds of every Feather,
On a common level,
A travelling together

Construction train of the Union Pacific in the early 1860s. Union Pacific Railroad Company. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-123536

The rapid technological change and shifting business organization in the last third of the 19th century led to the growth of large corporations serving national and international markets and rapid industrialization. The process involved intense struggles between managers and their workforces that, in cases like the strike at Carnegie Steel's Homestead Steel Works in the summer of 1892, escalated to open warfare. Sentiments on these issues were registered in a number of popular songs. Songs like "Give the Working Man a Chance," "Money is Power," "The Anti-Monopoly War Song," "Equal Rights, Justice and Liberty, or Don't Abuse Your Power," "Eight Hour Strike," expressed many of the goals and frustrations of labor in the late 19th century. Views less sympathetic to labor can be seen in the satirical "Go Join Coxey's Army," a song targeting Jacob Coxey's popular march to Washington in protest of unemployment during the economic depression in the 1890's.

The labor troubles at Homestead, Pa. - Attack of the strikers and their sympathizers on the surrendered Pinkerton men. Illus. in: Frank Leslie's illustrated weekly, July 14, 1892, p. 41. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-75205. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In contrast to labor songs critical of the inequalities produced by the industrial economy, many popular recordings made in the early 20th century celebrated the technological advances on which the economy was increasingly based. Works relating to the telephone had been published at least since 1877 when E. H. Harding published "The Telephone Polka." Songs about the device remained popular on the recordings in the early decades of the 20th century. Victor Records counted among its releases "Hello Frisco! (I called you up to say 'Hello!' ," "Whenever You're Lonesome (Just Telephone Me),"and "Hello Central give Me Heaven." Advances in aviation were covered in "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine."

Problems with new technology also made their mark on songwriting, although they were often treated as comedy. Hazards of commuting from the suburbs, which had seen dramatic growth in the decades following the Civil War, figure in "On the 5:15." The song tells the story of a man who ends up in divorce court after repeatedly missing the train to and from work and escaping to a bar. The dangers and enticements of the city figure prominently in the top selling tune "The Bowery" in which a young man is led astray after "one of the devil's own nights"in the district and vows never to return. Although such songs as "In My Merry Oldsmobile"and "The Little Ford Rambled Right Along" tended to praise the automobile, "He'd Have to Get under, Get Out and Get Under" chronicles a man's desperate attempt to take his date on a pleasant drive with a car that repeatedly breaks down causing him to get out and get under to repair it.

Americans continued to be divided in their response to the modern economy and its effects on traditional, rural values. The 1920 census revealed that for the first time more Americans lived in urban areas than in rural areas. The economy was increasingly geared to selling goods to a mass consumer market. In that decade, too, Joe Hill, labor activist and member of the International Workers of the World, wrote a number of labor songs that were widely circulated. Hill himself was memorialized in songs recorded by Paul Robeson, and members of the folk revival, Pete Seeger, Joe Glazer and Phil Ochs and others. Other labor leaders like labor organizer and activist, Mother Jones, were eulogized in the folk tradition as can be seen in "Sprinkle Coal Dust on my Grave" performed by Orville Jenks. Coal mining could also be the subject of commercially recorded popular music. For example the Merle Travis song "Dark as a Dungeon," which was later covered by Johnny Cash on the album "At Folsom Prison," describes an Appalachian mine as "dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew/ Where the danger is double and pleasures are few."

"In my automobile." Words by James R. Homer, words by Rennie Cormack. New York: George M. Krey Co., 1906.

Many other popular songs of the post-World War II period, however, continued to pay tribute to the products of the industrial economy. Standard reference sources list over eighty-five separate songs about the Cadillac alone. The Beach Boys had three hits about hotrods: "Shut Down," "409,"and "Little Deuce Coup." To be sure, some songs like Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" and the teen tragedies "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las and "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning detailed car accidents, but these were far outweighed by songs depicting America's love affair with its principal means of transport.

Work and the emergence of industrialism in the United States played an important role in the nation's musical memory. Song has been used while working such as hoeing songs, track lining songs and shanties. In addition songs have used the work and the workplace as a topic such as coal mining songs which provided important repertoire for protests and union activities. Finally, there have been a huge number of songs inspired by the growing prosperity that industrialization brought and such byproducts of industry as trains, ships, and automobiles.


Songs of Unionization, Labor Strikes, and Child Labor 
Traditional Work Songs

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Songs of Social Change

Playlist for Social change

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections explore a nation's desire to overcome a range of social issues.

Americans from the colonial period to the present day have often practiced their right to freedom of speech through song. American songs have called attention to social causes, both criticized and advocated governmental social policies, and provided a means of personal complaint on social issues. Songs are easily carried, demand attention, convey emotion, and can be performed in many contexts, with or without instrumentation, so they are a useful tool for the furtherance of causes. The message they carry can be direct or veiled, so giving power to people whose power may be socially restricted.

Tradition holds that the song "Yankee Doodle" originated with a British insult taunting the colonial Americans for their country ways and dress. During the Revolutionary War the British were reported to have played it as a way of showing contempt for the Americans, while Americans turned this insult into a badge of honor. Many new versions of "Yankee Doodle" emerged in the early days of the republic, from patriotic anthems to political campaign songs. See more information and a list of online recordings and sheet music of and related to "Yankee Doodle."

The United States's democratic system of government creates the need for frequent elections, and frequent opportunities for songs to be used to represent various points of view, both political and social -- not only to put forward particular candidates, but also to air the views of the people.

See more on politics and presidential campaigns

Pete Seeger sings at the opening of the Washington Labor Canteen, Washington D.C., an event sponsored by the United Federal Labor Canteen, the United Federal Workers of America, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), February 14, 1944. The canteen was integrated in defiance of the segregation laws of the District at that time. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is in the audience, seated between two sailors. Photo by Joseph A. Horne. Prints and Photographs LC-USW3- 040956-D.

Full rights to vote, serve in office, and to hold and inherit property was generally limited to white males in the colonial period and the early formation of the union. There was a great divide between the social status of poorer citizens versus wealthier land holders as well. Even when the law granted rights to land ownership to groups such as indigenous peoples or Hispanic settlers in the West, these agreements were often disputed or cast aside as pioneers moved westward. So efforts of many groups to acquire equal rights under the law has been an ongoing process from the formation of the United States until the present day. Protections for working Americans and national standards for working hours and a minimum wage led to social conflict and change, especially during the mid- to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Groups seeking civil rights and the protection of working people have frequently used song as a way of building solidarity, conveying their message, and taking their grievances and goals from the streets to the halls of government.

For more information on different periods of social change and social  causes in United States history (illustrated with examples of songs),  see the articles below:

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War and Conflict

Playlist for War and Conflict

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections describe the business of conflict in a human way.

War has played no small part in the history of American song. Some of the nation's oldest folk and pop songs celebrate important victories, the experiences of soldiers and sailors, or the loss of loved ones.

The songs sung by soldiers themselves do not always deal directly with war. Often, they are popular or folk songs of the day that struck a chord with them, sounded good on a march, and encouraged participation. "The Girl I Left Behind Me" was sung by both sides during the War of 1812, and possibly the American Revolution, and remained popular with soldiers through at least the First World War, and is still sung today in other settings. The melody works well as a march or a dance tune, and is in the repertoire of many traditional musicians, such as the Virginia fiddler Henry Reed.

"Yankee Doodle" is easily the best known song that survives from the Revolution. It originated among British troops in the colonies in the mid-18th century before becoming closely identified with the cause of independence. For years before the American Revolution, it was common to set revolutionary lyrics to well known British melodies, and "Yankee Doodle" eventually acquired many verses that celebrated Americans and mocked the British. It was common practice to set new lyrics to familiar melodies in those days, and "The British Grenadiers," an early 18th century song that celebrates the deeds of British soldiers, underwent a similar transformation in the 1770s, when Dr. Joseph Warren, a Minuteman, set the words of his poem "Free America," to the tune of "British Grenadiers."

The Star Spangled Banner ca. 1815

"The star spangled banner." Lyrics by Francis Scott Key, Music by John Stafford Smith. Philadelphia: A. Bacon and Co., [ca. 1815].

"The Star Spangled Banner," our national anthem, is easily the most enduring song from the War of 1812, but not the only one. "Jackson's Victory," also known as "The 8th of January," was a rousing fiddle tune composed in honor of the Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans. This tune remains a favorite with traditional fiddlers. In 1936, James Morris, later known as Jimmy Driftwood, used it as the melody for his song "The Battle of New Orleans." His original intent was to entertain and educate high school students, but in 1959, his song became a number one hit for Johnny Horton. "Hunters of Kentucky, or Half Horse and Half Alligator," a song from the War of 1812 that is much less well known than any of the above, may give us more of the flavor of the popular songwriting of the time.

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, distinctive American musical styles had emerged, and a burgeoning music publishing business was busily serving consumers with sheet music. The songs of the Civil War are many and varied, and some are still quite well known today. Daniel Emmett published "Dixie" in 1859, and in its original form was not a war song, though Confederate soldiers often sang that they would "live and die 'for' Dixie," rather than 'in' "Dixie." "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" from 1862 remains a popular patriotic song today. Author Julia Ward Howe set her words to the melody of "John Brown's Body, "a well known abolitionist song from just before the war. Several other songs of the Civil War remained popular well into the 20th century, such as "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and "Marching Through Georgia." Most popular of all, though, was Henry Bishop and John Howard Payne's "Home, Sweet Home," written nearly forty years before the war and widely known throughout the North and South. Long after the war, Civil War songs were still being sung. In 1938, Sidney Roberston Cowell recorded "The Battle of Antietam Creek" from Warde H. Ford of Central Valley, California for the Library of Congress. The song tells of two brothers fighting on opposite sides of the war.

The brief Spanish-American War inspired only a few songs. "The Battle of Santiago" commemorated the decisive battle in Cuba in the summer of 1898. The most popular song among American soldiers is said to have been "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," a major hit on sheet music just before the war. Recording pioneer Dan W. Quinn sang this version in 1897.

"Over there." Music and lyrics by George M. Cohan. London: Herman Darewski Music Publishing Co., 1917.

American songs of World War I are many and varied. The United States was neutral for the first 2 ½ years of the war, and many songs reflect American ambivalence towards it and opposition to entering it. The recording industry was serving the country's many immigrant groups by this time, some of whose members supported the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and songs reflecting a wide range of opinion were recorded in different languages. "Over There" is the best remembered American song of the war, and was revived during World War II. "It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary," a song from England with no overt war content but which expressed a longing for home, was sung by English speaking soldiers throughout the war, and remains well known. Read more about the songs of World War I.

As in World War I, the United States remained officially neutral for more than two years after war broke out in Europe in 1939, though it provided material support to the Allies during this period. This time, there were fewer published musical expressions of ambivalence about the war, or support for the Axis powers. It is worth noting that in its first published form, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" began with the words,"While the storm clouds gather across the sea …" a reference to the worsening political situation in Europe. This verse, which is rarely, if ever, sung today, and tells listeners to appreciate the freedom of the United States. In this form, the song was occasionally sung by isolationists who opposed American entry into the war. After the U.S. entered the war in 1941, the verse was usually omitted, and the song took on its more familiar form.

World War II inspired American songs in every style, and many were national hits. The most popular songs tended to be comic, like Spike Jones' "Der Fuhrer's Face," or sentimental, like Dinah Shore's "I'll Walk Alone." Glenn Miller and other bandleaders played familiar marches such as "The American Patrol" in jazzy swing arrangements. "The Martins and the Coys" was a hit of the 1930s about an imaginary country feud based on the real-life Canfield and McCoy clans. Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, a young Pete Seeger re-imagined the song, and had the two families forgetting their differences to fight the Axis. "When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World" was a major hit in 1943. The image was both poetic and pragmatic: when people no longer had to endure wartime black outs, it would be a sign that peace had come.

The Korean War was viewed with ambivalence by many Americans. There were few comic songs. Many dealt with the feelings of soldiers so far from their homes. Some hailed General Douglas MacArthur in the wake of his dismissal by President Truman. The war inspired many anti-communist songs, as well as songs that dealt with nuclear weapons.

The lengthy Vietnam War inspired many songs that either supported it or protested against it. Barry McGuire's hit "Eve of Destruction" contemplated nuclear annihilation as one outcome of the war. Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" was an even bigger hit. Sadler co-wrote the song while serving in Vietnam. Many other soldiers wrote about their experiences. "Da Nang Lullaby" is one soldier's account of "Operation Rolling Thunder," the beginning of direct combat between the United States and North Vietnam. "Jolly Green" deals with helicopter warfare. In "Tcepone," a young bomber pilot describes a mission in Laos that went awry. These soldiers wrote and sang mainly for other soldiers, and none had the success that Sadler did, but their compositions are a vital legacy of the war.


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Songs of Politics and Political Campaigns

Playlist for Politics and Political Campaigns

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections explore patriotism and other political issues.

  • National airs of all nations

    The Victor Mixed Chorus performs a medley of national songs from different countries including "Rule Britannia," "The Marseillaise" and "The Star Spangled Banner."

  • The Yankee Doodle Boy

    Billy Murray performs an unusual take on a famous patriotic song.

  • Any place the old flag lies

    Vocalist Billy Murray performs a patriotic song which riffs on "The Star Spangled Banner," and "Yankee Doodle."

  • The candidate's a dodger

    A muck-raking ballad sung by Emma Dusenbury relating to the presidential campaign of 1884 when Grover Cleveland ran against James Blaine.

  • In Washington

    Billy Murray sings a satirical song by Gertrude Hoffman and Vincent Bryan about the challenges of living in the nation's capital.

Elections provide opportunities for advocates of policies for social change and those favoring social stability to advocate their particular cause. Campaign songs and songs of political parties can help to spread particular points of view and build solidarity around candidates and platforms.

"The Harrison Song," a campaign song for William Henry Harrison in 1840, is typical of many campaign songs, in that it both praises him as a "farmer," someone the voters can relate to, and as a great general in the War of 1812. "The Farmer of North Bend," takes the "everyman" image further, imagining Harrison, a farmer, knocking on the doors of the powerful in Washington, D.C. The most famous campaign song of this election was, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," by Irwin Silber. The title was also a Harrison campaign slogan, referring to the war experience of Harrison. As governor of Indiana Territory he won the Battle of Tippecanoe against the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. "Tyler" was Harrison's running mate, John Tyler.

The election of 1844 pitted two popular statesmen against one another, Henry Clay and James Polk. "As the Stream from the Mountain," extols the virtues of Clay as a truthful and honorable candidate. "Come All ye Whigs, So Gallant and True," provides the perspective of the opposing parties, with the Whigs accusing the Democrats of being "loco focos," or radicals. The election was close and turned on the question of annexing Texas to the United States, which Polk, the victor, favored.

Polk did not run again in 1848, but brought the war with Mexico to its close. The Whigs nominated a veteran of that war, Zachary Taylor, nicknamed "Old Rough and Ready." "The People's Choice," extols Taylor's achievements in The Mexican War.

Vote For the Right Man, by Emma A. Parker and Harry Jay, 1920. Select the link to view the sheet music.

Immigration to the United States from Europe swelled in the mid-1800s. "Few Days" (based on a popular song of the day) is a song from the Know Nothing Party, also called the Native American Party, of the 1850s, that wished to stop or greatly reduce immigration in order to favor native-born European Americans. The song expresses fear of "alien rule" that is an imagined consequence of this wave of immigration. "Thoughts for Americans," is a reply to the Know Nothings, favoring immigration as part of an American ideal.

The election of 1856 pitted Democrat James Buchanan against Republican John C. Frémont and former President Millard Fillmore representing the Know Nothing Party. "A National Song" praises Buchanan as a great hero and protector of the people. "Here's a Health to Freemont or Hurrah, for Freemont the Brave" [sic, Frémont] toasts Frémont as a defender of freedom of speech and writing, but perhaps also referencing his stand against the expansion of slavery. A German American song, "Freiheitslied der Deutschen republikaner," more explicitly praises Frémont's record on the slavery issue, as German Americans were generally opposed to slavery.

The election of 1864 pitted the incumbant Abraham Lincoln against George B. McClellan. John C. Frémont also briefly ran in this campaign, but later withdrew and supported the re-election of Lincoln. Songs in support of McClellan such as, "The Head of the Nation McClellan Shall Be," glorifed his military experience, while campaigning for a speedy end to the Civil War. Songs in support of Lincoln, such as "Abraham the Great and General Grant His Mate," which included the refrain "Freedom in the South is plainly dawning," anticipated a Northern victory in the Civil War and capitalized on the popularity of General Grant, partly to court the votes of soldiers. (Lincoln's running mate was Andrew Johnson, so this song makes a connection with Grant unrelated to the party ticket.) Songs such as "Abraham's Tea Party," "Abraham" Our Abraham!" and "Campaign Song for President Lincoln," combined support for the war effort with the re-election of Lincoln.

Andrew Johnson, who became president after the assassination of President Lincoln, inherited a nation shattered by war. His policies were not popular, the Republican Party repudiated him, and the House of Representatives impeached him. Though the Senate acquitted him, the confidence of the people was lost. The song "Ye Tailor Man," by E.W. Foster, celebrates the 1868 election when the "tailor," Johnson, would be removed from office. It also looks forward to better policies towards the "freedmen," former slaves.

The campaign songs for Ulysses S. Grant's second term, "Grant Boys of 72," "Shout Then for Liberty and Union," "Grant's Our Banner Man," and the "Grant Campaign Song," all evoke sentiments of the Union victory and the ongoing job of creating a peaceful and united nation.

Grant's administration of office was marred by government corruption scandals and the problems of the post-war Reconstruction, which all the candidates in 1872 pledged to address. The Samuel Tilden campaign song, "National Reform," is based on the candidate's reputation for fighting government corruption as governor of New York. The Rutherford B. Hayes campaign song, "Humbug Reform," describes the Tilden's call for national reform as a comical farce, with the added caution that disaster might follow a Democratic victory. Tilden won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote in a highly contested election. The dilemma for voters caused by the 1876 campaign is summed up in a comic song that is easy to relate to in the present day. A satyrical song about the election, "Who Shall Be the Man?" includes Peter Cooper of the newly formed Greenback Party along with the Republican and Democratic candidates and the stir caused by the close election.

In the nineteenth century, an ongoing national debate on economic policies framed several elections. Songs were used to promote ideas of "bimetalism," silver and gold together as the basis of United States currency, or the "gold standard," using gold alone. Arguments concerned whether the inflation caused by basing currency on silver would be good for the economy or would cause instability. To promote these different economic views, songs presented slogans and arguments for one standard or the other, framing them in concepts that voters could understand. During the presidential campaign of 1896, for example, "Dad's Old Silver Dollar Is Good Enough for Me," promoted silver and the bimetalist position of candidate William Jennings Bryan; while "Upon a Cross of Gold," another song in support of Bryan, turned to song a quote from his speech predicting that the gold standard would be a "cross of gold." "The Farmer's Dream," a song in support of candidate William McKinley, predicted that inflation caused by a standard including silver would be disastrous for average American workers as represented by the farmer.

"Triplicity, or the Donkey, Moose, or Elephant," by L. Mae Felker and H. S. Gilette. A song for the presidential campaign for Theodore Roosevelt, 1912.

Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine fought a close political battle for the presidency in 1884. The song "His Name is James G. Blaine" depicted Blaine as the more experinced candidate. Cleveland ran a campaign against corruption in government. Blaine had been accused of financial corruption, and during the campaign evidence suggesting that he had tried to cover up some of his financial dealings surfaced, leading to his defeat. "The Candidate's a Dodger," as performed by Emma Dusenbury, is a song that began its life as an accusation of Blaine's corruption.[1] It probably survives because the lyrics have been adapted to become a general song about human foibles. The versions that we know today probably trace back to two ethnographic field recordings of Emma Dusenbury singing the song. Another campaign song designed to humiliate Blaine is found in the song "Mary Blaine."

In 1912 an unusual four-way race for president developed, pitting the incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft, against Democrat Woodrow Wilson, former President Theodore Roosevelt for the Progressive Party, and Socialist Eugene V. Debs. As often is true for incumbent presidents, a campaign song for Taft, "President Taft, He's All Right," extolled his deeds in office. Disappointed at not being able to challenge Taft as the Republican candidate, Roosevelt ran as a Progressive, with goals of social advancement such as those found in the song "Triplicity, or the Donkey, Moose, or Elephant," and "The Song of Armageddon," which explains a perceived failure of the Republican and Democratic parties. In spite of the vote being split four ways, Wilson won by a large margin.

As the incumbent in the 1916 presidential race, Woodrow Wilson campaigned on his record of keeping the United States out of World War I. A carefully mixed message is apparent in the song, "Stonewall Wilson." The sheet music cover shows Wilson mounted and in uniform, ready to fight, but the song praises his strength in keeping the United States at peace.

A number of attempts have been made to form a labor party in the United States. In 1866 the National Labor Union formed as a coalition of labor unions and social reformists that ran candidates in national elections until 1872. In 1919 local parties in Minnesota, Chicago, and Connecticut united to form the Labor Party of the United States (also known as the Farmer-Labor Party). "I'll Never Vote like Daddy Anymore," published in 1920 is a song promoting this new party. This party only survived for six years.

Even without a labor party, the goal of promoting candidates who would favor the interests of working Americans continued to be a goal of labor unions in many elections through the present day. In Franklin D. Roosevelt's first campaign for president, he pledged to work to improve labor conditions. His campaign was supported by union dollars, and he established a working relationship with John L. Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He introduced legislation that supported the formation of unions. George Jones, a veteran of union battles prior to Roosevelt's election, sings a song praising the accomplishments of Lewis and Roosevelt in "This is What the Union Done."


  1. The song "The Candidate's a Dodger" lives on in many versions in addition to Vance Randolph's field recording of it performed by Emma Dusenbury in 1936. Another version, sung by Myra Pipkin in 1941, was recorded by Robert Sonkin and Charles L. Todd. She gives the title as "Corn Dodgers." An arrangement by composer Aaron Copeland published in 1950, and titled "The Dodger," performed by Thomas Hampson in 2010, is also available as a video in this presentation. The Emma Dusenbury version was probably Copeland's source for the song. Pete, Peggy, and Mike Seeger also performed “The Candidate’s a Dodger” at their concert at Library of Congress in 2007 (available as an excerpt from the full concert webcast), and credited Emma Dusenbury as their source. . [back to article]
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Songs of Sports and Leisure

Playlist for Sports and Leisure

Five recordings from Library of Congress collections illustrate some of the ways in which people liked to spend their time outside of work hours.

  • Hannibal Hope and the circus parade

    A jovial song performed by baritone Arthur Collins about awe-inspiring attractions under the big top.

  • Cross-word puzzle blues

    The Duncan Sisters sing a humorous song accompanied by piano about the American public's craze for crossword puzzles and the frustrations of trying to complete all the boxes.

  • On the Old Dominion line

    The Peerless Quartet sings a song about the pleasures of riding a steam ship under the stars.

  • Fascinating base-ball slide

    Elsie Janis sings a song of her own composition about an ardent baseball fan.

  • Whistle while you walk

    Billy Murray sings about the delights of taking a stroll with one's sweetheart accompanied by the sweet trill of birdsong.

American popular song emerged in the same era that American leisure culture began to develop, and sports such as baseball and football began to take on their present, distinctly American forms. As transportation improved, professional entertainers and traveling shows and circuses became regular visitors throughout the country. Transportation itself also became a form of recreation.

In many cases, the songs themselves directed the activity. In 1915, Conway's Band recorded a medley of children's game songs, many quite old and some some still familiar nearly a hundred years later. Adults had their own musical games in the form of dances that included musical commands from callers and singers that forced them to change direction or partners.
In "Uncle Steve's Quadrille" from 1923, the popular tenor Billy Murray fronts the Victor Band, giving the calls for a familiar social and musical ritual from generation or two earlier.

P.T. Barnum's greatest show on earth, and great London circus, Sanger's Royal British menagerie & grand international allied shows. Strobridge & Co. Lith., Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-915. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

European circuses reached America shortly after the American Revolution., but were made distinctly American by P.T. Barnum in the middle and late 19th century. The annual visits of touring circuses were eagerly awaited throughout the country, and made good fodder for songs and musical sketches such as "The Passing of a Circus Parade" and "A Trip to the Circus," both by Len Spencer & Gilbert Girard; Arthur Collins' "Hannibal Hope and the Circus Parade"; and the American Quartet's "Circus in Dixie." Though it is familiar today and still strongly associated with the circus, Julius Fučík's 1897 composition "Entrance of the Gladiators" was still relatively new when Arthur Pryor recorded it in 1904.

Collins and Harlan's "At that Wooly Bully Wild West Show," possibly inspired by the touring shows of Buffalo Bill and others, recreates another travelling attraction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Roller skating was introduced to United States after the Civil War and quickly spread throughout the country. "Rosie and Rudolph at the Skating Rink," a sketch with dialogue, songs and sound effects by Ada Jones and Len Spencer, paints a scene of two very broadly caricatured German immigrants flirting with each other. Similarly, Collins and Harlan's "Come Take a Skate With Me" portrays skating as the new preferred mode of courtship for the young.

Baseball's popularity grew quickly in the second half of the 19th century as professional teams and leagues were formed. In 1908, songwriters Jack Norworth and Harry Van Tilzer responded to the ever growing craze with a song still sung today: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," a song that tells the story of a baseball mad young woman who only wants her boyfriend to take her one place. Elsie Janis' "Fascinating Base-Ball Slide" told a similar story. Arthur Collins "That Baseball Rag" from 1913 is a humorous account of a game, though the gambling references eerily foreshadow the "Black Sox" scandal of a few years later.

"Take me out to the ball game." Words by Jack Norworth, music by Albert Von Tilzer. New York: The New York Music Co., 1908

The growing popularity of movies was more grist for the songwriters' mill. The Peerless Quartet sang "Since Mother Goes to the Movie Shows," and in "Take Your Girlie to the Movies," Billy Murray offered the local movie theater as a good place for young couples to get away from prying eyes.

The sleigh ride party is a classic image of 19th century America, and was a favorite winter pastime in many areas. When the Haydn Quartet recorded "Sleigh Ride Party" in 1901 and again in 1904, the automobile was not yet a fixture of the roads, though by 1913, when the Peerless Quartet recorded "On a Good Old-Time Sleigh Ride", there seems to have already been nostalgia for car-free days.

Drinking songs and songs about drink have a long history in the United States. "The Star Spangled Banner" uses the melody of John Stafford Smith's English drinking song "To Anacreon in Heaven." Homegrown drinking songs came later, though many celebrated old world drinks, such as "With Wine on the Rhine!" and "Down Deep Within the Cellar." When Billy Murray sang "Budweiser's a Friend of Mine," however, he was probably referring to the American brew, and not the old Czech beer that it was named for.

Trains and cars brought the seaside closer to millions of Americans, as Billy Murray and the Haydn Quartet make clear in "Come Take a Swim in My Ocean." The Haydn Quartet also sang of "Sailing," while the American Quartet issued the invitation "Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay" in 1912. In Walter Van Brunt's "Subway Glide," the train ride itself provides all of the entertainment.

Though it would be decades before most Americans got to ride in a plane, the recreational possibilities were apparent by 1909, when the Haydn Quartet sang "Up in My Aeroplane." The next year, Blanche Ring sang of the lad who told his girlfriend "Come Josephine, In My Flying Machine." In 1912, The Peerless Quartet invited riders to do "That Aeroplane Glide."

"Automobiling." Words and music by Walter Coleman Parker. New York: Parker Music Co., 1905.

The automobile was a frequent subject of songs from the early 20th century on. It was not until later, though, that recreational driving and hot rodding became a frequent subject of songs. In late 1950, Arkie Shibley's "Hot Rod Race," which spawned many cover versions and imitations, told of an impromptu race between two hopped-up cars. The song reflected an emerging nationwide car culture, as did Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" in early 1951. Both are considered to be among the first true rock and roll songs.

Surfing culture emerged around the same time in California, though it would be several years before music and songs that reflected it became popular. Dick Dale, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and many others created a soundtrack for surfing that helped bring the beach a little closer to the landlocked millions.

Virtually every sport or recreation has been the subject of a song at one time or another. Like the recording pioneers who sang of roller skating and circuses, the musical chroniclers of the hot rod and surfing scenes helped push music forward at the same time that they were adding to the historical record.

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