For most of the nineteenth century, before the advent of phonograph and radio technologies, Americans learned the latest songs from printed song sheets. These were new songs being sung in music halls or new lyrics to familiar songs, like "Yankee Doodle" or "The Last Rose of Summer." Not to be confused with sheet music, song sheets are single printed sheets, usually six by eight inches, with lyrics but no music. Song sheets are an early example of a mass medium and today they offer a unique perspective on the political, social, and economic life of the time, especially during the Civil War. The collection spans the period from the turn of the nineteenth century to the 1880s, although a majority of the song sheets were published during the height of the craze, from the 1850s to the 1870s.
Go directly to the collection, America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets, in American Memory
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The New Nation, 1780-1815
- Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- Civil War Maps
- Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865
- Music for the Nation, 1870-1885
- The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana
Recommended additional sources of information.
There are currently no other resources for this collection
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
The pieces collected in America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets reflect the attitudes of songwriters and their audiences. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, song sheets provided America with lyrics to new songs and popular standards performed in music halls and private homes. Songwriters often used these pieces to comment on contemporary issues and historic events. Topics in this collection include immigration, nativism, the Civil War, temperance, and women's rights. Please note: Many of these songs contain dialects, derogatory terms, and ethnic stereotypes that reveal racial attitudes within nineteenth-century American culture.
The Civil War
The popularity of song sheets reached its peak during the second half of the nineteenth century and a large portion of this collection relates to the Civil War. Searches on terms such as Union, Confederate, and Lincoln, yield songs recruiting and rallying troops on both sides of the battlefield. "Hurrah for the Union" announces, "Our ship's the Constitution, and good patriots at the helm / Will bring us into action, and our foes we'll overwhelm" while "Hurrah for the South! Hurrah" declares, "The genius of old Liberty . . . has cast / The tyrant's might away."
Confederate songs such as "Old Mr. Lincoln" and "The Retreat of the Grand Army from Bull Run" chronicle victories over the Union army and President Lincoln's dismay with choruses such as "Poor old Abe Lincoln! / Your power over the South / Indeed is played out!" Other songs such as "The Old Union Wagon" profess faith in the Union and encourage the nation to "Stick to the . . . Old Union Wagon, / The triumphant wagon, Abe Lincoln's bound to ride."
- What types of imagery appear in these songs?
- How did Union and Confederate songwriters portray their positions in terms of liberty, constitutionality, treason, and tyranny?
- How did both sides describe the attitudes and actions of their opposition?
- Do you believe that these were accurate portrayals? Why or why not?
- Do you think that these songs were helpful in rallying either troops or volunteers? Why or why not?
- How is Abraham Lincoln described in both Union and Confederate songs?
- Why do you think that Lincoln and his policies were an important topic in many songs?
A search on the term, battle, produces songs detailing specific conflicts. Battlefield victories are represented from very different perspectives in the Union song, "Battle of Bull Run" and the Confederate piece, "Battle of Belmont".
Likewise the Twenty Seventh their foes they did not shun,
But the glorious Sixty Ninth was the terror of Bull Run . . . .
The field of fame we did maintain against an enemy,
Conceal'd in woods and ambuskades and their masked batteries
Till Johnson with his forces and the black Cavalry
Turned our scale of battle or we'd gain the victory.
From "Battle of Bull Run."
They captured Watson's Battey and thought the Battle o'er
When the 11th Louisiana came from old Kentucky's shore
Twas there we took them by the flank and poured a deadly fire,
And when we gave a dozen rounds, we forced them to retire . . . .
So Abe you'd better simmer down, and lay aside your plans,
For Southern boys can ne'er be whipped as Yankees steal their land.
From "The Battle of Belmont."
A search on terms such as soldier, wounded, and home, produce songs describing the tragedy of war from the perspective of soldiers. For example, "Soldier's Dream" describes the morbid calm that arises in the wake of a battle: "Our bugles sang truce--for the night-cloud had lower'd / And the sentinel stars set their watch in the sky, / And thousands had sunk on the ground overpower'd / The weary to sleep, and the wounded to die." Meanwhile, "Let Me Die at Home," commemorates the death of Charles Wendell but portrays he story of many soldiers who died on the battlefield:
Soon now I'll pass death's stormy tide,
Most calmly now I swoon;
Now fallen in my country's cause,
I'll rise ot heaven my home.
My last battle I have fought,
With me the storm is o'er
Farewell, dear mother and my friends,
Charles Wendell is no more.
- How do these songs depict the horrors of war while portraying a sense of honor and nobility?
- How do accounts of battles differ in Union and Confederate songs?
- How do these songs compare to rallying songs such as "Hurrah for the Union" and "Battle of Bull Run"?
- What purposes might these songs have served for the war effort?
- How do you think that veterans or families of soldiers might have responded to the songs written from a soldier's perspective and to the songs detailing specific battles?
Nativism and The American Party
A wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s and 1850s sparked the nativist policies of the American Party. Also known as the "Know Nothings," for their staunch denial of participating in anti-immigrant activities and secret societies, the group rallied under the slogan, "Wide Awake." Searches on the terms wide awake and know nothing, produce songs such as "Wide Awake Jordan," which describes a victory over "the mickeys of New Orleans" and "Wide Awake Yankee Doodle," which offers a variation on the "Original Yankee Doodle."
Yankee Doodle keep it up,
Yankee Doodle Dandy
Mind the music and the step
And with the girls be handy
Chorus from "Original Yankee Doodle."
Yankee Doodle, Wide Awake,
Be silent you should never,
Until you drive the popish snake,
From off the soil, FOREVER
Chorus from "Wide Awake Yankee Doodle."
- How do these songs characterize the threat of immigration in America?
- Who is the American Party referring to with the phrases, "mickeys of New Orleans" and "popish snake"?
- Why do you think that the American Party targeted these immigrants?
- What do you think is the significance of writing a variation of "Original Yankee Doodle" to rally a nativist organization?
- Considering that these songs were most likely written by and for descendants of European immigrants, why do you think that the American Party rallied against new immigrants?
- What types of people do you think qualified as "Americans" to the American Party?
When the Republican Party formed in 1854, it absorbed many supporters of the American Party. The Know Nothings were no longer an independent political force but they still influenced the Republican agenda. The slavery issue was a point of contention for many people within the party. The song "Two Years Ago" characterizes the regret of a Know Nothing who did not believe that the South would secede from the Union:
"Oh, if then I had only dreamed, / The things that now I know, / I ne'er had been a Wide Awake / About two years ago. / I said the South would never dare / To strike a single blow; / I thought that they were cowards then, / About two years ago."
- Why do you think that the narrator of "Two Years Ago" regrets that he was a Wide Awake?
- How does the song describe the attitude of some Know Nothings towards the South?"
- Do you think that this song is historically accurate? Why or why not?
Temperance was an important social reform movement in nineteenth-century America. Laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol were established throughout New England and the Midwest in the 1850s. Courts repealed or struck down many of these laws but they marked a step toward the national prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century.
We were so happy--till father drank rum:
Then all our sorrows and troubles begun;
Mother grew paler, and wept every day;
Baby and I were too hungry to play--
Slowly they faded, and one summer's night
Found their sweet faces all silent and white--
And, with big tears slowly dropping, I said:
Father's a drunkard, and Mother is dead!
Some songs were more lighthearted in addressing the evils of alcohol. For example, "A Parody on 'Uncle Sam's Farm'" declares,
"The drunkard is so foolish that he will money waste, / On liquor, when there's water more pleasant to the taste; / The water is much cheaper, and much more healthy too, / And never makes a man a fool--which liquors often do."
Other pieces satirized the temperance movement as being hypocritical or irrelevant. "Pop Goes De Weasel" explains,
"De Temperance folks from Souf to Maine, / Against all liquor spout and strain, / But when dey feels an ugly pain" while "Go It While You're Young" celebrates the pleasures of alcohol: "The Temperance cause is up, liquor's bottle up and down, / For if you take too much, it flies right up into your crown; / Good liquor's a good thing, and plenty can be bought, / Drink when you feel dry, for certainly you ought to."
- How does the tone of the song differ with its perspective on the issue of temperance?
- How do these songs try to convince people to stop drinking?
- Which arguments do you think are most persuasive? Why?
- Why do you think that the story of a child might be effective in convincing someone not to drink?
- Who might be the audience of such a song?
- How do these pieces compare to contemporary social efforts to alter behaviors such as drinking, smoking, or using illegal drugs?
- How do songs that are critical of temperance describe the movement, alcohol, and moderation?
William Lloyd Garrison was extremely invested in the abolition movement but he also spent time campaigning for equal rights for women. His lyrics to "Human Equality" announce that women are equal to men in "all that makes a living soul."
Criticism of the women's rights movement, however, is represented in a variety of styles. "Eliza Jane" features puns on abolition and suffrage.
This is emancipation year, the woman movement's on;
Eliza plans to be a man, 'tis sad to think upon.
She thinks she needs the ballot now her freedom to enhance,
She wants to pose in papa's clothes; it is for this she pants.
Other pieces opposed to equal rights for women include an excerpt from Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," which is identified as "The Wife's Duty to Her Husband" and "The Husband's Commandments," which features the declaration, "Thou shalt not go to Women's-Right meetings, neither to speak thyself or to hear others speak."
- What types of arguments does William Lloyd Garrison present in support of equal rights for women?
- Do you think that Garrison makes an effective argument? Why or why not?
- How do Garrison's arguments compare to calls for abolishing slavery?
- What techniques does "Eliza Jane" use to critique the women's movement?
- What is the double-meaning of the song's phrase, "it is for this she pants"?
- What does the song imply will happen to women if they receive the right to vote?
- Do you think that these results are a valid reason to oppose women's rights?
- Who do you think are the intended audiences of these pieces?
- Why do you think that opponents to equal rights invoked works such as the Ten Commandments and Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew"?
Songs often provide a means to observe and celebrate important events in a nation's history. For example, a search on the phrase, Bunker Hill, produces accounts of the 1775 battle including two versions of the same song entitled, "Battle of Bunker Hill."
"'Tis fifty years since on these heights, / The British were repulsed, / By freedom's sons who swore their rights / Should never be insulted."
Meanwhile, the 1843 song, "Bunker-Hill Battle" announces,
"We shall not undertake in verse / To sketch the facts in full, / But merely some few deeds rehearse."
This song chronicles events leading up to the battle such as the Stamp Tax and conflicts with the British at Lexington and Concord.
May war's discordant, dismal notes
Assail our ear no more.
Propitious Heaven has now decreed,
That war and discord cease,
Down the sky,
To bring the news of Peace,
From "On Washington's Birthday (1815)."
Burst the fetters of oppression,
Let our land in truth be free,
And no longer Slavery's curse
Blast the land of Liberty.
On to victory! brothers, on!
Shout the name of Washington.
For additional examples, search on the names of specific historical events or figures.
- Why do you think that people celebrated these specific events and figures?
- What types of images appear in these songs to create excitement about the past?
- What is the prevalent attitude in the songs describing the Battle of Bunker Hill?
- What is transpiring in the nation in both 1815 and 1864?
- Why do you think that Washington was an important figure to invoke during these times?
- How do these songs use historic events to discuss contemporary issues?
- Is there a modern-day equivalent to song sheets that plays the same role in commemorating past events?
America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets provides a number of opportunities to develop historical thinking skills. A timeline can be created from some of the song sheets to assess presidential campaign tactics. Lyrics responding to Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation provide historical comprehension of the decision and its repercussions. Songs describing John Brown's raid on a fort in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and his subsequent execution can be used to interpret how Brown's attack related to the national debate over slavery. Minstrel songs and other pieces characterizing ethnic stereotypes can be used to discuss the racial attitudes of historical and contemporary culture.
Politicians in the late-nineteenth century often attempted to gain support by harkening back to the ideological conflicts that sparked the Civil War. Evidence of this tactic, known (for its divisive nature) as "waving the bloody shirt," is available with a search on the term, campaign.
Military analogies were particularly fitting for presidential candidates such as Democrat George McClellan and Republican Ulysses Grant since they played important roles in the Union army.
He led his noble army on Antietam's bloody field,
And he battled for the Union, to make the rebels yield,
'Til owld Abe, the rail-splitter, relieved him from command,
But we'll show him our devotion, and by him we will stand.
From the "McClellan Campaign Song " during the 1864 presidential election.
Throughout our great republic all the patriot hosts to-night,
Are girding on the armor for the battle of the right,
But the fight is at the ballot-box, not on the battle plain,
And we have named the leader who will win the fall campaign.
From the "Grant Campaign Song " during the 1868 election.
This practice ran through the Reconstruction era with pieces such as the 1876 "Republican Campaign Song," which declared,
"By the blood of "Our Soldiers" for liberty shed-- / By the widows and the orphans of our Patriotic dead-- / Our President shall never be a "slimy" copperhead,-- / Thirty million shout to-day for Hayes and Wheeler."
These and other pieces from the collection can be used to construct a timeline chronicling presidential elections and their campaign messages.
- How do these songs relate presidential elections to military campaigns?
- What do you think was the purpose of drawing this comparison?
- What other themes and images are prevalent throughout the timeline of presidential elections? Which themes and images appear only in certain campaigns?
- How do these songs compare to pieces that rallied Union troops during the Civil War such as " Hurrah for the Union"?
- How do you think that voters responded to these songs?
In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves in Confederate-controlled areas were free. He also called for black volunteers to enlist in the Union Army. The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaves living in border states, or parts of the Confederacy occupied by Union troops, but it did suggest that the abolition of slavery was a primary objective in the Civil War.
Public reaction to Lincoln's decree was split. The Confederate song, " Lines on the Proclamation Issued by the Tyrant Lincoln" declares,
"We have read the tyrant's order, / And the signet to the rule. / And thought the kingly jester meant / To make an April fool."
Meanwhile, songs such as " I Am Fighting for the Nigger" and "The Black Regiment" (published by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments) offer different opinions regarding the merits of black soldiers.
I calculate of niggers we soon shall have our fill,
With Abe's proclamation and the nigger army bill.
Who would not be a soldier for the Union to fight?
For, Abe's made the nigger the equal of the white....
Guard well the Constitution, the Government and laws:
To every act of Congress don't forget to give applause:
And, when you meet the Rebels, be sure, and drive 'em back:
No matter if you do enslave the white man, you liberate the black.
From "I Am Fighting for the Nigger."
"Freedom!" their battle-cry--
"Freedom! or leave to die!"
Ah! and they meant the word,
Not as with us ' tis heard,....
Scourges and shackles strong
Never shall do them wrong.
O, to the living few,
Soldiers, be just and true!
Hail them as comrades tried;
Fight with them side by side;
Never, in field or tent,
Scorn the black regiment!
From "The Black Regiment."
- Why do you think that Lincoln chose to free only those slaves held in areas that remained loyal to the Confederacy?
- Do you think that the Proclamation appeared to favor black soldiers at the expense of white members of the Union Army? Why or why not?
- Do you think that songs such as "I Am Fighting for the Nigger" reflected the sentiments of many white soldiers?
- What do you think were the political consequences of Lincoln's decree?
- Why do you think that songs such as " The Black Regiment" were published by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments? Do you think that they would have been effective in recruiting black soldiers or in combatting low morale in the Union Army?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on a federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, to acquire weapons and spark a slave rebellion. The United States Marines recaptured the arsenal before Brown's plan was carried out, but the raid and Brown's subsequent trial and execution marked one of the most controversial events in American history. A search on the phrase, John Brown, produces songs condemning and celebrating the abolitionist's actions.
"The Fright of Old Virginia" provides a sympathetic account of the raid and Brown's fate with the chorus, "Virginia is the state, you know, / That never feared a mortal foe; / But chivalry was rather low, / When Brown came to Old Virginia." " John Brown" echoes the sentiment by describing Brown as both a "hero, and a martyr" who "bled for the colored race . . . [and] longed to set them free."
On the other hand, songs such as "John Brown's Entrance Into Hell," imagines Brown's final destination celebrated by Satan.
"You'll take your seat at my left hand,
Why I do this you'll understand; Be not surprised, when I tell you,
Old Abraham is coming too....
John at my left, Abe at my right,
We'll give the heavenly hosts a fight....;
Abe's Cabinet, 'tis very true,
Will soon knock here as loud as you--
In short, the negroizing clan,
Are traveling here unto a man.
- What types of images do songs supporting John Brown use?
- What types of images do songs condemning John Brown use?
- Do you think that any of these songs provide an objective account of John Brown's actions?
- What are the specific targets of the songwriters' support or hatred?
- How do these songs comment on both John Brown and the general issue of slavery?
- Do you think that such songs might influence how John Brown is remembered in both the history books and in public memory?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision Making
Some of the songs in this collection contain dialects, derogatory terms, and ethnic stereotypes revealing prominent racial attitudes in nineteenth-century American culture. While these lyrics may be offensive by contemporary standards, they provide an opportunity to objectively investigate and discuss racial intolerance in both historic and contemporary culture. For example, a search on the term, nigger, yields hundreds of songs using the term in a variety of contexts. " Mary and Sambo" offers an ugly account of an interracial romance and the unwritten social rules of race relations. The budding romance of the title ends after the suitor is threatened by Mary's father.
I knew a white gal of sweet sixteen,
As near as I can figure,
Who slighted all her dashing beaux--
And fell in love with a nigger.
The blackest kind of a nigger,
A dreadful ugly nigger;
A sleepy, lazy, dirty, crazy,--
Cotton picking nigger.
First Verse of "Mary and Sambo."
He knelt at Mary's father's feet,
And said he would resign her,
That she could marry when she pleased,
And he would marry Dinah.
The prudent cautious nigger,
The compromising nigger,
The point he saw of social law.
That "nig" must marry nigger
Final Verse of "Mary and Sambo."
- How do these songs depict African Americans?
- What do you think that these types of songs imply about the racial and social hierarchy of nineteenth-century America?
- Who does the song blame for the interracial romance? Why?
- What does the song mean by "the point . . . of social law"?
- How do you think that a contemporary audience would respond to this song?
Meanwhile, minstrel songs such as " Pompey Moore," questions the notion of racial equality:
"You may talk and you may write, / You may work and you may fight, / But what good does eber arise? / You may paint and you may rub, / You may wash and you may scrub, / But a nigger is a nigger till he dies!" These types of minstrel songs were generally performed on a minstrel stage by white men donning makeup to appear as though they were black.
A search on dialectical phrases such as bobolition and mancipation, highlights other minstrel songs such as " Young Eph's Lament," in which the narrator questions his fate just prior to the Civil War:
Oh, where will I go if dis war breaks de country up, / And de dar-keys hab to scat-ter a-round, / Dis bob-o-li-tion, man-ci-pa-tion and se-ses-sion / Am a gwine to run de nig-ger in de ground!...
- How does the use of dialect in the minstrel shows reinforce racial stereotypes?
- What indication is there that dialects on the minstrel stage not only mimic the language of African Americans but are also used for satirical purposes?
- How do you think that the purpose of the dialect is influenced by its context, such as the presentation of a song by a white man donning blackface on a minstrel stage?
- How do you think that a modern audience might respond to such songs?
- Can you name some contemporary forms of expression or popular culture in which racial terms and depictions are acceptable?
- Why do you think that such forms of expression provide a context in which these sentiments are acceptable?
- How do people respond to these contemporary expressions?
- How do people often respond to older works such as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?
- Do you think that any of these materials are acceptable for a classroom discussion? If so, which ones?
- How do you determine the context and material in which such language is acceptable?
- How do you respond to materials that are deemed unacceptable?
Historical Research Capabilities
This collection contains a number of songs commemorating battles from the War of 1812. These song sheets can be used to research some of the specific conflicts during the era and examine how songwriters used victories and defeats to promote the war effort. For example, "
Old England Forty Years Ago" chronicles the military effort during the war and declares, "Our soldiers and our seamen too, / We've put in warlike motion, / Straight to the field our soldiers flew, / Our seamen to the ocean."
"The Constitution's glory! / Her crew so bold and brave! / Are fam'd in brilliant story! / Our rights defend and save."
Military losses often fueled the war effort as much as victories. For example, the " Battle of Queenstown" prefaces the song with a synopsis of the October 1812 conflict near Niagara Falls in which U.S. soldiers captured Queenstown but due to "the excessive fatigue of the troops, . . . and the great deficiency of ammunition, they were unable to resist [British forces] . . . . The battle continued 11 hours, during which the greatest bravery was displayed by our troops." The song then celebrates the effort of the the battle with the chorus, "Then let each bold warrior now gird on his shield, / And swear while he's breath that he never will yield."
- After reviewing the lyrics, who would you think were some of the most important military leaders of the War of 1812?
- Who do you think is the intended audience of these songs?
- How do these songs use defeats to rally support for the war?
- How do these songs compare to the Civil War songs in this collection that describe military battles and leaders?
Many song sheets in America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets illustrate a number of poetic devices and provide an opportunity to examine how these techniques convey certain ideas. Topics available for discussion include the treatment of familiar themes such as patriotism, love, and war, as well as the relationship between parody and satire. Additionally, works by songwriters such as Stephen Foster can be used to discuss common themes and styles that appear throughout an artist's work. Many of the lyrics also lend themselves to both interpretation and imitation, thereby allowing for a number of creative writing exercises.
A search on the term, parody, produces parodies of songs on a number of topics, including food ("The Last Potato"), the Civil War ("Parody on When This Cruel War is Over"), temperance ("Parody on Uncle Sam's Farm"), and westward expansion ("Parody on To The West"). In most cases, the parodies can be directly compared to the songs on which they are based.
To the west! to the west! to the land of the free,
Where the mighty Missouria rolls down to the sea,
Where a man is a man if he is willing to toil,
And the humblest may gather the fruits of the soil,
Where children are blessings, and he who hath most
Has aid to his fortune, and riches to boast;
Where the young may exult, and the aged may rest,
Away, far away, to the land of the west.
From "To the West."
To the west! to the west, I once went, do you see,
And one visit, I'm sure, was sufficient for me;
Oh, the things that I saw there, they frightened me quite,
And ever since then, sirs, I've scarcely been right.
My children got sick every day, sirs, almost,
And my wife took the chills, and got deaf as a post;
Oh, there's some may exult, but for me, sirs, I'm bless'd
If I haven't as much as I want of the west!
From "Parody on To The West."
- How do these parodies use the rhyme schemes, imagery, and ideas of the original works?
- What is the effect of this mimicry?
- How does a parody differ from the original work?
- What is the purpose of a parody? What are the values and ideas conveyed in a parody?
- Do you think that these parodies are effective?
- Do you think that it is mportant to have access to the original song in order to understand the goal of a parody?
- Select a popular contemporary song and write a parody.
A search on terms such as slavery, abolition, temperance, and women's rights, produce works that seriously argue for these causes as well as others that satirize them. For example, the New York Tribune's "Bourbon Ballads" claim to be a series of poems written from "what is assumed to be the Democratic point of view, but members of that party will perhaps hesitate to adopt the utterances as their own."
Alas! good times are bound to be my ruin!
That people are so prosperous is strange;
If crops were poor and there was nothing doin',
They might elect me in the hope of change.
Hard times are over. Discontent is ended.
It breaks the heart and blights the hope within me
To see Resumption triumph, harvests splendid,
And Providence undoubtedly agin me!
From "Providence Appears to be Agin Me," as Sung by One of the Confederate Democracy's Candidates for Office.
- What elements of the Confederacy do these songs focus on for humor?
- Do you think that the fact that these works appeared in the New York Tribune gives them credibility as satire?
- How does such satire compare to song parody such as "Parody on To The West"?
- What types of information do you need to have regarding the Confederacy to appreciate the satire?
- How do you think that this historical context affects how well a parody or satire holds up over time?
- Do you think that a culture's notion of humor changes over time?
Stephen Foster was a prolific songwriter who dramatically influenced American popular music. Before dying from alcoholism at the age of thirty-seven, he composed over 200 songs, including "Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home," and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair." Browse the Contributor Index for Stephen Foster to find songs such as "Hard Times Come Again No More," "Bring My Brother Back to Me," and the minstrel song "Camptown Racers." Additional Stephen Foster songs are available in the American Memory collection, Music for the Nation.
Camptown ladies, sing dis song,
Du da, du da.
Camptown race track five miles long,
Du da, du da da.
Go down dar wid my hat caved in,
Du da, du da.
Come back home wid pocket full ob tin,
Du da, du da da.
From "Camptown Racers."
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door,
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say,
Oh! Hard times come again no more.
Tis the song and the sigh of the weary,
Hard times come again no more,
From "Hard Times Come Again No More."
- What types of themes and feelings does Foster address in his work?
- How does Foster use rhyme schemes, dialect, and images to convey a specific theme?
- What role do the narrators play in Foster's work?
- How does alliteration such as "frail forms fainting" contribute to the song, "Hard Times Come Again No More"?
- What other types of stylistic decisions appear throughout Foster's work?
- Why might Foster might have been such a popular and influential songwriter?
Lyrics and Poetry
The song sheets in this collection contain a number of lyrics that employ poetic devices to explore various themes. Searches on terms such as love and war, result in songs featuring different styles and images.
Yes, I love thee, and how dearly,
Words but faintly can express,
This fond heart beats too sincerely
E'er in life to love thee less.
No! my fancy never ranges,
Hopes like mine can never soar;
If the love I cherish changes,
'Twill but be to love thee more,
From "I Love Thee."
Dead upon the field of battle,
Husbands, sons and brothers lie;
Friends are waiting--wives and mothers,
Looking for them by and by.
Far away from home forever,
Many a noble boy lies slain;
Look not for thy child, fond mother,
Thou shalt see him not again.
From "Yes, I Would the War Were Over."
Other songs such as "The Lake-Side Shore" describe the nature of song itself:
"Now the night-bird's song comes floating / Sweetly down the midnight air, / Waking all the depths, to listen / To the birds that thus should dare."
- How do these songs use rhyme schemes and line length to establish a rhythm?
- How do the word choices relate to the story or sensation that the song is trying to convey?
- In "The Lake-Side Shore," how does the bird's song compare to the actions of the bird itself?
- How would you imagine the melodies of these songs?
- What do you think is the relationship between the poetic devices such as rhyme, meter, alliteration, and the themes of a song?
- Do you think that contemporary love songs use similar poetic devices?
- How do contemporary love songs compare to works such as "I Love Thee"?
- Select a theme and write a song in the style of the examples, keeping in mind rhyme schemes, imagery, and melody.
Francis Scott Key's "Star Spangled Banner," is a fixture at public ceremonies, sporting events, and other community events. Before its official adoption as the National Anthem in 1931, however, Key's poem shared the unofficial title of "national" song with "Hail Columbia, Happy Land!"
Hail Columbia! happy land! hail, ye heroes! heaven-born band!
Who faught and bled in Freedom's cause,
Who faught and bled in Freedom's cause,
And when the storm of war was gone, enjoyed the peace your valor won.
Let independence be our boast, ever mindful what it cost;
Ever grateful for the prize, let its alter reach the skies.
Firm united let us be, rallying round our liberty;
As a band of brothers joined, peace and safety we shall find.
Both of these songs were originally poems that were later set to music. Subsequent verses of the "Star Spangled Banner," however, are not as familiar as the first. For example, the second of four parts elaborates on the flag of the title.
On the shore, dimly seen through the mist of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes
What is that which the breeze o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream;
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
- What types of images are used in these songs to create a sense of patriotism?
- How do the two poems differ in their style and tone?
- Why do you think that these poems were set to music?
- Why do you think that only the first verse of the "Star Spangled Banner" is usually performed at public events?
- What are the differences in how these four patriotic songs are used? When do you generally hear these songs? How do they reflect certain public sentiments or themes?
- Why do you think that "Star Spangled Banner" and "Hail Columbia, Happy Land!" were deemed to be appropriate "national anthems"?
- What kind of melody do you think is appropriate for a National Anthem?
- Why do you think that the "Star Spangled Banner" was chosen to be the official National Anthem?
- How might the nation's patriotic language and symbolism at public events have changed if "Hail Columbia . . ." had been selected as the National Anthem?
First-person narrative is often an effective way to portray an event or theme. A number of songs in this collection relating to the Civil War use the first-person perspective to dramatize on an element of the conflict. For example, the rallying cry of "I Want to be a Soldier" is tempered by songs depicting the tragedy of war such as "Battle of Spottsylvania, 'I Am Left Here to Die'" and "Soldier's Wife."
Weep not for me, my Mother dear,
When the sad tidings you shall hear,
That I am numbered with the slain,
On Spottsylvania's battle plain.
The battle's fought, the victory's won,
But oh! "I am left to die alone...."
The battle's fought, the victory's won,
But oh! "I am left to die alone."
From "Battle of Spottsylvania."
They tell me he has gone to fight
For honor of our land;
For Freedom's cause, our soldiers brave
March onward, hand in hand.
'Tis well indeed, in such a cause
Such gallant hearts to find!--
Forgive my tears! why should I weep,
Tho' I am left behind?
From "Soldier's Wife."
- What is the plot of each song and who is the narrator?
- What elements of the plot are described and what elements are left to the listener's imagination?
- How does the first-person perspective dramatize the events in a way that a third-person perspective cannot?
- What do you think is the intended effect of a line such as "Forgive my tears! why should I weep, / Tho' I am left behind?" Who is the narrator addressing? Do you think that this is a rhetorical question?
- What do you think are the benefits of using a first-person perspective? What do you think are the limitations of this perspective?
- Choose a scenario, such as an event in the Civil War, and write a poem describing the event from a first-person perspective. Who is your main character? How will you convey the details of that person's job or role in society through the poem?