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?