Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Lyrical Legacy

The legacy of American poetry and song is rich and complex, and the stories that it tells are the stories of the nation.

Since the earliest days of America’s history, the creative impulse has been at work, and the people who shaped the nation have always expressed themselves in lyrical form—in hymns, ballads, marches, limericks, love songs, and elegies. The songs and poems they have left for posterity are unmatched in their vitality and variety, and the events and emotions that these works describe together make up a portrait of the American experience.

Lyrical Legacy helps teachers explore this rich heritage using primary sources—the original documents and recordings that let us see the poems and songs as they appeared in their creators’ own times. These documents, in all their irregular, intimate variety, bring the events and characters of distant eras into sharp focus and help students of today understand the attitudes, emotions, and complex circumstances that shaped the perspectives of creative Americans.

The poems and songs in Lyrical Legacy span four centuries of American history and cover a wide range of topics, styles, and authors, from acclaimed poets to nameless street singers. Each work is represented by a primary source document from the digital collections of the Library of Congress, along with an introduction to the historical background of the work. Analysis tools for students and ideas for educational activities are also included to allow easy use of these unique primary sources in the classroom.

Some of the primary sources in Lyrical Legacy contain prominent spelling and printing irregularities, and may not match more familiar versions of the poem or song. These idiosyncrasies are hallmarks of an authentic historical document and provide an excellent opportunity to encourage students to explore the details of the historical period further.

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history—the documents and objects left behind by the eyewitnesses and participants in past events. These sources, which might be manuscripts, photographs, letters, leaflets, song sheets, or recordings, still bear the rough edges of bygone centuries and the distinguishing marks of their creators, without the mediation of textbooks.

Teaching with primary sources immerses students in the world of the past like nothing else can. Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era. It can also help them understand the unique experiences of the men and women who made history before they knew it would be history.