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        Lyrical Legacy: 400 Years of American Song and Poetry

        Lyrical Legacy helps teachers explore eighteen American songs and poems from the digital collections of the Library of Congress. Each song and poem is represented by an original primary source document, along with historical background information and, in many cases, sound recordings and alternate versions.

        The American Revolution, 1763-1783: Yankee Doodle Score

        Singing a song in Revolutionary America was not necessarily an innocent act; songs were also important instruments of satire and mockery. As opposition to British rule in the American colonies heated up, satirical songs took on a new edge. Rebellious colonists sang songs insulting Britain’s king, George III, as a drunken tyrant, and British soldiers answered with songs ridiculing the Americans as backwoods yokels. One of these songs, which told the story of a poorly dressed Yankee simpleton, or "doodle", was popular with the British soldiers.

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        The American Revolution, 1763-1783: Yankee Doodle Band Performance

        Singing a song in Revolutionary America was not necessarily an innocent act; songs were also important instruments of satire and mockery. As opposition to British rule in the American colonies heated up, satirical songs took on a new edge. Rebellious colonists sang songs insulting Britain’s king, George III, as a drunken tyrant, and British soldiers answered with songs ridiculing the Americans as backwoods yokels. One of these songs, which told the story of a poorly dressed Yankee simpleton, or "doodle", was popular with the British soldiers.

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        The American Revolution, 1763-1783: Yankee Doodle Vocal Performance

        Singing a song in Revolutionary America was not necessarily an innocent act; songs were also important instruments of satire and mockery. As opposition to British rule in the American colonies heated up, satirical songs took on a new edge. Rebellious colonists sang songs insulting Britain’s king, George III, as a drunken tyrant, and British soldiers answered with songs ridiculing the Americans as backwoods yokels. One of these songs, which told the story of a poorly dressed Yankee simpleton, or "doodle", was popular with the British soldiers.

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        Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945: Sunny California

        Mary Sullivan, a farmer from Texas, wrote "Sunny California" about the hardships she endured during the long, dangerous journey west, and was recorded singing her song in a government camp in California. As you listen to the song, think about the different emotions that Sullivan communicates in her song and in her performance. You might also ask yourself if this very personal song reminds you of any music that you listen to now.

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        Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877: John Brown's Body, also known as The Battle Hymn of the Republic Performance

        Great songs sometimes seem to have a life of their own and survive by adapting to changing times and sensibilities. The song we now know as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has endured for more than 150 years and during that time underwent several dramatic changes in personality, as different writers and singers adapted it to meet their needs. When you listen to—or even sing—this song, you might ask yourself what has made the tune so persistent, and so popular, over the decades.

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        Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929: You're a Grand Old Flag Vocal Performance

        Sheet music was the engine of the music business at the turn of the 20th century. Although phonographs had already begun to appear in a few homes, in 1900 the most popular music player was still the piano. The best way to hear a new song was to buy the sheet music—loose sheets of paper with the music and lyrics of a single song—and play it or sing it yourself. When George M. Cohan introduced an upbeat, patriotic song top Broadway called "You’re a Grand Old Rag" in his new musical George Washington, Jr., he became a nationwide sensation. As you listen to this song, think about what makes a song successful, and decide if today’s popular music might be any different if you had to play it or sing it all by yourself.

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        Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929: You're a Grand Old Flag Band Performance

        Sheet music was the engine of the music business at the turn of the 20th century. Although phonographs had already begun to appear in a few homes, in 1900 the most popular music player was still the piano. The best way to hear a new song was to buy the sheet music—loose sheets of paper with the music and lyrics of a single song—and play it or sing it yourself. When George M. Cohan introduced an upbeat, patriotic song top Broadway called "You’re a Grand Old Rag" in his new musical George Washington, Jr., he became a nationwide sensation. As you listen to this song, think about what makes a song successful, and decide if today’s popular music might be any different if you had to play it or sing it all by yourself.

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        Settlement, Beginnings to 1763: Bonny Barbara Allan Vocal Performance

        Ballads—that is, long songs that tell a story—first came to North America in the earliest European colonies, and they played a crucial role in the daily life of those communities. However, there was never a final version of any ballad. As each one was passed on from singer to singer, usually by word of mouth, it could be changed to suit the new singer and a new audience. No one knows exactly when the ballad of Bonny Barbara Allan arrived in the New World, but we do know that people have been singing it for more than 300 years. Today, there are dozens of very different versions being sung across the United States, all of which still tell a timeless story of love and death.

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        Postwar United States, 1945-1968: The Young Dead Soldiers

        The poet Archibald MacLeish was especially aware of the importance of the thousands of soldiers who sacrificed their lives in World War I to bring peace and stability. When the Library of Congress held a memorial service for all its staff members who had died in the war, MacLeish contributed a powerful poem that not only commemorated the dead, but also made it clear that those who survived bore a special responsibility to make the deaths of these soldiers meaningful. As you read this poem, think about what the poem suggests as possible ways to live up to such a great sacrifice. You might also think about the sacrifices that other people have made for you.

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        Settlement, Beginnings to 1763: The Wages of Sin; or Robbery Justly Rewarded

        During most of the colonial period, there was no mass media. Instead, people learned about current events from broadsides—cheap, quickly printed single sheets of news, poetry, song, or commentary that were handed out in public squares or pasted onto coffeehouse walls. Broadsides were a free-for-all of public opinion. When any major public event took place, it was usually followed by a flurry of broadsides, with each writer violently disagreeing with the others and promoting his or her own point of view. This poem provides commentary on the public execution of a burglar in Boston and draws some very pointed lessons on the consequences of crime.

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        Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929: Autumn

        Helen Keller had been deaf and blind since infancy and could barely communicate with her family. Alexander Graham Bell took a personal interest in Helen’s education and helped direct her to a suitable school and an inventive teacher, Annie Sullivan. Sullivan used innovative educational methods to introduce Helen to language. Within a year, Helen could read braille and write, and she carried on conversations using finger-spelling and manual lip-reading. In 1893, when she was 13, Helen wrote what she described as "a word picture of Autumn as I see it with the eyes of my soul." As you read the poem, think about how writers communicate their personal thoughts and feelings with readers whose experiences may have been very different from their own.

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        National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860: Sonnet to Liberty

        In 19th century America, the poetry section of the newspaper was a good place to go for a fight. One poet who attempted to bridge the gap between politics and literature was the fiery abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who published an anti-slavery newspaper called the Liberator. In issue after issue, Garrison and other writers railed against the evils of slavery, until the Liberator became so notorious that it was outlawed in several Southern states. As you read this poem, you might ask yourself whether the poem is more successful as a political argument or as a work of art.

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        The American Revolution, 1763-1783: Battle of Bunker Hill

        In the early weeks of the American Revolution, the future of the rebellion was still very uncertain. The Battle of Bunker Hill put fears to rest. The Americans finally fell back on the third charge, but only after inflicting heavy casualties on the British. For the British, the victory was a bitter one. It convinced many British leaders that this war would be long and that the Americans would be formidable adversaries. Over the centuries, the bravery of the colonial troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill has provided inspiration to countless American poets and songwriters. However, within hours of the battle, it also inspired an unknown British officer to set down his own impressions in verse.

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        Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900: The Worker's Anvil

        In the last decades of the 19th century, heavy industry became the most important businesses in the country. Factory owners could enjoy tremendous profits; however, many of their employees had to endure harsh living and working conditions. In the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of thousands of American workers joined unions or other labor organizations. Facing fierce opposition from the mass media, labor leaders used informal methods to spread the word, including song. Labor songs were used to raise awareness of the workers’ plight, to recruit new members to the cause, and to keep workers’ morale up during a difficult strike. As you read this song, you might ask yourself what the songwriter hoped to accomplish—and how likely you think it is that she succeeded.

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        Postwar United States, 1945-1968: We Shall Overcome

        Word for word, the short, simple lyrics of "We Shall Overcome" might be some of the most influential words in the English language. The song has it roots in African American hymns from the early 20th century, and was first used as a protest song in 1945, when striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina, sang it on their picket line. By the 1950s, the song had been discovered by the young activists of the African American civil rights movement, and it quickly became the movement’s unofficial anthem. As you listen to "We Shall Overcome," think about the reasons it has brought strength and support to so many people for so many years. And remember that someone, somewhere, is singing it right now.

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        Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945: Textile Life

        Most American poems never see the light of day. Even though thousands of people from all walks of life write poetry every day, the vast majority will never show their work to anyone other than their closest friends. During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project brought many of these hidden poems out into the daylight. "Textile Life" was discovered in 1938, when a Writers’ Project field worker visited a North Carolina textile mill village. Branch’s poem is direct and very personal, and provides a vivid, authentic portrait of a community struggling to survive. As you read it, think about why the author might have written down and shared this poem with her neighbors.

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        Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929: Shadow

        A great explosion of artistic creativity rocked the United States in the 1920s, and its center was in Harlem. The writer and artist Richard Bruce Nugent played a key role in the Harlem Renaissance, even though his output was small. He helped found two new literary journals, Fire!! and Harlem, but lacked confidence in his own work. His first poem to be published, “Shadow,” had to be rescued from his own wastebasket by Langston Hughes, who eventually convinced him to send it to Opportunity magazine. As you read the poem, notice the ways the poet describes loneliness, and think about all the different things that could make a person feel like he or she stands out.

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        Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877: O Captain! My Captain!

        President Lincoln’s assassination inspired Whitman to write one of his most memorable works—a simple, three-stanza poem of sorrow that bore little resemblance to his other, more experimental writings. "O Captain! My Captain!" was published in New York’s Saturday Press in November of 1865, and was met with immediate acclaim. The poem’s evocation of triumph overshadowed by despair spoke to readers throughout the shattered nation, and it was widely reprinted and published in anthologies. As you read this version of the poem, look at Whitman’s notes and ask yourself how his changes contributed to the poem’s impact.

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        The New Nation, 1783-1815: Hunters of Kentucky: Lines Written by a Revolutionary Soldier

        In the beginning of the 19th century, many of the patriot poets, who had spent the war publishing harsh satires of the British and dramatic calls to arms, turned their attention to creating a new American poetry that was suitable to a new kind of nation. Some of the new poems took the form of elegies—poems of mourning, such as Philip Freneau’s “On the Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin.” These eulogies often used the death of a prominent individual as an opportunity to explore not only that person’s accomplishments, but also the responsibilities that those still living were obligated to take on.

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        National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860: Ho! For the Kansas Plains

        The American Revolution was followed by a century of revolutionary American expansion. People poured into the new territories, and as they did, songs about expansion spread with them. In the 1850s, the territory of Kansas was a battleground between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, and settlers from the North and South rushed into the territory, each side hoping to outnumber the other. This song encourages new settlers to come to Kansas, just as a conventional expansion song might. However, it also explains why they should do so and provides some clues about which side of the slavery issue the songwriter supports.

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        Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877: John Brown's Body, also known as The Battle Hymn of the Republic Score

        Great songs sometimes seem to have a life of their own and survive by adapting to changing times and sensibilities. The song we now know as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has endured for more than 150 years and during that time underwent several dramatic changes in personality, as different writers and singers adapted it to meet their needs. The version that we know today came to be when an abolitionist author, Julia Ward Howe, overheard Union troops singing "John Brown’s Body" and was inspired to write a set of lyrics that dramatized the rightness of the Union cause. When you listen to—or even sing—this song, you might ask yourself what has made the tune so persistent, and so popular, over the decades.

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        The New Nation, 1783-1815: Hunters of Kentucky

        The War of 1812 was a major turning point for the United States, and a severe test of the young republic’s resolve. During the three years of war, the country endured many hardships. However, it also achieved a number of decisive battlefield victories—triumphs that demonstrated the American people’s ability to overcome great odds, and that helped forge a new sense of national identity. As you read this song about Kentucky militiamen in the Battle of New Orleans, you might ask yourself how stories and songs about the battle might have shaped the way people at the time thought about themselves—both as Kentuckians and Americans.

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        Progressive Era to New Era, 1900-1929: You're a Grand Old Flag

        Sheet music was the engine of the music business at the turn of the 20th century. Although phonographs had already begun to appear in a few homes, in 1900 the most popular music player was still the piano. The best way to hear a new song was to buy the sheet music—loose sheets of paper with the music and lyrics of a single song—and play it or sing it yourself. When George M. Cohan introduced an upbeat, patriotic song top Broadway called "You’re a Grand Old Rag" in his new musical George Washington, Jr., he became a nationwide sensation.

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        Settlement, Beginnings to 1763: Bonny Barbara Allan

        Ballads—that is, long songs that tell a story—first came to North America in the earliest European colonies, and they played a crucial role in the daily life of those communities. However, there was never a final version of any ballad. As each one was passed on from singer to singer, usually by word of mouth, it could be changed to suit the new singer and a new audience. No one knows exactly when the ballad of Bonny Barbara Allan arrived in the New World, but we do know that people have been singing it for more than 300 years. Today, there are dozens of very different versions being sung across the United States, all of which still tell a timeless story of love and death.

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