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The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905.

[Detail] The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905

Editorial Songwriting

Songwriters often comment on contemporary issues within their society by adopting a fictional persona who has a vested interest in the debate surrounding the issue. For example, the 1916 nativist song Don't Bite the Hand That Feeds You imagines a dream sequence in which Uncle Sam is distraught about immigrants living in the United States who "come to him friendless and starving when from tyrant's oppression they fled / but now they just abuse and revile him." Uncle Sam finally responds in anger at these ungrateful citizens with the chorus:

If you don't like your Uncle Sammy then go back to your land o'er the sea
To the land from where you came, whatever be it's name but don't be ungrateful to me.
If you don't like the stars in Old Glory, if you don't like the Red, White and Blue,
Then don't act like the cur in the story, Don't bite the hand that's feeding you.

A search on the term, prohibition, produces two songs critical of the temperance movement. In the comedy sketch preceding the musical number in Dinnie Donohue, on Prohibition (1921), the Irish character criticizes the ban on alcohol with lines such as, "When we were young they gave us a bottle to keep us quiet and now when we need a bottle, they take it away from us." Meanwhile, Save a Little Dram for Me (1922) presents a comic song about men drinking in church when the preacher demands his share with comments such as, "Why drinkin' gin ain't against my teachin'" and "I've shared your joy and I've shared your sin / and believe me, brothers, I'm gonna share your gin."

  • Why do you think that songwriters chose to adopt the personas of characters such as Uncle Sam, an Irishman, and a preacher to voice opinions on issues such as immigration and prohibition?
  • What types of poetic elements (rhyme scheme, meter, imagery, etc.) do songwriters use to convey their message?
  • How is dialect used in the songs about prohibition?
  • Why do you think that a dialect was not used in the song discussing immigration?
  • How do songwriters use stereotypes about these characters to convey their arguments?
  • Choose a contemporary issue and write a poem from the perspective of a character who might be directly impacted by the debate surrounding that issue.

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