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Old Folks at Home - cover sheet music

[Detail] Old Folks at Home - sheet music

Collection Overview

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860, provides access to sheet music copyrighted between the years of 1820-1860. Included are popular songs, operatic arias, piano music, sacred and secular vocal music, solo instrumental music, method books and instructional materials, and some music for band and orchestra. Some of the more notable titles include "Susanna" and "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair".

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Expansion and Reform — 1801-1861

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.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Author, Subject or Title indexes.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History


Cover of sheet music with portrait of a woman

"Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, " by Stephen Foster, is one of the most famous songs included in Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860.

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 consists of more than 15,000 pieces of sheet music registered for copyright during the years 1820 to 1860. This collection reflects the development of popular song in America and complements such American Memory collections as Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885, Band Music from the Civil War Era, and the sheet music found in the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana. The collection includes popular whimsical songs, ballads, patriotic anthems, sacred music, campaign songs, and compositions reflecting historical events.

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 provides a glimpse into the social and political history of the United States prior to the Civil War. Popular music of the early 1800s reflected historical events, migrations of people, reform movements, and virtually every aspect of life. A study of lyrics to popular songs or an analysis of reasons underlying the composition of musical arrangements, whether dedicated to individuals or composed to celebrate pivotal events, adds a new dimension to the study of history by examining popular interests of an era. The era best covered in the collection is Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861, with the collection being particularly strong for the period from 1834-1857.

Since early nineteenth-century music reflects both the racial stereotyping and prejudice of the era, students should be warned of epithets, pejorative terms, and racially stereotyped images that may be encountered as they search the collection. Such language is especially evident in minstrel songs.

Expansion and Migration

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 opened a large amount of land in the west to settlement by European Americans. Several factors encouraged expansion into the west. The growing population, dependent on agriculture as the primary economic activity, required more land. Economic depressions in 1818 and 1839 motivated some settlers to seek their fortunes on the frontier. Indeed, the opportunity for advancement where land — the traditional symbol of wealth — was inexpensive or free drew many across the Mississippi. In the 1840s, the phrase "Manifest Destiny" was coined to provide a sense of mission for expansion. Manifest Destiny suggested that it was the fate of the United States to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific, spreading the ideals of self-government across the land. (Note that these ideals were not applied to all Americans; African Americans, Native Americans, women, and others were excluded.) The discovery of gold and silver in western areas drew even more settlers toward the Pacific.

A number of songs in Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 reflect the nation's expansion. Among these are the following:

Examine several of the songs listed above. Locate other songs about expansion by conducting a Keyword Search using such terms as gold rush or west . Then answer the following questions:

  • What reasons for settling in the west were mentioned in the songs?
  • Can you find any evidence of the sense of mission implied by the term "Manifest Destiny"?
  • What hardships of settling in the west were mentioned in the songs? What benefits of settling in the west were mentioned?
  • Do you find any mention of Native Americans in the songs? If so, in what context were they mentioned? If not, why do you think that is so?


Mexican-American War

When Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1835, Mexico did not recognize that independence. Matters grew worse when Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845; Mexico saw this annexation as a threat to its other northern territories. U.S. President James K. Polk had made clear in his campaign in 1844 that he wished to annex California and Oregon into the United States. California was part of Mexico at the time. If the annexation of Texas was successful, the Mexicans feared California might not be far behind. Polk sent an envoy to Mexico with an offer to buy New Mexico and California. Mexican leaders, who believed the problem of Texas should be resolved first, were offended by the idea that the United States would take over more Mexican territory. The Mexican president refused to receive Polk's envoy. In April 1846, Mexican troops fired on General Zachary Taylor's troops along the Rio Grande (on land Mexico believed was theirs according to earlier U.S. treaties with Spain), and a declaration of war soon followed.

Cover of sheet music with an illustration of a soldier tending to a dying soldier on a battlefield

"The Dying Soldier of Buena Vista" invoked sympathy by presenting a dying patriot's message to his parents.

The war with Mexico aroused both patriotic fervor and ardent dissent. Patriotic fervor was fueled by cries that Mexico had spilled "American blood on American soil." Dissenters questioned whether the soil involved was actually American, suggesting that the United States had acted too aggressively by sending troops onto land that Mexico claimed. In addition, some northerners protested the war because they believed it was a ploy by southern leaders to gain territory onto which they could expand slavery.

Most of the music about the war was written to celebrate victories over Mexican forces or the exploits of U.S. military field commanders. A piano composition by William Striby titled "The Battle of Buena Vista" presented a musical composite of the war including a "Mexican March," "U.S. Parade March," "Charge of the Lancers," "Battle Music," "Flag of Truce," and "Hail Columbia." Other songs celebrated heroic acts. "The Heroine of Monterey" was written as a ballad to call attention to the selflessness of a woman who nursed the wounded during the battle of Monterey. "Look up on that Banner," written after the war, used as an epigram an excerpt from a grieving mother to her son:

"'Come not to me! Go to Mexico — revenge your brother's death, and sustain your Country's honor' Extract from a letter from Mrs. Porter to her Son, who had communicated to her the death of his brother in Mexico."

From "Look up on that Banner"

In contrast, the Hutchinson Family Singers in "Eight Dollars a Day" reflected a sentiment, especially popular in New England, that the conflict with Mexico was not an event to be celebrated but "a war for slavery."

Conduct a Keyword Search using the term Mexican War to locate sheet music written to commemorate battle victories at Palo Alto, Monterrey, Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo, and Chapultepec. Examine several of the songs and consider the following questions:

  • How did the composers of the songs try to marshal patriotic fervor? What techniques were used in instrumental pieces? What words and phrases were used in song lyrics to inspire patriotic feelings?
  • What techniques did the Hutchinson Family Singers use to express their opposition to the Mexican War? How were the techniques they used similar to and different from the techniques used by supporters of the war?
  • Examine the dedications of the songs. How did the dedications underscore the meaning of the songs? What other purposes did the dedications serve?
  • What message did the lyricists seek to convey in "Look up on that Banner" and "The Dying Soldier of Buena Vista"? What emotions did they try to elicit? Contrast the feelings aroused by the lyrics of "Look up on that Banner" and those aroused by "Eight Dollars a Day."
  • Find out about songs written to support other war efforts, as well as other songs of dissent. Have songs been written about every war in U.S. history? Why do you think this is so?

Slavery, Abolitionism, and Sectionalism

Cover of sheet music with an illustration of a woman being chased across a river

"Eliza's Flight/by E.J. Loder" is one of numerous songs inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The collection includes sheet music that helps to illustrate the growing sectionalism of the pre-Civil War era. The "Southern Rights March," an 1853 piano composition, helps to illustrate how sectionalism became one of the themes exploited in the sale of sheet music before the Civil War. Songs calling for the abolition of slavery also became more numerous in the decade before war's outbreak.

The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 aroused Southern ire, as demonstrated in the lyrics of "Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe." The song ridiculed Stowe during her book tour of England and reiterated the argument that abolitionists condemned slavery in the South while failing to denounce wage slavery in the industrial north and abroad.

"Ole Massa's very kind, Ole Missu's kind at home too,
Now I'll go back and stay dar, and never more to roam,
Lor bless de Southern Ladies, and my old Virginny home,
But don't come back, Aunt Harriet, in England make a fuss,
Go talk against your country, put money in your puss,
And when us happy niggers, you pit in your prayer,
Oh! Don't forget de White slave, dat starving ober dare. Chorus:
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, How
could you leave de country, and serve poor nigga so."

From "Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe"

  • How did the lyricist ridicule Harriet Beecher Stowe?
  • What image of slavery did he wish to portray?

Abolitionists also used Uncle Tom's Cabin to marshal public support for their cause. Asa Hutchinson of the popular Hutchinson Family Singers, along with Eliza Cook (lyricist) drew on one of Stowe's characters in the novel to express opposition to slavery in "Little Topsy's Song." G. C. Howard's "moral drama" based on the novel featured a song he composed for his wife who, in the role of Topsy, sang "Oh! I'se So Wicked."

A Keyword Search using the phrase Uncle Tom's Cabin will produce a variety of compositions based on characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. Why do you think so many songwriters were inspired by this novel? Can you think of another novel that has spawned a large number of songs?

Cover of sheet music with an illustration of three men and a woman posing

"The Old Granite State," the Hutchinson Family Singers' signature song. The Hutchinsons were one of the nation's first popular musical groups. Their calls for emancipation sometimes brought out angry proslavery crowds, but the group remained popular.

The popular Hutchinson Family Singers composed and performed songs related to political and social issues, including temperance, women's suffrage, war, Congressional pay, and, perhaps most notably, slavery. . "The Millenium" and "Slavery Is a Hard Foe to Battle" were among the emancipation songs popularized by the Hutchinsons. They often opened abolitionist meetings with their compositions. Frederick Douglass, in an introduction to Story of the Hutchinsons (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1896), wrote that the Hutchinsons "were an acquisition to the anti-slavery cause and to all other good causes." The family opened most of their concerts with "The Old Granite State," their signature song.

The Hutchinsons admired Henry Clay and actively supported his campaigns for the presidency although it became difficult for them to reconcile Clay's support for slavery with their convictions as abolitionists. Jesse Hutchinson included a verse in the song "Harry of the West," which they had dedicated to Henry Clay, indicating that the days of slavery were numbered.

"For th' glorious day is coming now
When Wrong shall be redressed;
And Freedom's Star shine bright and clear
On 'Harry of the West.'"

From "Harry of the West"

  • What message was presented in the lyrics to "Slavery Is a Hard Foe to Battle"? Why do you think this song and "The Millenium" were popular with abolitionists?
  • Why might John Hutchinson have felt compelled to express his support for emancipation in "Harry of the West"?
  • What moral values did the Hutchinson Family Singers invoke in the abolitionist songs they performed? How might invoking such values have been an effective technique for swaying public opinion?

A number of songs written during the period called attention to the pain and suffering imposed by enslavement, without calling for abolition or emancipation. Examples include "They've Sold Me Down the River, The Negro Father's Lament" and "Darling Nelly Gray." Although often written in the first person, as if the words were being spoken by an African American, these songs were written and performed by whites. Similarly, minstrel songs reflected white composers' views based on their perception of African American life and often used, or invented, Negro dialect to appeal to white audiences by playing upon popularly accepted racial stereotypes. Minstrels were white performers who performed in "black face," presenting musical numbers, comedy routines, and tall tales. Daddy Rice, an early blackface performer, popularized the character "Jim Crow," whose name was later used to designate racial segregation. The sheet music of the Christy Minstrels , one of the most widely known minstrel troupes, often pictured derogatory images of African Americans. A Keyword Search using the phrase Christy Minstrels will generate more than 100 of the troupe's minstrel songs. The section on "Images of African Americans" in the special feature "Music Copyrighted in Federal District Courts, ca. 1820-1860" also provides useful information on the musical depiction of African Americans.


The Temperance Movement

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 includes a number of songs composed to call attention to the temperance movement, the effort to ban alcohol. Following the lead of the temperance movement, many of the songs focused on an alcoholic father and the hardships he placed on his family; an example of this kind of song is "The Drunkard and His Family". The "Temperance Anthem" was a hymn written as an opening for temperance festivals at which participants would pledge to abstain from all alcoholic beverages. Stephen Foster's "Comrades, Fill No Glass For Me" is yet another example of how the spirit of the reform movement influenced composers. The Hutchinson Family's "Right Over Wrong, Come Right Along" showed a similar fervor against alcoholic spirits as their songs expressing opposition to slavery. Light-hearted drinking songs of the era, such as "Brandy and Water," and "The land we live in" provide a contrast with the more serious warnings in temperance songs.

Browse the Subject Index for additional examples. Compare several drinking songs with songs devoted to the temperance cause:

  • What is the central theme of most temperance songs?
  • How effective are the lyrics in conveying the temperance message?
  • How was temperance associated with patriotism in the "Temperance Anthem"? Why do you think the anthem invoked the spirit of George Washington?
  • How are the tones of the drinking and temperance songs different? Do you think that songs devoted to a reform movement or other "cause" are necessarily serious? Give examples from historical and contemporary music to support your answer.

Nativism and the Know-Nothing Party

Cover of sheet music Know Nothing Polka

"Know Nothing Polka." The symbol on the cover of this piece of sheet music was one commonly used by nativists. What do you think the symbol represents?

The Know-Nothing or American Party came to the fore in American politics in the 1850s. The Know-Nothings, so-called because members responded "I know nothing" when asked about their party's positions, sprang from nativist sentiments that became increasingly common in reaction to the influx of immigrants resulting from the Irish potato famine (1845-1851). Nativists believed that the United States should be reserved for those born here (i.e., natives). They opposed immigration and were anti-Catholic, arguing that Catholics were loyal to a foreign power (the pope).

The Know-Nothing Party was able to capitalize on problems in the existing political parties in elections in 1854 and 1855, winning several contests at the state and congressional levels. When the party endorsed the Kansas-Nebraska Act at its 1856 convention, however, northern members left the party for the new Republican Party. The Know-Nothings' voting power waned, and the Party was not a significant influence in the election of 1860.
Nativist sentiment did not end with the party's demise, however.

Songs were written both in praise and opposition to the goals of the Know-Nothings. "Few days, or, The united American's" and "Thoughts for Americans" took opposite views on the Know-Nothings. Read the lyrics of these two songs carefully and answer the following questions:

  • Which song supports the views of the Know-Nothings? What is your evidence?
  • Which song opposes the views of the Know-Nothings? What is your evidence?
  • How do the two lyricists use the name Know-Nothing in their songs? Which song do you thing is more effective in making its point? Why?
  • What can you learn about the policies of the Know-Nothings from reading these two songs? Write a one-paragraph summary of the party's policies based on information from the songs.

Technological Innovation

Every period of history has seen important inventions, and the years from 1820 to 1860 were no exception. The continued development of the steam engine brought major changes to transportation, both on land (railroad) and water (steamship). The telegraph, the daguerrotype (a photographic process), the sewing machine, the revolver pistol, and the passenger elevator were among the many other technologies developed during the period. Musical instruments invented between 1820 and 1860 included the mouth-organ, the accordion, the saxophone, and the transverse flute.

Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 includes a number of compositions that celebrate various inventions. For example, "The Song of Steam" extolled the power of steam.

"I blow the bellows, I forge the steel,
In all the shops of trade;
I hammer the ore, and turn the wheel,
Where my arms of strength are made,
I manage the furnace, the mill, the mint
I carry, I spin, I weave;
And all my doing I put to print,
On every Saturday eve."

From "The Song of Steam"

Identify several songs in the collection that deal with technological developments. The "Innovations and Celebrations" page of the special feature "Music Copyrighted in Federal District Courts, 1820-1860" is a good place to begin your search for such songs.

  • What common feature is shared by most of the songs written to celebrate inventions? Learn more about one of the inventions and try your hand at writing lyrics for a song celebrating that invention.
  • What types of songs (polkas, schottisches, waltzes, ballads, marches, dirges) were most often named for technological developments? What characteristics of these types of songs might make them more appropriate for this purpose than other types of songs? (Think especially about rhythm and tempo.)
  • Try to locate songs celebrating inventions from at least two other time periods in U.S. history. Can you think of any contemporary songs that celebrate (or decry) innovation?


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Creating a Timeline of Patriotic Music

Cover of sheet music, with an illustration of a woman with her arms wrapped around a flag

"Freedom's Flag." Who do you think the young woman on the cover of this piece of sheet music represents?

Patriotic music not only provides a vehicle for expression of the composer's feelings about his/her country but also can be used to influence public opinion. A number of the songs in the collection, although first published before 1820, were reissued at different periods to rekindle patriotic fervor. For example, "Yankee Doodle," popular during the period of the American Revolution, was adapted by "Uncle Sam" and reissued in 1847 as "Yankee Doodle in Mexico."

Create a timeline on which you can compare the publication of patriotic songs with other events in U.S. history in the period from 1776 to 1860. Draw the timeline down the center of a piece of paper. Determine the scale (how many years will be represented by an inch on the timeline) and mark the years on the timeline. On the left side of the timeline, enter from five to ten major events during the period. Be sure to include armed conflicts in which the United States was involved.

Now find a number of patriotic songs in the Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 collection. You may want to conduct a Keyword Search using the term patriotic music , which will produce a listing of national hymns, patriotic marches, and songs. You may also want to start with the songs listed below.

Add the songs you have identified to the right side of the timeline, placing them by date of publication. If a song recounts something about a prior historical event, be sure that event is shown on the left side of the timeline; draw a line between the song and the event. When you have finished adding the songs to the timeline, examine the results of your work. Can you identify songs that might have been written or published to stir public sentiment about events on the timeline? Go back to the songs and examine the titles, dedications, and lyrics (if any) to look for evidence of the connection. Write a brief description of the relationship between patriotic music and the larger events in a nation, using evidence from your timeline and the songs themselves.

Historical Comprehension: Identifying Historical Perspectives

Cover of sheet music, with an illustration of a man on a horse near a cottage

"Farewell! Old Cottage." When he was a child, Foster's family lost their home to the Bank of the United States. What Foster songs reflect a longing for a former home that may be related to this early experience?

Stephen Foster was one of the nation's most celebrated composers. His songs became so popular across the country that they have been described as the foundation of a new national culture. While Foster's melodies were relatively simple, they were also both beautiful and singable. Since Foster was born in 1826 and died in 1864, most of his compositions were written in the period covered in Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 . The collection includes many of his works, including such notable numbers as "My Old Kentucky Home," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and "Susanna," which became the favorite song of Forty-niners crossing the continent in their quest to strike it rich in the gold fields of California.

Although Foster was born and lived in the North all of his life, many of his songs were about the South. He gave the Christy Minstrels exclusive rights to the first performance of many of his compositions, so numerous Foster songs were intended for the audiences who flocked to hear white performers in blackface sing about the South. Although some of Foster's songs were written in dialect, scholars have written that he did try to improve the quality of minstrel songs and, in some cases, impart dignity to the African American characters in his songs. For example, his song "Nelly Was a Lady" was unique for the time because it referred to an African-American woman as a lady . Even as he wrote less in dialect and developed images of African Americans that stressed their humanity, Foster continued to suggest in his lyrics that blacks enjoyed plantation life; his songs tended to romanticize plantation life.

Use the collection's Author Index to identify songs written by Stephen Foster. Read several of these songs and look for evidence of both the racism common to the period and attitudes that transcend racism. How would you describe the values reflected in Foster's work?

While Foster's work must be understood in its historical context, his songs continue to provoke controversy. In the late 1990s, for example, some members of a singing group at Yale University refused to perform "My Old Kentucky Home" because they found the lyrics offensive. As part of a program on Foster in its American Experience series, the Public Broadcasting System asked several musicians and historians the following question: Should we change Foster's songs to remove their racist aspects, or not perform them? How would you answer this question, considering both historical and present contexts? Look at the answers given on the PBS series.


Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Analyzing Songs as Primary Sources

Like other historical sources, musical compositions reflect the values and biases of the individuals who created them. Thus, when sheet music is used as a historical source, it must be analyzed just as other kinds of sources would be. As an example, consider a song about the uprising organized by Gabriel Prosser in Henrico County, Virginia, in 1800. The song is called "Uncle Gabriel." Find more information about the uprising planned by Gabriel Prosser; you can do this by looking in your history textbook, checking library reference materials, or conducting an Internet search. Compare and contrast the historical account of this event to the lyrics of the song "Uncle Gabriel."

  • Who wrote the song "Uncle Gabriel"? How does information about who wrote a song affect your analysis of the song as a historical source?
  • What else does the cover of the piece of sheet music tell you? Consider both illustrations and texts (such as dedications, information about other songs, dates, etc.).
  • How historically accurate are the lyrics to the Christy Minstrels' account of the uprising? What is the attitude toward Gabriel Prosser conveyed via the song?
  • What can you tell about the "sound" of the song? For example, is it slow and mournful or fast and peppy? What attitude does the musical sound reflect?
  • How might white audiences of the late 1840s and 1850s have been affected by hearing this song performed by a popular musical group?
  • How would you expect the song to be different had it been composed and performed by a group such as the Hutchinson Family?

Based on your analysis of the song "Uncle Gabriel," create a list of general questions that you might ask whenever you use a piece of music as a primary source. Test your set of questions by applying it to another song from the collection.

Historical Research: European Revolutions in American Music

Research the European revolutions of 1848 by examining American sheet music written to commemorate those revolutionary movements. "Vive la Republique, " published in New York in 1848, celebrated the abdication of Louis Philippe and the establishment of the Second French Republic. "Awakening of Italy" and "Il Vessilo, A Popular Hymn," celebrated Pope Pius IX's support of the Risorgimento (the movement for Italian unification). To the American public, Louis Kossuth, the leader of the abortive Hungarian insurrection against Austrian rule, was the most popular of the 1848 revolutionary leaders and received a tumultuous welcome when he visited the United States in 1851. Musical scores praised Kossuth as a freedom fighter. Secretary of State Daniel Webster toasted Kossuth at a Washington reception, saying that Americans would rejoice to see the U.S. model of government established in Hungary.

Search the collection to find more songs written about the European revolutions of 1848.

  • What can you discern from musical scores commemorating revolutions in France, Italy, and Hungary?
  • How were the revolutions of 1848 romanticized in the songs you examined? Do you think historical events are more likely to be romanticized in music than in other types of primary sources (such as essays, letters, military documents)? Why or why not?
  • Why would Americans look favorably upon movements to overthrow European monarchies?


Historical Research: Formulating Questions About Women and Music

Cover of sheet music with an illustration of a woman wearing bloomers

"The New Bloomer Schottisch." In 1851, bloomers were a new style that attracted interest from a number of songwriters. Why do you think an article of clothing would generate such controversy?

Historical research often begins with a curiosity and then proceeds to more specific, focused questions. For example, having spent some time looking at documents in the Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 , you might have noticed more songs were written by men than women and become curious about the role of women in American music in the period 1820-1860. You are especially interested in whether women were composing music and writing lyrics in that period, but you also wonder about women performers and the messages about women conveyed in the music of the time.

Construct a strategy for finding out about women in music from 1820-1860 using Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca 1820-1860 . Consider how to use the collections indexes, the search features, and the special presentations. All can be helpful in gathering some initial information. Consider search terms that might generate "hits" (e.g., women, mother, daughter, lady).

Once you have developed and used your strategy, organize the information you have collected. What focused questions emerge from your initial research?
Examples of focused research questions might include the following:

  • Were songs attributed to unnamed women (e.g., "A Lady of Baltimore") really written by women? If so, why did these women choose not to use their names? How were women who wrote music viewed by society?
  • How and why did the Swedish singer Jenny Lind become so popular in the United States? Were there comparable American female "stars" of the time?
  • Did the views in songs about women's rights reflect the views of the larger society? In what other ways were views on women's rights conveyed?

Historical Issues Analysis and Decision-Making

In the history of a democracy, elections provide examples of collective decision-making by the citizenry. Each individual who votes is influenced by a variety of factors, including party affiliation, their assessment of the candidates' positions and character, and the values and policies they hope the successful candidate will promote. Voters' perceptions of the candidates may be shaped by the candidates' actions and words, discussion of the candidates and issues with family and friends, and attempts by political parties, candidates, and advocates to influence voters' perceptions. Campaign songs have historically been one technique for influencing voters. Before the advent of mass media, sheet music was one way to get a message out to voters.

In 1840, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, , ran for president and vice president as Whigs against the Democratic incumbent, Martin Van Buren. Their campaign generated a number of campaign songs, in which the candidate was portrayed as an Indian fighter (he had won a battle against Indians at Tippecanoe) and common man who lived in a log cabin and drank cider. This portrayal of the candidate was designed to appeal to the new voters of the time, white men who did not own property. Examples of Harrison campaign songs include "The invincible old Tippecanoe" and "The Harrison song."

Locate several campaign songs written for William Henry Harrison and consider the following questions:

  • What slogan did the campaign use? What does the slogan mean? What voters would it appeal to?
  • What techniques did the lyricists use to appeal to voters? What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the techniques you have identified?
  • How did the lyricists refer to Harrison's opponent in the race? How might that affect a voter's decision?
  • What illustrations were used on the sheet music? How were the illustrations designed to persuade voters?
  • Are songs still an important part of political campaigns? What is your evidence?


Arts & Humanities


A number of songs in Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 take poems from well-known authors as their lyrics. For example, there are songs based on poems by Thomas Moore, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Henry Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Herrick, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Milton, Sir Walter Scott, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Wordsworth, among others.

Classical poetry and song lyrics have several similarities, including consistent meter and rhyming. Still, writing a melody to fit an existing poem provides challenges for the composer. One of the challenges is structural. While poems often have stanzas, many songs have verses and a chorus (a repeated section). Some songs also have bridges, sections that provide a transition from one part of the song to the next; the bridge often has a different rhythm and sound from the rest of the song. Length may also be a challenge — a poem can be any length, while a song is generally fairly short. Language can also pose problems — the language of a song may need to be simpler than the language of a poem because the listener has less opportunity to ponder its meaning than the reader of a poem.

Consider the following poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


L'eternite est une pendule, dont le balancier dit et redit sans
cesse ces deux mots seulement dans le silence des tombeaux:
'Toujours! jamais! Jamais! toujours!' — JACQUES BRIDAINE.

Somewhat back from the village street
Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
Across its antique portico
Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw;
And from its station in the hall
An ancient timepiece says to all, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

Half-way up the stairs it stands,
And points and beckons with its hands
From its case of massive oak,
Like a monk, who, under his cloak,
Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!
With sorrowful voice to all who pass, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

By day its voice is low and light;
But in the silent dead of night,
Distinct as a passing footstep's fall,
It echoes along the vacant hall,
Along the ceiling, along the floor,
And seems to say, at each chamber-door, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

Through days of sorrow and of mirth,
Through days of death and days of birth,
Through every swift vicissitude
Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,
And as if, like God, it all things saw,
It calmly repeats those words of awe, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

In that mansion used to be
Free-hearted Hospitality;
His great fires up the chimney roared;
The stranger feasted at his board;
But, like the skeleton at the feast,
That warning timepiece never ceased, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

There groups of merry children played,
There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;
O precious hours! O golden prime,
And affluence of love and time!
Even as a Miser counts his gold,
Those hours the ancient timepiece told, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

From that chamber, clothed in white,
The bride came forth on her wedding night;
There, in that silent room below,
The dead lay in his shroud of snow;
And in the hush that followed the prayer,
Was heard the old clock on the stair, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

All are scattered now and fled,
Some are married, some are dead;
And when I ask, with throbs of pain.
'Ah! when shall they all meet again?'
As in the days long since gone by,
The ancient timepiece makes reply, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

Never here, forever there,
Where all parting, pain, and care,
And death, and time shall disappear, —
Forever there, but never here!
The horologe of Eternity
Sayeth this incessantly, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'"

  • What challenges would this poem pose for the composer? Consider its length, structure, and language, as well as any other factors that seem problematic to you. How might the composer solve these problems?
  • Examine a song based on this poem in the Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 collection. How has the composer adapted the poem? Do you think these adaptations are good solutions to the challenges you noted above? Are there any adaptations you would object to if you were the poet?
  • Does the song have the same meaning as the poem? Why or why not?
  • Find two more songs with lyrics by one or more of the poets listed above. Compare the songs with the original poems. Do you notice any similarities in the kinds of adaptations made by the composers?
  • Given the challenges of composing a song whose lyrics are an existing poem, why would a composer decide to take this approach? Do you have a favorite poem that you would like to hear set to music?
  • Why might using a contemporary poem as the lyrics for a song be even more difficult than using a poem from the eighteenth or nineteenth century? The Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress is a good place to explore this question.


Humor is a popular art form that often appears in song. For example, "California as It Is, Comic Song" poked fun at "Argonauts" who ventured to California in search of gold in 1849.

Cover of sheet music with an illustration of a woman in a fancy dress

"Nothing to Wear." The male composer of this song poked fun at women who claimed they had nothing to wear. Do you think people today would find this song humorous? Why or why not?

"I've been to California and I haven't got a dime,
I've lost my health, my strength, my hope and I've lost my time,
I've only got a spade and pick and if I felt quite brave,
I'd use the two of them 'ere things scoop me out a grave..."

From " California as It Is, Comic Song "

Satirical or humorous ballads often made light of serious issues, such as temperance and women's rights, as well as everyday problems. For example, the comic song "The Tee-To-Tal Society" takes on temperance while "Hard Times, a Comic Song" lampoons cheating bakers, butchers, and lawyers as well as gender relations.

Conduct a Keyword Search using the word comic for additional humorous songs. Study several of the songs and answer the following questions:

  • On what topics are the songwriters using humor to comment?
  • What techniques do the songwriters use to poke fun or satirize the topics?
  • Are the songs still amusing today? Why or why not? What does this say about both issues and humor in the United States?



Changes in dance and music often occur together; such changes can both reflect and shape developments in the larger culture. The years from 1820 to 1860 saw several new dances gain popularity in Europe and the United States. The dances popular at the beginning of the era — the quadrille and minuet, for example — featured intricate steps performed in squares or lines and kept men and women at arm's length from each other. The new dances of the period were performed by individual couples in what was called a closed embrace. In a closed embrace, the man and woman faced each other; two hands were clasped while the woman's other hand rested on the man's shoulder, the man's other hand on the woman's waist. This closed embrace caused many to denounce the dances as immoral. Dance teachers also feared that these dances, which were much easier to learn than the more intricate steps of the quadrille and minuet, would put them out of work.

Use the information below and Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 to identify two dance "crazes" of the 1840s and 1850s:

Dance 1: In this dance, couples turn and glide to music having a moderate tempo (speed). The music usually has three beats to the measure, with a strong emphasis on the first beat (think oom-pa-pa, oom-pa-pa). This dance originated in rural communities in Germany and was initially looked down upon by the aristocracy. By the early 1840s, however, the dance had gained widespread acceptance.

Dance 2: This dance originated in Bohemia. Its name is from a Czech word meaning "half-step." It was introduced into the United States around 1844. Music for this dance usually has two beats to the measure and a very fast tempo. The dancers spin and hop around the dance floor. The dance's fast pace gave it a playful feeling that made the closed embrace more acceptable to society. A mania for the dance swept Europe and the United States.

  • What are the two dances? How did you identify what the two dances were?
  • What evidence does the collection provide of the dances' popularity?
  • How might these new dances have reflected changes in society? How might these dances have changed society?

Answer Songs

Answer songs are pieces written in direct response to other popular songs. Several songs in the collection generated such responses. For example, the tragic "Katy darling" is sung by a man to his dead love. The song begins with the lament, "Oh, they tell me thou art dead, Katy Darling." Answer songs written in response to "Katy Darling" range from the equally sad to the ridiculous. One answer song begins with the title phrase, "Yes! 'Tis True Katy Now Is Sleeping" while the raucous "Johnny Darling," written to Katy's brother Johnny, begins with the words "Oh, they tell me thou'rt dead drunk, Johnny Darling."

Answer songs were also written in response to a song entitled "The Katy-did song," in which the narrator tells of seeing a girl named Katy sneak off to meet and kiss her boyfriend. One response song provides "Katy's defence" while another, titled "Katy-did and Katy-didn't," allows two singers to argue the case.

Read "Katy darling" or "The Katy-did song" and the answer songs written in response:

  • Which do you like better — the original song or the answer songs? Why?
  • Give at least two reasons why songwriters might compose answer songs. Which reason do you think was most important?
  • Answer songs have enjoyed popularity in various periods throughout U.S. history. For example, they were very popular in the 1960s, appearing frequently in both the country and R&B genres. Some answer songs are still being written today. Find out about answer songs in at least one other period of U.S. history, as well as the present. Are answer songs still written for the same reasons? Explain your answer.

Creating a Sheet Music Collection

Americans seem to collect almost any product, and sheet music is no exception. Sheet music collectors are numerous, and web sites about sheet music have popped up to meet their needs. Most sheet music collectors have some kind of a specialty — whether it is music by a particular composer (e.g., Stephen C. Foster), a certain type of music (religious), music from a selected era of history (1850s), music about or from a particular area (California), or music about a topic of interest (slavery). Collectors choose the music they buy based on the condition of the piece of sheet music, how well it fits their collection, the attractiveness of the cover, and a range of other factors.

Cover of sheet music with illustration of a World's Fair building

"The World's Fair Polka" could be part of a collection of polka music or a collection of music commemorating major events of the nineteenth century.

Imagine that you could begin a sheet music collection with ten pieces of music from the Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 collection. Use the questions below to begin designing your collection:

  • What will be the focus of your collection? Think about the pieces of music that you have found most interesting or an area that you would like to learn more about.
  • What criteria will you use to select the ten pieces of music? Think about such factors as appearance, content, fit with your focus, and variety.
  • What search strategies will you use to locate pieces of music that fit the focus of your collection and meet your criteria?

Once you have answered these questions, search the collection to find the ten pieces of music you will use to begin your collection. When you have selected them, print out the pieces and decide how, if you were a serious collector, you might display the pieces.