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[Detail] I'll sing thee songs of early days - sheet music

Collection Overview

Music for the Nation, 1870-1885, contains thousands of pieces of post-Civil War era sheet music. The music includes popular songs, compositions for piano, band and orchestra, choral music, solo instrumental music, method books, and instructional materials. The collection provides a unique window into American music and how it defined and was defined by its time in history.

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.

  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

About the Collection

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

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

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


U.S. History

Music for the Nation, American Sheet Music, 1870-1885 demonstrates how popular music reflected sentiments surrounding the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Development of the Industrial United States beginning in 1876. Songwriters' attitudes towards war, work, women, slavery, industry, and ethnicity appear in their lyrics and song styles and often serve as a sounding board for the attitudes of their growing audience. Students may use this collection when examining public interest and reaction to historical events and social change. The section entitled, "How Did These Songs Reach the Public" in "A Decade of Music in America, 1870-79," describes how this collection was performed for its audience.

War Stories: Memories of the Civil War in Song

Patriotic societies started their campaign to commemorate the Civil War in the Reconstruction era. Holidays such as Decoration Day (later renamed Memorial Day) began in 1868 and monuments were constructed when soldiers reorganized as veterans. Students can examine how songwriters joined the celebratory ranks with their various commemorations of the Civil War. A search on war reveals major campaigns remembered in instrumentals such as "Sherman's March to the Sea", while ballads including "Little Joe" and "A Knot of Blue and Grey" feature songwriters recalling the war from the soldiers' perspective.

Slavery on the Stage: Minstrel Depictions of the End of Slavery

African-American communities emphasized their first decade of freedom with celebrations such as "Juneteenth," but traveling minstrel troupes reflected larger social and political sentiments with an emphasis on the nostalgic side of slavery. Songs such as "Slavery Days" and "Goin' from de cotton fields" feature singers longing for the days of the abolished institution. Similar songs can be found by searching on slavery, plantation, massa, Dixie, and South. Although many of these songs reflect the popular sentiments of minstrel performers and their audiences, they are never tempered by more sobering responses to the end of slavery in the Reconstruction era as evidenced by the creation of Freedmen's Bureaus and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Possible questions for students include:

  • What aspects of slavery are celebrated in these songs?
  • Who were these minstrels and who was their audience?
  • What is the appeal of these songs to both groups?
  • What was the role and value of these songs in Reconstruction era America?

African-American Songwriters

As minstrelsy gained popularity, some African-American performers formed their own "authentic" troupes and a few even wrote their own material. One of the most prominent African-American composers of the era was James A. Bland. He penned pieces such as "Dem Golden Slippers." Other major African-American songwriters featured in this collection include Sam Lucas, who wrote "Carve dat Possum" and "De day I as sot free". Some possible questions for students include the following:

  • What attitudes towards slavery and race are portrayed in these songs?
  • How do these songs compare with minstrel tunes by white songwriters?
  • How do these songs compare with spirituals and jubilee songs that date back to the days of slavery?

The Depiction of Ethnic Groups

The depiction of African-Americans wasn't limited to songs about slavery. Asian immigrants were frequently targeted as outsiders because of the language barrier, the way they maintained their native dress and customs, and the belief that they were taking jobs of hard-working people who had come to America first. Songs representing the popular anti-Asian sentiment that often manifested itself as violent physical attacks against Asian immigrants include "The Coolie Chinee" and the far more direct "The Chinamen Must Go". Students working with such songs need to know about the cultural biases of the past in order to appropriately understand sensitive language.

While these songs were popular, depictions of Asian immigrants were not as common as songs about African-Americans and other European immigrants. In fact, ethnic groups were primarily represented in song by comic and romantic pieces about Irish and German immigrants who entered America prior to the 1870s. Laments for the nations immigrants left behind are described in songs such as "German immigrants' song of home" and "I'll take you home again, Kathleen" (an audio clip is available in the section, "In Performance--Choral Works from the Collection").

Comic and patriotic national songs about various ethnicities are available by searching on Irish, German, Italy, France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, Scotland, Russia, Wales, and Chinese while a search on Indian reveals only two instrumentals referring to Native Americans: "An Indian Tale" and "Indian corn dance." The depiction of ethnicity in these songs is discussed in greater detail in the "Ethnic Groups and Popular Songs" section of "A Decade of Music in America, 1870-79". Some possible questions for students include:

  • How are ethnic groups depicted in these songs?
  • What characteristics and events do songwriters focus on?
  • Why might immigrants be most often represented in comic and romantic songs?
  • Why are German and Irish immigrants discussed most often?


As the influx of immigrants changed the face of America in the late nineteenth century, technological innovations changed the nation's landscape. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. He invented the electric lightbulb two years later.

These and other new devices such as the telephone and telegraph were demonstrated at national expositions and imitated and celebrated in a variety of song styles. Instrumental works such as "Railroad galop" simulated the sound of a steam engine while a polka entitled "Electric Sparks" was inspired by the telephone. Waltzes, gallops, polkas, and marches are just some of the musical styles found by searching on railroad, electricity, telegraph, or telephone. Students can discuss how these inventions lent themselves to musical imitation.

Urbanization, Industrialization, and the World of Work

The years between 1870 and 1885 were a period of rapid urbanization. A search on terms such as city, New York City, or even Brooklyn, yield hundreds of songs about city life in the late nineteenth century.

Matched with equally rapid industrialization, this urbanization resulted in a restructuring of the world of work, reflected in this collection. The value of work is celebrated in songs such as "Work, boys! Work with a will!" and "Labor and liberty," which declares:"In Liberty's land, there's no freedom to shirk, The loafer has freedom to die." Other songs described the difficulties of finding and maintaining a job in this new economy. "No work" and "The mill's shut down" are just some of the examples available with a search on work and labor.

Songs about labor strife, on the other hand, are available with a search on strike. "The Workers' anvil" leads the call for a strike "for the cause of labor, strike for your homes and freedom." Billy Pastor writes in "Eight hour strike," "Capital never such a victory saw, as the workmen will win in an eight-hour law."

Labor protest wasn't the only problem plaguing cities. Urban areas had to deal with the disparity of economic classes described in "Give bread to the poor," and poverty as depicted in "Poverty's child" and "Shivering and shaking out in the cold"--which is also available as an audio clip. Search on poor, poverty, crime, temperance, drink, beg, and begging for more evidence of social troubles in the city.

Women in Society

Women's suffrage and early strains of the feminist movement began in the 1880s. One example of the increased social awareness of women is available with a search on vote and the listing of a song, "Shall women vote." Another example is "Daughters of Freedom! The Ballot be yours" which includes an audio clip recorded by the Music for the Nation Singers from the section, "In Performance--Choral Works from the Collection".

Women weren't yet represented by the ballot but they were an integral part of the city life depicted by the songwriters. For example, "Riding on the Elevated Railroad" exclaims,

"Now, here's a woman washin' clothes, with all her might and main;
and there's a pretty sewing girl who glances at the train."

The two women may be different in a number of ways but both are at work in the busy city.


Critical Thinking

The sheet music found in Music for the Nation, American Sheet Music, 1870-1885 allows students to examine how songwriters tapped into popular sentiments of the era. Tributes to Ulysses S. Grant, assessments of Grant and other candidates striving to reach the White House, the depiction of African-Americans on the minstrel stage and discussions of temperance and the role of women in society, are just some of the social ideas and attitudes represented in this collection. These materials could serve as valuable resource material for discussions on the electoral process, race, and gender.

Chronological Thinking: Presidential Campaigns

Campaign songs were used throughout the presidential elections of the 1870s but their popularity took off during the 1880s. In fact, here are more songs for any one major-party candidate in the 1880 or 1884 election than all of the songs about the four candidates in the 1870s combined. With searches on presidential campaign and election, students can put together a timeline of candidates hoping to become president and determine ways in which the public viewed them.

For example, George Leithead's 1884 "Campaign Song No. 1" assesses the two candidates:

Ben Butler is the choice of a very motley crew,
Doubtless Ben has an eye, what money best can do;
This we know for certain, he is against Free Trade,
And of him working men need not be afraid.
This we say of Cleveland-Democratic nominee,
he is no poor man's friend, his vetoes please to see;
With twelve hours for labor and ten cents for a ride,
There are few working men, who will not let him slide.

Historical Comprehension: Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant was a prominent figure in the popular imagination. As a Civil War hero and two-term President of the United States, songwriters had a good deal to write about. Polkas, marches, and campaign songs celebrated him. W.S. Irwin's Grant Campaign Song proclaims:

"He's a gallant hero, And noble statesman too, He's safely brought our ship of State, The darkest dangers through, Let ev'ry brave and true man, Join our loyal band, 'Till loud resounds the victory, From mountain vale, and strand."

In addition to pieces about Grant's candidacy, songwriters wrote works about his policies and the White House wedding of his daughter, Nellie Grant. A search on hero produces a number of songs commemorating Grant's death. Students can examine these works to get a better understanding of Grant's achievements and his role as a celebrated public figure.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Minstrel Songs

Minstrel troupes often performed spirituals and jubilee songs that were written during the era of slavery. By presenting these works alongside contemporary pieces, minstrels transferred the songs from the plantation to the stage. Students can compare the differences between stock comic characters of the minstrel show, who nostalgically look back on the past, and voices from jubilee songs and spirituals, looking toward a better future. By identifying the author of the documents (even in terms of distinguishing between a song written by a popular African-American songwriter such as James A. Bland and an anonymous spiritual), students can assess the credibility of these historical documents and differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations.
Questions to consider include:

  • Who wrote songs that were nostalgic for slavery?
  • Why were they popular?
  • How do they differ from songs written during the era of slavery?
  • Would the audience be able to distinguish between the two?
  • What is the effect of presenting these two types of songs in a single program?

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision-Making: Temperance

The collection offers a number of songs reflecting the social concern over the potential dangers of alcohol. These songs are generally either militant or sentimental in tone. While songs such as The Temperance Army demonstrate the movement as a religious cause, others such as The Drunkard's Daughter reflect the social problems caused by the use and abuse of alcohol from its first verse:

"Out on the street with naked feet, I saw the drunkard's daughter. Her tattered shawl was thin and small. She little knew; for no one taught---her. . . ."

Even songs from a search on drinking songs acknowledge the problems of excess. For example, I'm All Broke Up To Day ends with the pledge:

"I'll sober up, and shake the cup, Drink nothing but coffee and Tay; I'll sock my head and go to bed. I'm all broke up to-day."

Students can examine how such concerns led to social change and foreshadowed the era of Prohibition. Additional searches on temperance, drunkard, and poor offer more details of alcohol as a social problem. Students can determine the value of temperance (and, subsequently, prohibition) and use these materials as a resource for an expository essay or discussion.

Historical Research Capabilities: Women

The women's suffrage movement was beginning to take hold in the late nineteenth century but there are a number of different depictions of women throughout this collection of songs. Various roles of women appear in songs such as "Oh! Woman, sweet woman", "Lovely woman, comic song", and "The talking woman." Students might examine a number of these descriptions and compare them to songs representing the women's suffrage movement such as "Daughters of Freedom! The Ballot be yours." Such comparisons are available with searches on vote and suffrage.

Another point of interest might be the way in which songs referring to women's suffrage compare to materials found in other collections such as the Declaration and protest of the women of the United States by the National Woman Suffrage Association on July 4th, 1876 and similar publications available in An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. By examining these materials, students can compare the various methods and messages employed by the suffragist movement.


Arts & Humanities

The subject matter and lyrics in Music for the Nation, American Sheet Music, 1870-1885 provide a number of opportunities for students to analyze the material or attempt to replicate the styles themselves. Songs in this collection can be used to introduce and discuss poetic devices, the expectations writers have of their intended audiences, first-person narratives and their use of dialect for comic effect, and familiar imagery in ballads and folklore. They also provide opportunities for creative writing.

Poetry: Documenting Local History in Song

Songwriters often commemorated local historical events and provided a way for them to achieve national attention. For example, the fire that swept through Chicago in 1871 is described in a number of songs. While many pieces recalled the fire, others, such as Out of the Flames, actually focused on the aftermath of the fire. Students can discuss the way in which specific details of the event may give way to poetic license. In The Chicago fire, songwriter Eff Bea uses alliteration, detail, metaphor, rhythm, and a strong narrative voice while depicting the tragedy:

"See the fierce fire leaping! Hear it crackle, roar, and hiss! On it comes now swiftly creeping, blighting all with burning kiss."

Students can identify the techniques used to create such imagery and try their hand at commemorating an important event in the life of their own community. More songs based on specific historical events are available in the Music for Public Occasions section of "A Decade of Music in America, 1870-79."

Songs and Autobiography: Perspectives on the Civil War

Ballads commemorating Civil War soldiers' actions such as A Knot of Blue and Grey can be compared to autobiographical works in some of the Library's other collections. Students can discuss the ways in which autobiography might not be the most historically accurate form of narrative while examining the war imagery of songs and the more mundane descriptions in works such as Leon Louis' Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier might serve for an interesting contrast in genres. Questions to keep in mind include:

  • What is intended goal of a songwriter?
  • How does that compare to the writer of a diary or journal?
  • Who are the intended audiences?
  • How does this explain the difference between the two accounts?

Humor: Narration and Word Play

A number of songs present narrators who rely on their vernacular, or dialect, for comic effect. For example, The U.S. Mail offers a variation on the comic German immigrant figure described in the U.S. History section:

"I'se Jake Von Kroot, goes about takes dem letters for de girls I knows; Books and tracts, pills for quacks, love lines for de beaux. I fear not der vinds and snows, drinks good beer und wear good clothes, At de girls sheep's eyes I trows, As I goes mit der mail!"

Good sweet ham, on the other hand, presents an African-American figure (probably portrayed on the stage by a minstrel) literally singing the praises of ham:

"You may talk about good eating, Of your oysters and your chowdered clam, But it's when I'm awful hungry, Then just give me good old sweet ham; Now some folks may differ with me, But their talk 'tis nothing but a sham, For to touch this darkie's palate, Oh! Just give me good old sweet ham."

Songwriters also allowed their narrators to toy with the meaning of the words instead of the way they were delivered. Henry Work's Grandfather's Clock is full of time-related humor: "My grandfather said that of those he could hire, Not a servant so faithful he found; For it wasted no time, and had but one desire-At the close of each week to be wound. And it kept in its place-not a frown upon its face, And its hands never hung by its side;"

After searching on comic or examining the section Ethnic Groups and Popular Songs, students can identify the different techniques in such songs and write their own account of a favorite object or personal narrative.

Ballads, Folk Tales, and Nursery Rhymes

Ballads and folk tales are also featured in this collection. The Fox and the Crow presents a traditional story:

"One day a silly Crow Sat high among the trees, And held, within her bill, A dainty piece of cheese. Attracted by the same, A sly fox came a along, And to Miss Crow, at once, Politely sang this song...."

A Knight's love offers a tale of two lovers in ballad form: "They plighted their faith in the bower of love, And the parting word is spoken; Oh! Who could have deemed that so firm an oath Would be so lightly broken...." Students can discuss the way in which these songs fit into familiar patterns and prepare the audience for what to expect. Students might also look at these songs as well as a version of the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill and compare them to the traditional folk tales recorded in the Library's collection, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

Creative Writing

Gus Williams offers a starting point for brainstorming and creative writing in his song, The Crazy Quilt:

..."And suddenly I said That I would make a crazy quilt, But not for any bed; Instead of silk I would use scenes That happen ev'ry day, And so I put my wits to work, And this is my display:....I'd have conductors on the train, And station agents, too, Reply to all your questions With civility in view; While newsboys, with their trashy wares, I'd bind and gag at sight, So that the travelers all would say I did exactly right. The cats that warble on the fence, The tramp dogs in the street, I'd have old Bergh transform them all and make them sausage meat...."

Students can use songs such as this and other songs, such as George Kimball's A Day dream, as a catalyst for their own poems or lyrics. Emphasis can be placed on rhyme scheme and word play.