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."