Long before the advent of the 30-second campaign ad, Americans used political songs to celebrate—and sear—the candidates they loved and those they loved to hate. “Voices, Votes, Victory: Presidential Campaign Songs” a new exhibition that opens today and runs through March 7, 2009 in the Music Division at the Library of Congress, explores the history of the political song in the U.S. The Music Division is on the first floor of the Library’s James Madison Building at 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C.
The political song can be found as far back as the era of the nation’s first president, George Washington, who was celebrated in music after he took that office. But political singing took on a more contentious tone by the 1840s, as campaign songs began to be used to persuade potential voters and sometimes blast contenders for office.
“Voices, Votes, Victory” features sheet music cover art, lyrics, and sound excerpts from campaign songs dating from 1798 to 1968. Among the exhibit items are a march celebrating George Washington, a song supporting Abraham Lincoln’s first run for the presidency in 1860 and music heralding third-party agendas.
The exhibit presents a sampling of campaign songs found in the rich collection of sheet music housed in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. The earliest items are rare melodies that honored America’s first presidents for winning and maintaining the young nation’s liberty. Some of the most potent political rhetoric of the 19th century is found in “songsters,” pocket-sized books of lyrics that allowed passionate voters to be ever-ready for an impromptu “sing” to stump for their party’s candidates. Yet other examples show that friends and families joined to campaign around parlor pianos, a trend that continued well into the 20th century.
Even the covers of early campaign-song sheet music were an attempt at spin, featuring elegantly engraved portraits of candidates, sometimes in uniform.
America’s campaign songs reflect virtually every episode and issue that affected the nation: the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II; such political maelstroms as the Teapot Dome scandal, trust-busting, and Prohibition; and concerns of the average citizen including an eight-hour work day, child labor, and food for the hungry. Not only are the long-enduring party symbols of the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey seen in song-related art, but also their forerunners—the Whigs’ log cabin and hard cider, the Republicans’ white plume, and the Democrats’ red bandanna.
Established in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. It seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its Web site at www.loc.gov
and via interactive exhibitions on a new, personalized Web site at www.myLOC.gov
The Library’s unparalleled music holdings include manuscripts, scores, sound recordings, books, libretti, music-related periodicals and microforms, copyright deposits and musical instruments. Manuscripts of note include those of European masters such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms and those of American masters such as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Charles Mingus. The Alan Lomax collection of field recordings of American roots music, Woody Guthrie’s original recordings and manuscripts, and one-of-a-kind recordings of bluesman Robert Johnson from the 1930s are also among the Library’s musical treasures. Many of these collections are available at www.loc.gov/performingarts/encyclopedia/