The Library of Congress has several collections of sheet music. One of those collections—Historic American Sheet Music from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University provides information on sheet music and some ideas on what sheet music teach us. Read an excerpt from the full article then click the links below to access more sheet music collections and associated teaching resources.
Drawn from the collections in the [Duke University] Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, this selection presents a significant perspective on American history and culture. The sheet music chosen for digital reproduction represents a wide variety of music types including bel canto, minstrel songs, protest songs, sentimental songs, patriotic and political songs, plantation songs, Civil War songs, spirituals, dance music, songs from vaudeville and musicals, “Tin pan alley” songs, and songs from World War I. The collection is particularly strong in antebellum Southern music, Confederate imprints, and Civil war songs. Also included are piano music of marches, variations, opera excerpts, and dance music, including waltzes, quadrilles, polkas, etc. In addition, some of this sheet music is illustrated. These illustrations represent an important, and in some cases almost unique, source of information for popular contemporary ideas on politics, patriotism, race, religion, love, and sentiment.
An examination of sheet music reveals something of the inner life of the American citizenry in a way distinguishable from diaries and newspaper accounts, while also more intimate than the historian’s descriptive synthesis. Use of these materials in conjunction with letters and diaries can make history more personal. A soldier’s mention of a song sung around the campfire in a letter to his family makes us more aware of the daily life of that man. To actually see the music and sing it ourselves transports us to that place and time for a moment. By examining the illustrations we can also study not only changes in fashion and dress, but expectations of appearance and behavior. The illustration series “Society and culture–Women” gives an interesting overview of the “ideal” woman from 1850 to 1920. We also can view a less comfortable (through more modern eyes) overview of how African Americans were depicted both in the illustrations and in the music.
Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1820 – 1860, 1870 – 1885 & Collection Connections: Resources for Teachers
Analyzing Primary Sources: Learning from Music guiding questions for analyzing audio music recordings and sheet music