The U.S. Library of Congress is a treasure trove for teachers—so much so that it can become a bit overwhelming. So, for today, I’d like to share just one resource, Lyrical Legacy, a collection of 400 years of American song and poetry.
Few things can give us insight into a place or period of history more than the things its inhabitants enjoyed. I particularly love listening to popular music as a way of understanding how people in seemingly-distant times viewed the world. This website makes such explorations as easy as a mouse click. Each song is presented in a primary source document, along with helpful historical background. Your students can explore music as primary historical documents, just as any creative historian would do—from Bonny Barbara Allen from 1763 to We Shall Overcome.
Lyrical Legacy provides tools for analyzing primary documents, including a graphic organizer for Thinking about Songs as Historical Artifacts. It also includes a listing of dozens of ideas for class activities centering on period songs and poetry. Here’s a small sampling, some of which bring you to other useful Library of Congress areas.
- I Hear America Singing: Patriotic Melodies Visit this Library of Congress Web site. See, hear, and learn more about many of the songs that have now become part of the American national heritage.
- Creativity Wall Establish a poetry and song wall at the entrance of your school and have students, staff, and parents add their favorite verses and lyrics.
- Songs and Poems the Multimedia Way Using photographs, maps and other primary sources from the American Memory collections, have students prepare a multimedia presentation about a song or poem and the historical topic or event it depicts.
- Choral Reading As you study a song, do a whole-class choral reading of the lyrics, maintaining the rhythm if possible. You might ask for a volunteer to tap out the beat while the lyrics are read.
- Popular Melodies in Campaign Songs Find examples of campaign songs. Have students use the lyrics or the tunes from these examples as models for writing their own campaign song for a school, local, or national election. (Search on “campaign songs” in American Memory.)
- Songs and Poems of an Era Have students make a timeline of the important events of a historical period. Select songs from that period and analyze them to discover the pieces’ purpose and what they illustrate about life during that era.
If you teach history, poetry, or music—or if you are just curious about the things our ancestors sang—Lyrical Legacy is for you. Take a look. Take a listen. I suspect you’ll find yourself wanting more.