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Table of Contents What Is A Song? American Popular Song: A Brief History Who Created the Song? What Is the Song's Structure? What Was the Song's Historical Context? What Does the Song Mean? What Can Songs Tell Us About People and Society? Model Interpretation Sources of Song American Song Online Annotated Bibliography Try It Yourself! Download Entire Essay (Adobe PDF) American Song Online

Music in American history is rich and varied, including everything from marches to waltzes, from ragtime to rap. Music available online for historical research is also diverse, ranging from written music and sheet music covers to interviews with musicians and sound recordings. Due to copyright restrictions, music before the early twentieth century is most widely available. This list is intended as a brief overview to the two most common music resources available on the Web, Sheet Music and Sound Recordings, providing links to some of the largest collections as well as a glimpse at the diversity of materials available online. Many other collections can be found in History Matters.

Sheet Music

African-American Sheet Music, 1850-1920, Brown University and Library of Congress American Memory
More than 1,000 pieces of sheet music composed by and about African Americans, ranging chronologically from antebellum minstrel shows to early twentieth-century African-American musical comedies. Includes works by renowned black composers and lyricists, such as James A. Bland, Will Marion Cook, Bert Williams, George Walker, Jesse A. Shipp, James Weldon Johnson, and Eubie Blake. “Development of an African-American Musical Theatre, 1865-1910” provides a chronological overview of the emergence of African-American performers and musical troupes. In addition, sheet music can be studied to examine racial depictions, visually and in lyrics; styles of music, such as ragtime, jazz, and spirituals; and topics including gender relations, urbanization, and wars. Much of the material is disturbing due to its heavy dependence on racial caricatures; however, students can gain insight into racial attitudes through an informed use of this site.

America Singing: 19th-Century Song Sheets, Library of Congress American Memory
Before the phonograph, America learned the latest music fads from printed song sheets. These single printed sheets, often beautifully illustrated, included only lyrics and were sung to familiar tunes like “Yankee Doodle.” The lyrics and illustrations on these song sheets offer a unique perspective on the political, social, and cultural life of the time. This collection offers 4,291 song sheets, spanning the years from 1800 through the 1880s, but primarily from 1850 to 1870. Each item offers an image of the song sheet, publication and repository information, and a transcription of the lyrics. The site is keyword searchable and can be browsed by subject, title, composer name, and publisher.

The Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, Johns Hopkins University
Scanned images of more than 18,000 pieces of sheet music, including covers published prior to 1923, and cataloging for an additional 11,000 items not in the public domain. While the collection, compiled by an American musicologist, covers the period 1780-1980, it focuses on nineteenth-century popular music, especially songs relating to military conflicts, presidents, romance, transportation, and the minstrel stage. Users may search for songs on hundreds of topics such as drinking, smoking, fraternal orders, the circus, and death, or look for composers, song titles, or other catalog record data.

Nineteenth-Century California Sheet Music, Mary Kay Duggan, University of California, Berkeley
More than 1,800 scanned images of sheet music published in California between 1852 and 1900. Includes more than 800 illustrated covers, 45 audio selections, seven video clips of singers, and a handful of programs, posters, playbills, periodicals, catalogs, broadsheets, books on music, and maps. More than 350 items contain advertising.

“We’ll Sing to Abe Our Song”: Sheet Music about Lincoln, Emancipation, and the Civil War, Library of Congress American Memory
More than 200 sheet music compositions representing President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War in popular music from the 1860 presidential campaign to the centenary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909. The digital archive includes campaign jingles, war songs, compositions about emancipation, funeral marches, and commemorative songs. Each piece of music is accompanied by an image of the sheet music cover and notes on the full song title, name of composer(s), date composed, and a transcription of the lyrics.

Sound Recordings

California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, Library of Congress American Memory
Features 35 hours of folk and popular music sound recordings from several European, Slavic, Middle Eastern, and English- and Spanish-speaking communities. The Work Projects Administration California Folk Music Project collected these 817 songs in Northern California between 1938 and 1940, representing 12 languages and 185 musicians. The collection also includes 168 photographs, 45 instrument sketches, and numerous written documents, including ethnographic field reports and notes, song transcriptions, published articles, and project correspondence. Organized by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell, this was one of the earliest ethnographic field projects to document folk and popular music of such diverse origin in one region. In addition to folk music of indigenous and immigrant groups, the collection includes popular songs from the Gold Rush and Barbary Coast eras, medicine show tunes, and ragtime numbers.

Dismuke’s Virtual Talking Machine
More than 225 music selections from a private collector’s 78 rpm recordings produced between 1900 and 1940. Music is organized according to type of recording: acoustical (pre-1925) and electrical. Includes music in a variety of styles;ragtime, opera, jazz, classical, marching band, and swing. Listings provide information on vocalist, band, and soloist, and include annotations of a few sentences each. “Dismuke’s Hit of the Week” updated weekly with one to three new audio selections, also offers explanatory material of 100 to 300 words in length.

Hispano Music and Culture from the Northern Rio Grande, Library of Congress American Memory
This ethnographic field collection documents the religious and secular music of Spanish-speaking people from rural Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. It features the audio recordings and transcriptions of more than 100 songs that Juan Bautista Rael of Stanford University recorded during a 1940 research trip. Recordings include alabados (hymns), folk dramas, wedding songs, and dance tunes. Descriptive information about the title, performers, genre, instrumentation, location and date of recording, and any other brief (10-25 words) notes about the music accompanies each tune.

Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, Southwest Missouri State University
Audio files and song transcriptions of more than 1,000 songs recorded in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas between 1956 and 1976 by Max Hunter, a traveling salesman. Includes lyrics for all songs; musical notations for many songs with annotations providing information on how singers phrased certain notes; listings of the name of the singer and recording location and date; and links to variant versions or similar songs. No information is offered for composer or lyricist. Users may listen in three formats: RealPlayer, AIFF, and in some cases MIDI.

The Red Hot Jazz Archive: A History of Jazz before 1930, Scott Alexander
This comprehensive site offers biographical information, photographs, and audio and video files for more than 200 jazz bands and musicians active from 1895 to 1929. It includes more than 200 sound files of jazz recordings by well-known artists, such as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Django Reinhardt, and by dozens of less well-known musicians.

Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip, American Memory Library of Congress
In 1939, John A. Lomax and his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax embarked on a 6500-mile journey through the American South. They recorded more than 700 folk tunes by more than 300 performers during their trip. Music genres represented include ballads, blues, children's songs, cowboy songs, field hollers, lullabies, spirituals, and work songs. Each recording includes a brief (50-75 word) description and history of the tune and lists musical features, instrumentation, performers, place, and date of recording. Images and transcripts of the Lomaxes’s field notes contain lists of song titles and performers. There are also more than 70 images of dust jackets and 50 letters to and from the Lomaxes regarding their trip.


What Is a Song? American Popular Song: A Brief History Who Created the Song? What is the Song's Structure? What WAs the Song's Historical Context? What Does the Song Mean? What Can Songs Tell Us About People and Society? Model Interpretation Sources of Songs American Song Online Annotated Bibliography Try it Yourself! Go to MAKING SENSE OF AMERICAN POPULAR SONG Home Page Go to MAKING SENSE OF EVIDENCE Browse Page