Our museum is temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

4 music-inspiring objects through the eyes of our Making American Music interns

Musical inspiration abounds in the collections and exhibitions around us. As interns in the Making American Music project, we get to follow that inspiration to make music and engage museum visitors in a conversation about the relationship between music and history in the United States. With the guidance of artist-in-residence Dom Flemons, we’ve been exploring the collections and using our knowledge of performance and research to interpret them.

Follow along as we explore four items in the museum collection that sparked a musical connection!

Listening to the hopeful sounds of victory: “A Yankee Doodle Tan” sheet music

Sheet music cover with silhouette of marching soldiers and large V
"A Yankee Doodle Tan (The 'Double V' Song)" sheet music, 1942. Duke Ellington Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Kelly Bosworth: Spot the two large Vs on this striking sheet music cover from 1942? This song, “A Yankee Doodle Tan,” written by Andy Razaf and J. C. Johnson, was the theme song for a movement during World War II called the "Double V Campaign." African Americans volunteered in large numbers to serve in the war, even as they were treated as second class citizens at home in the United States. The Double V Campaign called for a double victory in World War II: victory against fascism abroad and against racism at home.

After seeing this song highlighted in the museum, I became fascinated with the small but remarkable body of music that came out of the Double V Campaign. These songs highlight American ideals of equality, freedom, and liberty, while emphasizing the patriotism and sacrifice of African Americans in a time of war. For example, in “A Yankee Doodle Tan,” the lyrics say, “America, you can depend on ev’ry native son / To stand by you until the end, his color doesn’t run.”

Music has always been a powerful tool for sharing political messages in the United States. The songs from the Double V Campaign are an early example of the contributions of African American lyricists and composers in a continuing tradition of civil rights protest.

Innovating with your instrument: Elizabeth Cotten’s guitar

Photo of acoustic guitar on red background
Elizabeth Cotten's C. F. Martin and Company, Auditorium Orchestra model #000-18 guitar, 1950.

Libby Weitnauer: One of the musical instruments currently on display (in 1 Center) is Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten’s guitar. Upon arriving at the museum, I was unaware that the guitar was part of the collection but had serendipitously learned one of Cotten’s most beloved songs, “Freight Train,” just days before.

Self-taught and left-handed, Cotten played her guitar both upside down and backwards, which resulted in a warm and rolling style completely unique to her. The style she pioneered, which is deeply rooted in the sounds of the blues guitarists that preceded her, is now known as “Cotten-style.” Her process is a perfect example of the ways in which folk musicians innovate and propel musical traditions forward by customizing their approach to their instruments. Elizabeth Cotten’s groundbreaking spirit has inspired me to innovate in my own playing.

Feeding the body as well as the heart: Bread and Roses magazine cover

Illustration of an African America woman with an Afro hairstyle. Roses bloom around her hair and face. She looks positively into the distance.
"Bread and Roses" magazine cover, artwork by Paul Davis, 1978. Courtesy of Cultural Project 1199 at Cornell University.

Rose Alia Rodgers: Located in the Many Voices, One Nation exhibition, a colorful magazine cover titled “Bread and Roses” instantly caught my eye. I looked into the history of the phrase, “bread and roses,” and found that it originated from a 1911 poem, and has continued to provide a staple slogan for workers’ movements since then.

An early mention of the phrase came from a workers’ rights leader Rose Schneiderman. At a 1912 textile strike, she said, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” She explained that workers needed dignified working conditions, meaning safety, fair wages, and reasonable work hours. The words were later put to a melody and performed by numerous artists, including Judy Collins, Bobby McGee, and Mimi Fariña.

I was drawn to this song not only because of the value in its meaning but also because it inspired protest, bringing various communities together (including immigrant communities, workers unions, and leading women) to strike for better treatment in the workplace.

Songs of slavery: Eli Whitney’s cotton gin patent model (reproduction)

Wooden box with wisps of cotton in gears.
Courtroom cotton gin model, about 1800

Hannah Rose Baker: Henry Truvillion was a singer and preacher who spent many years working for the railroad, where singing “work songs” was often a means for coordinating labor. Folklorist John Lomax recorded him singing many of these songs in the late 1930s, including this “Cotton Picking Song.” Truvillion emphasizes in his song that he’s “picking [cotton] by the pound.”

While we were working on the song, I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. There I read a label about the effects of the invention of the Whitney cotton gin in 1793. It read, “Before Whitney’s gin, one person could clean one pound of cotton per day. The gin increased that number by 4,900 percent.” I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of the song, the actual examples of cotton gins on display in the museum—now dormant and disconnected from the work they once did—and the inhumane oppression of the unending work cotton production meant for enslaved people. I wanted to explore this in our program and I was drawn to researching American work songs, of which “Cotton Picking Song” is an example. 

Work songs, born in the coerced labor and hardships of slavery, came to influence many American musical genres, from bluegrass to rock and roll. In many ways, like every aspect of American history and life, American popular music has been forever imprinted with the legacy of slavery and oppression. As interns, we have had the opportunity to share this complicated history with our visitors through song.

Four young women stand on a stage with microphones and a music stand. Background is black. Two hold instruments. Mouths open in song.
The 2018 Making American Music interns. From left: Hannah Rose Baker, Rose Alia Rodgers, Libby Weitnauer, Kelly Bosworth. 

This blog post was compiled by Libby Weitnauer, a musician who has recently finished a master’s degree at New York University. Rose Alia Rodgers is a recent Sociology graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Kelly Bosworth is a musician and a PhD student in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Hannah Rose Baker is a scholar-musician currently residing in Boston, Massachusetts.

Making American Music is supported by the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation and the John Hammond Performance Series Endowment Fund.