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Center for American Music digital collections: Songsters

Digital items held by the Center for American Music

About Songsters

Songsters are little books of lyrics to popular and traditional songs. They contain little or no musical notation. In America, they were published in abundance from the eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth century and occasionally in the twentieth century and beyond. The contents of a particular songster are usually listed on either the interior of the cover or the last pages of the booklet. Because musical notation is not included, it is assumed that singers are already familiar with the melodies for each piece. If new lyrics are intended for an existing popular tune, the melody's original title was typically indicated beneath the new title. For example, it might indicate that the lyrics should be "sung to the tune of 'Camptown Races.'" 

Songsters are often associated with specific theatrical shows and performances. Many covers feature portraits of performers in costume. Nineteenth-century songsters include lyrics for comic, sentimental, political, and patriotic songs of all sorts. In addition to song lyrics, they are also noteworthy as repositories of skits and jokes, particularly from blackface minstrel shows. 

Many songsters are associated with political campaigns. Notable are those associated with the 1860 and 1864 Abraham Lincoln presidential elections. Patriotic songsters were very popular during times of war. The War of 1812 and the Civil War saw the publication of numerous songsters. 

Songster were also distributed to further a specific cause, such as unionization, temperance, abolition, and women's suffrage.