Who'll Buy

James R. Murray

The Lyrics of Politics

From presidential campaigns to women’s suffrage, citizens have been serenaded to the ballot-box throughout American history. By observing the musical elements of political songs, students can become more aware of music’s influence in political discourse and more fully equipped to participate in such discourse. Sensationalized language in political discourse is nothing new, as evidenced by this anti-alcohol piece from 1869.

  • How do the lyrics use satire or humor? Why might someone with a strong political opinion strategically use humor, satire, and music to communicate their message?
  • What ideas in the lyrics might be meant to incite fear in the listener? Why might someone use fear to further their cause?
  • In what ways do music, humor, satire, and fear affect today's political conversations?

Strengthening Lyrics with the Elements of Music

Just as political songs are often very forthright in their textual message, they often use text-painting techniques to strengthen the impact of the words through music.

  • Ask students to detect the tonal shift from major to minor. How does this shift strengthen the message of the lyrics?
  • In the second system, there is a descending melodic line. What might it represent?
  • In the same measures, the melody is passed between different voice parts while other voices rest. Why might the composer have designed this?

For an opportunity to compare this piece with another temperance choral work, read my Library of Congress blog, "Singing for Political Change."