Great Anthology: The American Songbag

Carl Sandburg often mixed poetry and folk music in his public performances, and his career as a collector and performer of American songs and ballads garnered him almost as much acclaim as his writings in his day. In The American Songbag, his collection of lyrics and tunes to 280 songs, he attempts to form "the song history of America." Included are the words and music to "Foggy, Foggy Dew," "John Henry," "Casey Jones," "Shenandoah (The Wide Mizzoura)," "Frankie and Johnny," "Ain't Goin' Study War No More," and Sandburg's personal favorite, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum."

In his introduction to the 1990 edition, radio personality Garrison Keillor says this of Sandburg's selection:

Somehow they did become collateral material in schools, a bundle of American folk treasures laid out for us to look at and sing. Some of Sandburg's own work survives, much has collapsed, but when he collected these songs, he made himself part of something permanent.

Sandburg's lively introduction and salesman-like descriptions of each tune can prove slightly silly for the modern reader, but his enthusiasm for the range and diversity of the material is infectious. The songs cover the breadth of the country, from Great Lakes and Erie Canal work songs, to Kentucky ballads and Southern black spirituals, to songs of "the Big Brutal City" and Mexican border songs in Spanish. With chapters like "Tarnished Love Tales or Colonial and Revolutionary Antiques," "Bandit Biographies," and "Picnic and Hayrack Follies, Close Harmony, and Darn Fool Ditties," the reader interested in a people's history of the United States will be delighted at every turn by this tour through turn-of-the-century popular verse and lyrics.

Sandburg, Carl, ed. The American Songbag (1927). Harcourt Brace & Company.