Library of Congress Presents 'Song of America' Tour

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Faith Lapidus.  This week -- America's cultural history takes to the road.


The world's largest library is in Washington, D.C.  It has more than one hundred thirty million items in its collection.  That includes more than twenty million books.  It also includes maps, movies, music recordings and television shows.

The Library of Congress serves as a research center for the legislature.  It also serves as a center of cultural history for the American people.  Now the Library of Congress is sharing some of that history with people who live far from Washington.

The "Song of America" tour is part of a major program by the library to celebrate creativity across America.  The first part of the program celebrates creativity in music.  The classical singer Thomas Hampson has been presenting a traveling concert series.


Thomas Hampson began an eleven-city tour in November.  He started in the Midwest, the American heartland.  In January he appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York.  The final performance is planned in California in June.

One of the historic songs he is presenting around the country is from nineteen fifteen.  It was written by an African-American musician, Henry Burleigh, also known as Harry Burleigh.  He wrote the music to a poem by Walt Whitman.

"Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" is about a chance meeting between a Union soldier and an old slave woman during the American Civil War.  The victory by Union soldiers led to the end of slavery in the South.

The woman wears a cloth around her head in the colors of the Ethiopian flag: yellow, red and green.  She salutes the American colors -- the red, white and blue flag -- as the troops of General William Tecumseh Sherman march past.


WHO are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban'd head, and bare bony feet?
Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?

Who are you dusky woman?

('Tis while our army lines Carolina's sands and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door thou Ethiopia com'st to me,
As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.)

As Thomas Hampson travels for his Song of America tour, the famous baritone presents master classes to teach local musicians.  People can also see old printed music and pictures and listen to recordings from the Library of Congress collection.  This way they can learn about a city's musical history.

The library is also continuing its "Stories of America" program as part of the Song of America tour.  The stories program has the recorded histories of more than two thousand Americans.  The speakers are people who fought in wars, others who were active in the civil rights movement, and just average citizens.

The Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress will also travel for the Song of America tour.  Ted Kooser will hold readings and organize workshops where poets can get advice about their work.

Ted Kooser is in his second term as America's official poet.  He was chosen by the Librarian of Congress, James Billington.  Mr. Billington calls him a major poetic voice for the America of small towns and wide open spaces.

Ted Kooser is the first poet laureate from the Great Plains of the Midwest.  He won the two thousand five Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book, "Delights & Shadows."  Here, for Special English listeners, he reads his poem "A Happy Birthday":

TED KOOSER: "This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand."


The Song of America tour will also send classic films around the nation, to movie houses chosen by Mr. Billington.  These theaters have machines that are able to show old movies.

The movies in the tour include "The Great Train Robbery," "Yankee Doodle Dandee" and "All Quiet on the Western Front."

"All Quiet on the Western Front" opened in nineteen thirty.  It is considered unusually well made for its time.  The story comes from the German novel by Erich Maria Remarque.  A young German soldier in World War One believes fighting in a war is an honorable tradition of manhood.  He comes to understand the terrible suffering in wartime.

Another old film to be shown is "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."  Warner Brothers produced this drama of mystery and adventure in nineteen forty-eight.  It was the first movie in which actor Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston worked together.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" will also be shown around the country.  In this nineteen thirty-nine film, Jimmy Stewart plays a young senator who sees only the good in politics.  Others aim to get him expelled from the Senate on false accusations.  To save himself, he talks and talks for hours to try to stop a vote on the Senate floor.

JAMES STEWART: "I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place.  Somebody will listen to me ... "

More than four thousand people work for the Library of Congress.  The Song of America tour is just one of many activities organized by the library.

Last month, for example, there was a talk by former ambassador Richard Gardner.  He discussed and signed copies of his book "Mission Italy: On the Front Lines of the Cold War."

Peter Schikele  is a music expert who likes to be funny.  Mr. Schikele lectured at the library on the subject "String Quartet: The Dark Horse of Contemporary Music."

The Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress stands near the Capitol, the building where Congress meets.

There is a round copper top to the Jefferson building.  The metal dome is green with age.  The building looks like an Italian palace of the fifteen hundreds.  This is the heart of the Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States.  He played an important part in the history of the Library of Congress.

That history began in eighteen hundred, when John Adams was America's second president, after George Washington.  Imagine this: the library started with eleven boxes of law books.  The books were kept in one room of the Capitol building.

By eighteen fourteen, the collection had grown to about three thousand books.  But all of them were destroyed that year as British troops invaded Washington and burned the Capitol building.

Thomas Jefferson was the next president.  He offered his own collection of books to help rebuild the library.  Jefferson had about seven thousand books in seven languages.  His wish to help the library might have made him willing to offer his books.  His debts might have also played a part in his decision.  In any case, Congress purchased them.

In eighteen ninety-seven, the library moved into its own building, across the street from the Capitol.  A second building was opened in nineteen thirty-nine.  It was named for President John Adams.

But there was still not enough space for the library.  So in nineteen eighty, a third building was completed near the first two.  It was named for America's fourth president, James Madison.

And today there is another place where you can visit the Library of Congress: the Internet, at


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson.  Caty Weaver was our producer.  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Faith Lapidus.  You can read and listen to our programs at  And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.