Chicago professor honored for compiling music about Abe Lincoln

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A Chicago music history professor has been honored with an award for his work cataloging all of the music ever written about Abraham Lincoln and now hopes to make his findings available to the public.

Thomas Kernan, a Roosevelt University assistant professor, started the work with his dissertation for his Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati. This month, the Abraham Lincoln Institute and Abraham Lincoln Association presented Kernan with the $1,000 Hay-Nicolay Dissertation Prize.

Kernan’s goal is to create a searchable online database of his work by April 2017. So far, Kernan said he has logged more than 1,000 pieces of music — some that had been lost or never played.

James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, said Kernan’s work shows Lincoln’s influence has appeared in music for five generations.

“That is unprecedented in our history,” Cornelius said. “The uses — and abuses — of Lincoln are constant in political conversation. Tom found this is true in musical conversation as well.”

Kernan went through boxes at the Lincoln presidential library in Springfield for two weeks as part of his work. He also looked in libraries and colleges all over the country.

Kernan’s research shows changes in how Americans have viewed Lincoln over time from memorial pieces after his death to his use as a protest symbol in the 1960s and 1970s. Lincoln was seen as a commander in chief during the time of World War II, and immigrants during the 1920s saw him as a classic American success story.

It’s not clear what Lincoln means to us today, though, Kernan said.

“We get the sense that, in 21st century America, we’re less inclined to really engage each other to work out our shared view of Lincoln,” he said. “We all want to take part in those pieces. … Perhaps decades from now, we’ll see more of a narrative. But I feel the way we have discussions today is a lot about asserting our own views.”

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