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The Nooks and Crannies of the Library of Congress

July 3, 2012

One of the things you don't want to do in Washington DC in July or August is go outside. So it's a good thing that the three buildings of The Library of Congress, where I am currently working for the summer on the Song of America project, are connected by a handy rabbit warren.

At lunchtime today, I burrowed beyond the almost windowless 1980s confines of the Madison Building where the Music Division is housed, to check out a couple of small exhibitions that caught my eye yesterday in the opulent, be-marbled Jefferson Building. (While burrowing my way back to base after lunch, I overheard someone say: 'The Library of Congress is responsible for the most beautiful and the most ugly buildings on the whole of Capitol Hill.")

First I visited Hope for America: Performance, Politics & Pop Culture, an exhibition which draws inspiration from comedian Bob Hope to draw attention to the links between politics and entertainment in the 20th century.

The exhibition packs a great deal into a snug space. There is information on everything from Bob Hope's admiration of Lenny Bruce to John F Kennedy impersonators to the conflation of entertainment and news, most recently in the hands of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. I loved the photographs and videos and particularly enjoyed the several "jukeboxes" tucked away in corners, which allow visitors to browse topical audio recordings from the LOC archives. Great stuff.

Then I made a pit-stop in the Gershwin Room, an even smaller space dedicated to the music and lives of George and Ira Gershwin. The LOC Music Division is responsible for furnishing the room and it's a tiny jewel.

Seeing the original manuscript of Porgy and Bess took my breath away. (I'm surprised in fact to have any breath left in me having spent part of the afternoon touring the Music Division stacks with one of the curators who allowed me to get up close and personal with the original scores -- yikes! -- of Brahms'  Violin Concerto, Mozart's A Major Violin Concerto, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and drafts of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics for "Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music. It was wonderful, also, to see George Gershwin's Steinway and writing desk and a self-portrait by Ira Gershwin, depicting himself at the easel standing in his underwear. From the exhibition, one gets a very strong sense of the two personalities at stake here: George, a glamorous, raging furnace of a man who died at 38, and his quieter, more meticulous sibling, who lived till he was a very old man and obviously didn't take himself very seriously.

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