HM - January 2019- Dobeck-Kaka

Classroom Applications

Using Music from the Past Century as a Primary Source in the U.S. History Classroom?

By Sarah J. Kaka and Christopher Dobeck, Ohio Wesleyan University

Music is a universal language for expression, and throughout time we can learn about the history of an era by using music as a primary source. Utilizing music in history classrooms allows teachers to assist students in perceiving past events and issues as they might have been experienced by peoples and cultures in their own time and with a sort of historical empathy rather than present-mindedness.1 Music is one way that we can dive into a society’s past, shining light on their worldview and way of life. Music has a way of providing “a richly packed time capsule from [an historical time] period”2  that can be opened and unpacked, verse by verse, to reveal meaning for contemporary observers. Music can provide a powerful entry point for students to begin investigating difficult topics from the past that may still be controversial in the present.3  Students will find some of those controversial topics rather timely, such as the interplay of race and social status in Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power". Through the exploration of controversial topics, music acts as an engine of civic engagement, connecting students to discourse on the 1st Amendment.
The use of music in history classrooms has been found to enhance a teacher’s classroom in several different ways: (1) it can increase student engagement in the classroom and content; (2) music assists in teaching students empathy; and (3) music positively impacts student academic achievement when used purposefully. For many students in today’s classrooms, history is the class that they dread. They do not see the importance of it, and teachers underutilize interesting, attention-getting and student-centered teaching methods. Music can assist the teacher in engaging students that may otherwise tune out the lesson. The use of music can support teachers in presenting new content in a way that students find less boring than the traditional teacher-centered lecture.4  In addition, history teachers have found that music enhances the lesson and is effective in delivering content to the students in such a way that they have a deeper understanding of the history curriculum being taught.
The Use of Music in U.S. History Class
The use of music in a U.S. history classroom will also support teachers in creating empathetic learners. Music from a particular time period can assist students in connecting emotionally with the people from that era. Imagine a teacher playing Woody Guthrie’s "Dust Pneumonia Blues." This song’s lyrics include: “I went to the doctor, and the doctor, said, ‘My son, You got that dust pneumony an' you ain't got long, not long’." This song can assist students in experiencing the physical and emotional pains of people who lived through the drought that contributed to the Dust Bowl, often leading to dust pneumonia, a fatal disease. Also consider playing Harburg & Gorney’s song, “Brother Can you Spare a Dime,” with lyrics that include, “Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time. Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?” If teachers play this song at the beginning of a lesson or unit on the Great Depression, they can use it as a hook, allowing students to hear firsthand the negative impact of the Depression on a hardworking American—a man that once had a significant role in building America up is now begging for money to survive. Songs such as these allow students to see the human side of America in the 1930s, which may lead to a more emotional connection with the historical content being taught.6
Lyrics sung or spoken are able to provide powerful emotional imagery to listeners. Emotions like love and pain are timeless wellsprings of musical inspiration. This emotional connection to song lyrics can help students move from passive learners to more active ones.7  In addition, by using music to support the teaching of history, students will be better equipped to grasp and understand past peoples and cultures in a broader and richer context.8  For example, by returning to "Dust Pneumonia Blues," students reflect upon the hardship faced by someone getting the news that they are going to slowly die due to dust storms caused by drought, something that is completely out of their control. By the age a student would address the Dust Bowl in the classroom, they are able to not only process loss, but also possess the ability to put themselves in the lyricist’s position. Music’s ability to provide such a viewpoint through tone, word choice, and instrumental accompaniment allows students to listen to a primary source like a read aloud, but also provides a more emotional presentation of the material. Harry McClintock’s 1928 hit ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ immerses students into a hobo’s ideal of utopia while simultaneously providing students with information about the diets, luxuries, and common imagery for a boxcar traveler living nearly a century ago. In fact, since “the studying of music serves as an oral history and immersion into the phenomena being studied and allows for the past to speak to the students to fully grasp the situations,”9  it may be concluded that music, when applicable to the content, may serve in the classroom as a primary source of equal or greater value than other types of written documents. 
The inclusion of music in the history classroom can also support a students’ academic achievement. Baker found that when history teachers used music as a teaching strategy, they saw a significant increase in student attentiveness and test scores.10   Music is a medium that opens the door for students to enjoy learning history content, but it can also lead to the retention of content and skills. It has been found to improve oral language skill development, listening skills, memory, attentiveness, and higher-level thinking.11  Prescott discovered that when students made connections through musical inquiry, they developed the scaffolding skills needed to construct knowledge.12
Music can be utilized in many different ways. It can be used as background music,13  where the teacher plays it quietly in the background as students work at their seats. It can also be used as the vehicle to teach new content (i.e. School House Rock’s America Rock or Flocabulary’s Hip Hop History). Finally, music can and should be used as a primary source.  Using music as a primary source in the history classroom “can also guide them toward higher-order thinking and better critical thinking and analysis skills.”14  Additionally, when analyzing songs and lyrics as part of a study of an historical era, students can learn about the social, political, economic, race, and gender issues raging at the time of the song’s creation. This context can enable the teacher to more effectively provide students with a comprehensive worldview for a time, place, or event than providing students with numerous primary source documents, which can take up great amounts of time and limited school resources.
Music Through the Decades 
Using music as a primary source gives students an up-close and personal view of what was happening, or what some felt was happening, during the era in which the song was written. Slave songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” can be used to assist students in understanding slave life and the Underground Railroad. The ‘drinking gourd’ refers to “the hollowed-out gourd used by slaves as a water dipper… it is a code name for the Big Dipper star formation,”15  which helped lead the slaves north. When teachers utilize the lesson techniques below, students can better grasp the importance of this song and how it assisted the movement of slaves to the north.
WWI songs, “Over There,” “I Didn’t Raise my Boy to be a Soldier,” and “The Rose of No Man’s Land” show students different perspectives from the Great War era. “Over There” was an instant hit after America declared war on Germany in 1917, and is full of patriotic, nationalistic rhetoric. “I Didn’t Raise my Boy to be a Soldier” gives students a sense of wartime opposition from the viewpoint of staunch isolationists and pacifists.
Moving in to the Roaring 20s, songs such as “The Alcoholic Blues” allow students to better understand the Prohibition era, and a comic side of it at that; Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” to help illustrate the Harlem Renaissance; or “Lucky Lindy” by Nat Shilkret can teach students about Charles Lindbergh. For WWII, Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee’s “Somebody Else is Takin’ my Place,” focuses on  a soldier’s life at home after he’s gone to war and his woeful heartbreak. Dr. Clayton’s “Pearl Harbor Blues,” which is decidedly anti-Japanese, and Louis Jordan’s “Ration Blues,” which laments rationing during the war,  give students a sense of what life was like in America during the early 1940s.
Representing life in the 1950s and the Cold War, songs such as “I’m Gonna Dig Myself a Hole” by Arthur Crudup and “The Great Atomic Power” by the Louvin Brothers give students a chance to see firsthand what people thought of the feud between America and the USSR. With lyrics that include, “When a terrible explosion may rain down upon our land, leaving horrible destruction blotting out the works of man,” a teacher can integrate this Louvin Brothers’ song to help illuminate what some Americans thought about the atomic bomb. Students can then listen to “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds to better understand what life was like in the post-WWII suburban neighborhoods of America. 
Of course, music during the Vietnam War era was pervasive, as artists contributed songs both for (i.e. “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “Hello Vietnam”) and against (“Eve of Destruction” and “Fortunate Son”) the war. Perhaps one of the greatest primary sources for the Vietnam era is Jimi Hendrix’s live performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” from 1969’s Woodstock. There Hendrix provides listeners then and now with a sense of what it meant to be in Vietnam. Performed entirely on guitar, Hendrix juxtaposes the U.S. government’s overt patriotic fervor of the war effort through the overarching performance of the national anthem, while deviating to create the sounds of dropping bombs, jetfighters, and gunfire that the average infantryman draftee would experience. A student listening can hear both sides of the Vietnam War argument, without a single word uttered. One thing that all of these songs have in common, across all events and eras, is that they have the ability to shine light on the realities of American lives. Teachers can use these songs and lyrics to help students connect to the content in a way that is much richer and more engaging than a traditional textbook.
One era that does not often employ music as a primary source in the history classroom is the 1980s. As we delve deeper into the 21st Century, the last decades of the 20th Century are becoming distant enough for historians and students of history to begin to analyze the era with a different viewpoint than those who lived through it. Students in U.S. history classrooms today are no longer addressed daily about the threat of communism, mutually assured destruction, or the worry of Sandinistas spreading revolution across South America. The Cold War of the 1980s has been relegated to historical conversation instead of the nightly news. The 1990s, by contrast, are still too fresh; policies such as NAFTA and non-Containment related instances of international peacekeeping are still hotly debated. Yet discussions around the 1980s have grown more academic. The era of German reunification, the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl, and the assassination of John Lennon are all three decades past. Music can connect students who were born in the post-9/11 world to the worldview of an earlier time, a time whose music is still broadcasted over the radio. With most major metropolitan cities still having a “Classic Rock” station, though the current events of the 1980s are now in the past, students can still readily access the primary sources outside of the classroom.
Listening to the decade’s greatest hits can offer a student a firsthand understanding into the world around them. Thermonuclear destruction was an omnipresent worry, as highlighted by Nena’s “99 Luftballons," where one needs only to watch the music video for the first three minutes before seeing the mushroom clouds exploding in the background. Concerns relating to African famine reached a pop-culture fever pitch with Band-Aid’s 1984 hit, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with lyrics such as “Bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa, A song of hope they'll have is being alive.” This cultural phenomenon would again grace radio stations the following year with the group USA for Africa’s 1985 hit, “We Are the World,” asking for people to “...heed a certain call, When the world must come together as one” as a call for people to do what they can to help.
Music of the 1980s can also teach students that the decade was one of social unrest in the United States. Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” included music and lyrics that would make it to number 21 on the Billboard’s Top 40: “We'll fight the powers that be just, Don't pick our destiny 'cause, You don't know us, you don't belong.” Public Enemy’s 1989 protest song, “Fight the Power,” tells listeners, “Our freedom of speech is freedom or death,” and, much like Twisted Sister, “We got to fight the powers that be.” Cyndi Lauper’s 1983, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” came out of a resurgence of feminism in America, directly related to the Equal Rights Amendment and has become an anthem for young, independent women for generations to come.
Students listening to these primary sources and contrasting them to other sources made during the 1980s will experience cognitive dissonance relating to their preconceived notions. Unlike film, photos, or other artifacts, music forces the listener to visualize on their own. To fully understand a historical time requires students to understand the culture of that period, and little else can assist students in empathizing in the same way as recorded music.
How to Integrate Music in Your Lessons 
Practically speaking, let’s examine one possible way that you can use one of these songs from the 1980s as a primary source in your classroom to assist in engaging students and teaching historical empathy. Choose a song from above, or one that hasn’t been discussed here such as U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from 1983 about the massacre in Northern Ireland. Then follow the steps below to integrate the song in to your lesson. Here is an example of how to incorporate this method using “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, as discussed above.
Step 1: Read the lyrics either as a class or individually and then lead a class discussion answering the following questions
o What do you notice? 
o What lyrics stand out to you, and why? 
o  What do you think the theme or purpose of the song is? 
o Which lyrics connect to content that you are familiar with? 
o What can you learn about society at that time through the lyrics of this song? 
Step 2: Play the song as they read along with the lyrics
Step 3: Think-Pair-Share: Have students write a brief description of the recording in their own words, what they thought of it, and how it makes them feel. In what ways can you relate to the song? 
Step 4: As a class or in small groups, revisit the purpose of the song (established in Step 1) and speculate as to whether or not you think the song accomplished what the writers set out to accomplish. Did it fulfill its purpose? Why/why not? What makes you think this? 
Step 5: Written reflection: Think about what you already know about this period in history. How does this song support or contradict your current understanding of this period? 
Music has a wide and varied place in history classrooms, and whether you are just beginning your journey in front of the classroom or you are a veteran teacher, integrating music as a primary source is an easy way to hook and engage your students in the content you are teaching and assist in building their ability to empathize with people in the past. We encourage you to jump in and give it a try!


[1] History’s Habits of Mind. National Council for History Education. Accessed August 29, 2018. 
[2] Baker, Glenda. Strategic Uses of Music in the U.S. History Classroom. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Alabama, 2011.
[3] Moats, Stacie and Stephanie Poxon, “’I Didn’t Raise my Boy to Be a Soldier:’ Ideas and Strategies for Using Music from the National Jukebox to Teach Difficult Topics in History,” Social Education 75, no. 6 (2011): 291
[4] Moore, Sarah and Annmarie Ryan, “Learning to Play the Drum: An Experiential Exercise for Management Students,” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 43, no. 4 (2006): 435-444; Shephard, Natalie. “It’s a Mystery: Creating Curiosity in the Classroom.” Agora 50, no. 2 (August 2015): 55–57.
[5] Baker, Strategic Uses of Music in the U.S. History Classroom. 
[6] Root, Deane L. "Music as a cultural mirror." OAH Magazine of History 19, no. 4 (2005): 7-8.

[7] Waller, Lynn and William D. Edgington. "Using songs to help teach the civil war." The Social Studies 92, no. 4 (2001): 147-150.
  Root, "Music as a cultural mirror." 9
[8] Root, "Music as a cultural mirror." 

[9] Goering, Christian and Bradley Burenheide, “Exploring the Role of Music in Secondary English and History Classrooms through Personal Practical Theory.” SRATE Journal 19, no. 2 (2010): 48.

[10] Baker, Strategic Uses of Music in the U.S. History Classroom.

[11] Hill-Clarke, Kantaylieniere Y., and Nicole R. Robinson. "Locomotion and Literacy: Effective Strategies to Enhance Literacy Instruction." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, Atlanta, GA, November 2002.

[12] Prescott, Jennifer O. "Music in the Classroom: A User's Guide for Every Teacher." Instructor 114, no. 5 (2005): 29.

[13] Riggs, Mark. "Using songs to teach history." Agora 49, no. 4 (2014): 56.

[14]  “Using Primary Sources” Library of Congress. Accessed September 10, 2018. 

[15] Newark Museum. "Follow the Drinking Gourd - Lyrics Explained." Accessed December 19, 2018.


About NCHE

The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.