Pretty much everyone I know who teaches U.S. history appreciates the value of exposing students to images as primary sources. Not only can paintings, photographs, prints, and films sometimes communicate past events and attitudes more efficiently than textual sources, but students are often more confident about and interested in “reading” visual sources. (Whether or not that confidence is a good thing is another story; as the cultural historian Alan Trachtenberg and other scholars have observed, we all too rarely look at images, and photographs in particular, with the same skepticism that we bring to texts.)
Far fewer of us (and I include myself) have had much experience in introducing music to the classroom, even in cultural history courses. As a thought experiment, I’d like to consider when and how it might be done, and ultimately, whether the game might be worth the candle. My goal is not simply to vary the lecture and discussion format, but to choose and contextualize musical selections that push students to think about the material in ways they otherwise couldn’t. As a bonus, I find it personally satisfying when scholarship helps us rediscover works that we’re familiar with, but which we haven’t placed in their historical context. In the spirit of list-making, here are a few pieces that I think might be worth having students listen to, either in class or at home, and potentially even write about.
“Yankee Doodle”: One of the few Revolutionary-era songs that remains in our consciousness—sort of--its lyrics will strike most students cryptic and nonsensical. In fact, “Yankee Doodle” was written and sung by British officers around the time of the Seven Years’ War to ridicule the supposedly foppish tendencies of colonial troops. What the lyrics suggest is that Yankee soldiers believed putting a feather in one’s cap was the height of fashion, and lacked bravery. As another verse goes, “But when Ephraim he came home/ He proved an arrant Coward,/He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there/For fear of being devour’d.” Simultaneously caricaturing the Yankees as wannabe cosmopolitans and insufficiently masculine, this song can be used to show to students that the tensions between the British and the colonists was not simply political, but cultural. The appropriation of the song by Americans after the Revolution may suggest to students some of the problems that the United States faced as a post-colonial nation, and may be a good way of the anxiety of British cultural influence after the Revolution.
“This Land is Your Land” (1940): Most Americans learn Woody Guthrie’s most famous song in elementary school, though possibly not the more political verses, for instance: “In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;/By the relief office, I'd seen my people./As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,/Is this land made for you and me?” Aside from its obvious uses in teaching the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl migration, I think this song may be useful for exploring the left-wing populism of the era, and complicating the impression many students have about the conservative politics of the heartland. A good source on this is Peter La Chapelle’s Proud to Be An Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California (University of California, 2007).
“What’s Going On” (1971): In the 1960s, according to Craig Werner’s excellent A Change is Gonna Come (Plume, 1998), a number of Motown’s artists and songwriters were eager to put out a protest song, but executives were reluctant until 1968 to alienate audiences. By implicitly referencing both Vietnam and police brutality, Marvin Gaye’s song may help students make links between Vietnam and the Civil Rights movements that are elided surprisingly often in pop cultural memories of the period. What I think is particularly interesting to point to students about this tune is the importance of form. Gaye’s use of the ballad might have been particularly effective for reaching out to white audiences who had developed a taste for the Motown sound, but were uncomfortable with more overt expressions of black militancy.
The possibilities are endless, though I suppose the challenge may be to keep the class from turning into a musicology discussion. Has anyone tried bringing in music to teach U.S. history, and if so, what were your experiences? Did you devote class time to music, or simply refer students to Youtube? Have you built any assignments around music, and if so, which selections did you make?