Using Music to Enliven the American History Classroom: Looking at the Post-Civil War Years through the Life and Music of Henry Clay Work

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In my early years in teaching during the mid 1990s, I became excited about the potential use of music in the classroom to enliven my teaching. I learned that popular culture was not only fertile ground for historical study but also an effective tool in aiding students' understanding of the past. As George Lipsitz has explained, students might not know American history, but they know Hollywood movies, television shows, and top-40 hits. (1) Thus, when used effectively, clips from Charlie Chaplain's Modern Times, the sitcom Leave it to Beaver, or the Beatles' White Album help introduce issues of mechanization, postwar conformity, and the counterculture in terms students can comprehend.

As part of my own effort to bring popular culture into the classroom, I began mining the music libraries for contemporary songs to use in my United States since 1865 survey course. One early experiment was to play period music during the first five minutes of class to attract attention and stimulate participation for the lessons that followed. From there I began organizing mini-lectures and discussions around songs and artists to match the topics and themes of the course.

I was eager to find music for the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. First-year college students, I have found, know little about this tumultuous period in which the Union remained fragile, former slaves adapted to freedom, southern whites adjusted to a new order, and Congress and the President struggled for power. Lessons on Reconstruction also help introduce students to the interpretive nature of history. Was this the torturous "Age of Hate" that threatened destruction for the South? Was it a grand experiment in racial equality? Was it conservative or revolutionary? Or was it the beginning of Modern America?

Sources of popular culture provide one means to explore these questions and introduce students to the complexities of Reconstruction. During the late 1990s, I attended an OAH Conference in San Francisco, where, at a "Focus on Teaching" session, Eric Foner recommended that teachers use D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation to stimulate classroom discussion on Reconstruction. (2) Available in many library and video store collections, this silent film classic illuminates the harsh racial climate of the day and justifies the Ku Klux Klan's efforts to redeem the South from the evils of Radical Republicanism. (3) Thomas Nast's political cartoons on Reconstruction, published in Harper's Weekly, offer another opportunity to reach students, who enjoy deciphering Nast's coded criticisms of Andrew Johnson and his supporters. (4) To this list, I would like to add the music of Henry Clay Work.

My interest in Henry Clay Work, a prominent composer of popular music during the 1860s and 1870s, does not derive from any particular expertise in nineteenth-century American history. Nor am I an authority on music or songwriters. Rather I got acquainted with Work and his music because I wanted to become a better teacher and saw in his music a way to make the post-Civil War years a livelier time for my students.

In his book Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, Charles Hamm noted that the end of the Civil War marked a turning point in American music. During the war, Hamm explained, songs had reflected the pathos of the age, "the military and political events, the heroes and villains.... the patriotic fervor and pride of both sides, [and] the tragedies and heartbreaks of civilians and soldiers alike." Americans looked to music to unleash their wartime emotions. But after 1865, Hamm said, composers largely ignored postwar problems of race, region, and politics. Perhaps emotionally drained by the "fever pitch" of war, Americans now favored themes of nostalgia, comedy, and love over political and social turmoil. "In deliberately turning away from contemporary issues," Americans, Harem declared, "made popular song something it had never been before--escapism. …