Race, Music, and a Meaningful Approach to Teaching Historical Methods

By Hughes, Richard | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Race, Music, and a Meaningful Approach to Teaching Historical Methods


Hughes, Richard, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


Oliver Sacks, a neurosurgeon in New York City and the well-known author of Awakenings, recently described the case of a forty-two year old man named Tony Cicoria who was struck by lightning. After almost dying at a nearby hospital, Cicoria appeared to recover fully within weeks, only to discover that, for the first time in his life, he had what Sacks referred to as an "insatiable desire to listen to piano music." The individual had no formal musical training and yet within months he began teaching himself how to play the piano and eventually began composing complex, original works. In his book Musicophelia, Sacks describes other patients, many quite elderly, who discovered that music long forgotten from childhood had the ability to induce seizures. Such cases suggested to Sacks the powerful, in his words, "engraving of music on the brain." The man struck by lightning was a dramatic example of how humans are inescapably a "musical species." (1)

While Sacks explored the "extraordinary tenacity of music memory" or the role of music in shaping the cognitive map of individuals, my interest as a historian lies in the power of music in illuminating what Abraham Lincoln referred to as our "mystic chords of memory." Speaking at his first Inaugural Address in March 1861, Lincoln used the metaphor of music to remind an increasingly divided nation that the "chorus of the Union," his term for collective memory, lay embedded not in Americans' neurology but rather in "every living heart." As a result, when I agreed to teach a required historical methods course with a rather dry catalog description--"An introduction to the discipline, including study of research and writing techniques, historical methods, and the nature and varieties of history" I chose to use music as the focus. I entitled my section "Doing History: Race and American Music" and aimed to ground the course on methodology in what I hoped would be the meaningful historical context of African-American history and music. (2)

I am not a musician nor do I have any formal training in musicology. I am an historian who grew up in Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," and really enjoys music. More importantly, I have always found music to be a portal to the past, a fleeting opportunity to travel back to what British novelist L.P. Hartley referred to as a "foreign country." (3) For me, it is impossible to separate my attraction to much of American music from my similar interest in many topics in American history. A colleague of mine once confessed to me that his love for European history stemmed from a young infatuation with Nazi Germany. The rich legacy of American music seems like a much more entertaining portal than the "Hitler Channel" on cable television. My students seem to agree: My approach to music as both a fan and as an historian resonates with my students, who often lack formal training but nevertheless find themselves thinking about music as some sort of soundtrack for their generation. (4)

For years I have used music to teach topics in American history. I provide students with lyrics, I play music in the classroom, and I sometimes use Bob Dylan's song, "The Times They Are a-Changing'," as the basis for a cumulative essay question for an upper-division course on American history since 1945. Sometimes the evolution of the popular music industry itself has served as valuable historical evidence. My students and I have discussed the important shift from pop 45 singles to concept albums as a metaphor for the evolution of baby boomers during the turbulent sixties. Historians and others have long looked to music for a window into the past. The cover photograph and article about legendary jazz singer Nina Simone in a recent Journal of American History is just one example. Resources for using music to teach American history have grown in the last decade, notably with an entire issue of the OAH Magazine of History in 2005 dedicated to the topic. …

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