Singing American History

By Nielsen, Fred | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Singing American History


Nielsen, Fred, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


"I hear America singing," Walt Whitman declared. A century and a half later we can still hear the music, whether we make it ourselves or, as is increasingly the case, we listen to others. If I judge my students correctly, many--especially the younger, traditional ones--believe that they possess certain inalienable rights: to life, to liberty, and to a stereo system.

Certainly our world is filled with music. There is no reason to exclude it from the classroom. Indeed, there are many reasons to include it:

(1) Music can be an effective way of catching (and stimulating) student interest.

(2) Music is a way to change the pace of a class. We shouldn't always do the same thing. Like showing a video, holding a classroom debate, or organizing a small group project, playing music is a way to shift pedagogical gears. Sometimes I take three or four minutes to play a single song, using it to illustrate a larger point; at other times I play a series of selections, weaving music through an entire class period.

(3) Music captures the emotions--the joy, frustration, and anger--of the past with a power that goes beyond that of the written word. For example, no matter what I say about violence against African Americans, nothing affects my students as profoundly as Billie Holiday's searing indictment of lynching, "Strange Fruit," which describes the outrage of a "black body hangin' from a poplar tree." (1) (Angry protest songs are not an invention of the 1960s or of the rap generation.)

(4) Most importantly, music is an integral part of American history. From the nineteenth century to the present, whether sung by slaves in Southern cotton fields or played on the pianos that were ubiquitous in Victorian parlors or blaring from stereos today, music has been part of the fabric of America.

But how should a teacher begin to incorporate music into American history classes? In an almost infinite number of ways. Public and university libraries are often rich in recordings for classroom use. Personal collections might contain more possibilities than one realizes. "Songs of the Civil War" (Columbia) includes versions of much of the music performed on Ken Burns's "Civil War" documentary and is an excellent, widely available source. This collection includes "Follow the Drinking Gourd," a song of the Underground Railroad. How was a slave to find the way north to freedom? The song gives directions--among them to walk toward the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper). "Songs of the Civil War" contains many tunes--"Vacant Chair," "Was My Brother in the Battle," and, of course, "Taps" (first performed in 1862)--that remind listeners of the war's carnage.

Almost 200,000 black soldiers fought in the Union army. The most famous black unit, the 54th Massachusetts, was featured in the film "Glory." "Songs of the Civil War" includes "Give Us a Flag," composed by an anonymous soldier in the 54th. Analyzing its references--to General John C. Fremont, to Lincoln, to Jefferson Davis--is a way to introduce the attitudes of each man about black regiments. ("Old Jeff says he'll hang us if we dare to meet him armed.") There are other Civil War songs included on the album that students are likely to know, though perhaps not in connection with the war, such as "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and "Dixie."

The most powerful song is "No More Auction Block for Me." While it is included on "Songs of the Civil War," I prefer another version, by the folk singer Odetta, when I use the song in class. As Odetta sings it, "No More Auction Block" celebrates emancipation, while simultaneously expressing profound sorrow. She sings: "No more auction block for me/No more, no more/No more auction block for me/Many thousand gone." Whatever joy there is in the anticipation of freedom is muted by the memory of the generations who, over 200 years, toiled in bondage. It is worth noting that Bob Dylan adapted the tune for "Blowin' in the Wind," the archetypal protest song of the 1960s, from "No More Auction Block. …

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