The link between music and history is pretty significant. In terms of music’s interaction with society, I wrote about that recently in a blog on what actually constitutes rock music in the 21st century. Today I watched a South Park episode (don’t judge).
In the episode, the three main characters (it’s the season where Kenny is dead) build a ladder to heaven. When word gets out of what they are doing, Alan Jackson shows up to sing an inspirational song about the moment–mocking one of his songs released in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings in 2001. It just got me thinking about the clear link between events and songs.
- “John Brown’s Body” / the Civil War: You don’t know the song by its original name. We know it today as “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
- “Fortunate Son” / Vietnam: This is a modern phenomenon, to the point that there are jokes about not being able to have a movie taking place within the Vietnam War without this song being played.
- “Winds of Change” / German reunification: One of the most powerful things I’ve had the privilege of seeing in person was Germans across 3-4 generations singing this in unison.
- “Ohio” / Kent State: The song was written and released in the week after the Kent State shootings. Few people who listen to much music are unfamiliar with the song’s constant refrain of ‘four dead in o-HI-o.”
- “The Sinking of the Reuben James” / World War 2: Woody Guthrie’s song about the sinking of an American destroyer involved in fighting the Nazis–before the U.S. entered World War 2 in October, 1941.
- the electric guitar “Star Spangled Banner” / Woodstock: If not this Hendrix performance, the other song that is constantly associated with Woodstock would be Richie Havens’ “Freedom”.
What others are there–ones that immediately/automatically conjure up a very specific historical moment?
Just as important, consider your students. I would bet they have specific songs they’ve linked to important moments in their own lives. An athlete during a successful season may still remember the ‘pump up jam’. I’d bet a student has ‘our song’ from their first boy/girlfriend. Associating music with events is natural. Consider using music as a tool to enhance student recollections for tests, a different perspective on events, or a lead-in to other material. If you are teaching English, looking at how rhythm is handled with the music and the emphasis on the words can be much more interactive for students than just reading words on a page.
Heck–did you know you can read “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the tune of the theme song to Gilligan’s Island (no, most kids today won’t know that…but play it, let them see for themselves). Work with a music teacher to explore how various notes and instruments can add power to certain words in certain moments.
No, this isn’t about using games–it’s about connecting with students. That’s the most important thing–get them excited about learning.