The link between music and history is pretty significant. Recently, 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 got me thinking about the clear link we make as people 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”.
- ‘Biko” / Peter Gabriel: The story of the 1977 death of Steven Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist and the video on MTV was as close to knowledge of apartheid in South Africa as many Americans would get.
What others are there–ones that immediately/automatically conjure up a very specific historical moment? The other point of consideration–why, as educators, do we not incorporate music into lessons more often? This isn’t just about history, but other subjects as well. With something like literature, the link should be easy to make up (Metallica/For Whom the Bell Tolls; Iron Maiden/Rime of the Ancient Mariner), but there are songs out there that cover other subjects, too–the Monty Python Galaxy song, the Animaniacs singing about the planets or chemicals in grocery items, etc. The more we show these connections, often to what students are already interested in, the more they will study, the more they will think, the more they will learn.