I believe music is an amazing tool for uplift, outcry, education, protest, and edification. It’s an integral part of our lives. It shows in my teaching style, and I love using music to help teach about history. I also use music to support the teaching and learning process itself — It helps us remember things. Anyone who has made up a little song to help remember something knows just what I’m talking about. I teach at the college-level, but with some age-appropriate adjustments, music can be applied to any classroom. Every corporate training could use a dose of decent music here or there, and we all know it.
In the first unit of my US History since 1877 course, we are looking at the post-Reconstruction years to about the turn of the century, and urbanization is a major topic. Jazz and blues were emerging in bars and clubs, producing a foundation of rich music that many later artists play on (as they will learn in the course). In this unit, I love to play Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City” and discuss urbanization and gender in historical context of the lyrics with students.
When I lecture about immigration and urbanization, we look at the idea of the American Dream. I like to play “Empire State of Mind” (Jay Z & Alicia Keys) and show to enduring nature of the call to the city. “If I can make it here, I can make it any where” is a story still being told in American pop culture. We discuss how immigrants are drawn into this country and to cities with the story of the American Dream. We also discuss the obstacles they face trying to make it happen.
When discussing World War II and its affects on American society, I incorporate music even more. A discussion of the role of both television and rock & roll are essential to any unit on post-WWII life. That’s a perfect place to insert a video of Elvis Presley appearing on the Ed Sullivan show or any other clip (Jail House Rock is fun). Students need to understand the vast effects of both television and music when the soon-coming conversations of the Civil Rights Movements begin.
Considering my own background in blues and Americana rock, I can’t lecture on introduction of rock & roll without discussing its connection to blues and gospel. I play a blues song, usually Big Boss Man, by Jimmy Reed (who they remember from “Bright Lights, Big City”); then I show them Elvis’s popular rock song by the same name, a cover of the original blues song, slightly repackaged and sold to black and white audiences alike.
As the Civil Rights Movement lectures proceed, I play different videos as the spirit moves me, sometimes Nina Simone’s Ain’t Got … or Joan Baez, maybe Woodstock shows like Santana’s Soul Sacrifice, or other overtly political music if the time. I look at specific protest songs of other genres, such as “El Picket Sign” and the Chicano Movement. James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” and many others discuss relevant topics.
As Funk Music, Hip Hop, and MTV fit into later lectures, I discuss their relevance to topics they are reading about. For example, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” is a perfect companion to a lecture about the 80s, the AIDS Epidemic, War on Drugs, MTV (a new medium for new voices), and black sexuality. I preface “Let’s Talk About Sex” with a view of “Video Killed the Radio Star” as I introduce them to MTV.
On a side note … any Parliament video will show the affects of drugs and counter-culture. (#justsaying) Students can tell pop culture has come a long way since Elvis’s first ‘scandalous’ days on TV. I especially like showing clips of funk footage from concerts here in Houston, since that’s where I live and teach. Oh, it was funky, baby … it was funky.
We all have our own favorite songs that express many of the themes we teach about. Playing a video, listening to a song, and taking a few minutes to take a break from note-taking or lecturing is a great way to both reinforce the topic and give everyone time to absorb what is going on in the lecture.
Try it — students will love it, and you can stop and collect your thoughts & get a good sip of coffee in the 2-3 minutes that the videos/songs play. Feel free to share your comments about the way you use music in your teaching. Here’s to getting into the groove … ! RR