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Teaching Issues

Music in the History Classroom

According to the Marxist scholar A. L. Lloyd, rebels in the 1381 peasants’ revolt sang the song, The Cutty Wren, in protest at feudal oppression – sadly he offered no proof to back up his claim.

Nonetheless, folk music and protest songs provide a rich vein of source material which can be mined to enliven our History curriculum and serve as a window into a deeper study of the past.

For a young teacher it may seem like a risk- to expose students to unfamiliar music- especially as folk might seem about as un-cool as you can get. The benefits however, are significant.

Firstly, let’s consider why we might bother with music in our History lessons. What follows is my own by-no-means-exhaustive list.

• Songs tell stories- they provide a narrative on past events.
• Some songs, if they are contemporaneous with the events being studied, are historical artefacts in their own right and as such are as worthy of consideration as any other source.
• They provide interpretations and representations of the past that can be analysed, debated and evaluated.
• Song lyrics provide an insight into the minds and motives of their authors.
• Music livens up lessons and introduces students to new musical artists.

My own early forays into using music were done more as a backdrop to a lesson. Medieval plainsong or Gregorian chants playing while students entered a History lesson on religion in the Middle Ages served as an effective mood setter. I also used Jazz as a backdrop to a whole class role play where we held a cocktail party at the White House to investigate the success of Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, it was once I began to use songs as a central part of longer enquiries that I really began to tap into the learning potential of music. A couple of examples will serve as illustration.

Elsewhere on the website you can find our Peatbog Soldiers lesson. This enquiry starts by playing students a rather haunting German language version of the song- written in a Nazi labour camp in the ‘30s. It then asks students to predict what the song might by saying before giving them sources to investigate life in the camps. Listen to it here. Once students have investigated conditions in the camps they arrive at a list of what they would expect to see included in an anti-Nazi song of resistance penned in a Labour Camp. The enquiry then asks them to listen to the English language version- which you can find here  to consider why there might be differences.

There is also the cracking enquiry using the song by Lord Kitchener, “London is the Place to be” which unpicks what the Windrush generation’s experience in Britain was post 1948.

Other examples of History enquiries using music we have developed include:
• Using a song “No Irish Need Apply” by the Wakes – to challenge an MP’s rather cosy view of life in 1950’s Britain.
• Introducing the life of boxer James Braddock as a metaphor for America in the 1920s/30s via the song Cinderella Man by the Biblecode Sundays
• Using Billy Bragg’s “Between the Wars” as part of an enquiry into why the men of Jarrow marched south in 1936.
• Asking students to investigate the events of 4th October 1936 via The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s anti-fascist classic “Ghosts of Cable Street”.


These are, of course, only a few possibilities. Included below is a far from exhaustive list of other possible songs that readers may like to consider as part of their own historical enquiries.
Some other possible songs to explore in your History teaching.

The Diggers Song- Leon Roselsonn (Interregnum)
Free Born John (Album)- Rev Hammer (English Civil War)
Tobacco Island- Flogging Molly (Forced Irish slavery)
Oliver Boy- Flogging Molly (Oliver Cromwell/ 17th Century Ireland)
Young Ned of the Hill- The Pogues (Oliver Cromwell/17th Century Ireland)
Kitty Jay- Seth Lakeman (18th Century poverty)
Thousands are Sailing- The Pogues (Irish Migration/Famine)
Fields of Athenry- Paddy Reilly (Various artists- The Lagan, The Dubliners)
Destitution Road- Roaring Jack (Highland Clearances)
To Hell of California- The Wakes (California Gold Rush)
57- Kilmaine Saints (Irish Diaspora/USA)
The Hardest Mile- Dropkick Murphys (Irish Diaspora/USA)
Green Fields of France/Band Played Waltzing Matilda- Eric Bogle (WWI)
The Foggy Dew- Charles O’Neill (1916 Easter Rising)
Ballad of Sacco & Vanzetti- Christy Moore et al (1920’s USA)
Ghost of Tom Joad- Bruce Springsteen (1930’s USA)
Strange Fruit- Abel Meeropol/Billie Holliday- (1920’s USA/Racism)
Cinderella Man- Biblecode Sundays (1930’s/New Deal)
Between the Wars- Billy Bragg (Inter-War Britain)
McAlpine’s Fusiliers- Dominic Behan (Irish Diaspora, 1950’s)
Johnny Come Lately- Steve Earle (Vietnam)
Fixing to Die Rag- Country Joe & the Fish (Vietnam)
Masters of War- Bob Dylan (Cold War)
A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall- Bob Dylan (Fear of Nuclear War)
Running Gun Blues- David Bowie (Vietnam War)
19- Paul Hardcastle (Vietnam War)

We would also recommend checking out the website on song facts  as it contains not only song suggestions but also short vignettes for each song putting it into historical context.



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About the author
Neil Bates
Neil Bates has spent 20 years as a history teacher, author and Advanced Skills Teacher in Hampshire and has been a long-standing member of the county's History Steering Group.
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