Using Rock ‘n’ Roll to Teach History


I’m a junior at Brimmer and May, a fantastic independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, excited about following song lyrics to Barry McGuire’s 1965 rendition of “Eve of Destruction.”

We’re studying the Cold War, and today I’m about to listen to one of the greatest anti-war songs ever recorded.

My teacher encourages the class to sing along, and all of us are doing much more than just jamming out. We’re engaging with an amazing primary source, brought alive by the magic of sound recording. Who cares that passersby are looking at us with confused faces? We’re engaging in deep learning. And we’re having a blast.

There’s enough substance in the opening verse alone to direct an entire week with valuable discussion. And it did.

The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’

From the threat of nuclear annihilation, violent world conflict, to nonsensical governmental regulations, I’m finding tremendous relevance in what I’m learning.

Seven years later, as an American history teacher myself, I “steal” from my teacher and his use of music to engage student interest. Here are some of my favorite “teaching songs” from three awesome decades.

The Roaring 1920s

Eddie Cantor (“Makin’ Whoopee”/1928): Made popular by Cantor in the 1928 musical Whoopee!, the song addresses sex and love, two major themes of the time, as well as the possibility of disillusionment and divorce. The issues Cantor sings about are authentic, but the lyrics and upbeat tone distinguish themselves from much darker songs of the 1930s.

Gene Austin (“My Blue Heaven”/1927). Written in 1924, Austin’s rendition perfectly exemplifies the “good old days” of the 1920s. This is made all the more clear when Austin sings, “What makes the world go round/Nothing but love.” Of course, I am also careful to point out that contrary to popular recollection of the period, many people, especially blacks and other minorities, never experienced anything close to a “blue heaven.”

The Great Depression

Billie Holiday (“Gloomy Sunday”/1941): With a melody written by Hungarian composer Rezső Seress in 1933, the song was popularized by Holiday in 1941, after an English re-write by Hal Kemp and Sam Lewis in 1936. The lyrics refer to suicide, with Holiday singing, “Gloomy is Sunday,/With Shadows I spend it all/My heart and I/Have decided to end it all.” I can think of no better song to illustrate the sadness of the 1930s.

Judy Garland (“Over the Rainbow”/1939): Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg for the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, no song (or movie) does a better job of demonstrating the enduring optimism of the human spirit. Playing the character of Dorothy, Garland sings, “Someday I’ll wish upon a star/Wake up where the clouds are far behind me/Where trouble melts like lemon drops/High above the chimney tops/That’s where you’ll find me.” I point out to students that shortly after the song, Dorothy ends up in the Land of Oz, and it’s no coincidence that the black-and-white film turns to color—or that happy munchkins are singing and dancing. Things have gotten better. Before I give too much away, I ask my juniors to discuss what greater message this transition reveals.

The Nifty Fifties

Bill Haley and His Comets (“Rock Around the Clock”/1954): It’s not the best Rock ‘n’ Roll song, but I love how the song speaks to 1950s teen angst. Parents and authorizes be damned. These kids will be rocking all day and all night. I often play this song before or after showing select scenes from Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starring James Dean, the original and legendary bad boy.

As a side note, this is my favorite scene from Rebel Without a Cause, when James Dean’s character, Jim Stark, tells his parents, “You’re tearing me apart.”

Elvis Presley (“Hound Dog”/1956): The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll wasn’t the first person to record this song—Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was—but his rendition swept the nation by storm. I ask my students to investigate the meaning of the lyrics, which stand up as a radio-friendly insult to unfaithful lovers—especially for Thornton, an amazingly gifted singer but an obese, unattractive woman. I then show my students a YouTube clip, highlighting the significance and controversy surrounding the King’s televised musical appearances.

Takeaway message…

Teachers, don’t shy away from having students analyze song lyrics as primary documents. I can think of few more engaging ways to help students become interested in history.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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