Publication Date

December 1, 2005

Music can serve as an evocative, instructive primary document, and we too seldom use it in history courses. The skillful melding of music and history in the classroom enables students to immerse themselves and imagine themselves within the periods under discussion. Music can also function as a valuable historical tool that illustrates and delineates changes in culture and thinking. It can be used effectively in courses to demonstrate how historians use primary documents to investigate the past. Perhaps even more importantly in this era of reduced attention spans, it can help instructors break up their lectures in novel ways, and provide uses for the multimedia classrooms increasingly prevalent in our schools today. While this essay will provide examples of how music can be utilized in American survey courses, I know several people who use similar methods in their Western Civ and European history courses.

An Example from Women's History

It's late in the semester, and I'm lecturing about the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s in my American history survey. The students have prepped for this and are familiar with the major names, events, and themes of the era: Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership of the Committee on the Status of Women, the National Organization for Women, more equitable laws for women, and the rise of women’s health centers and women’s studies departments. But what always seems to get the most attention in that lecture is the conclusion, when I talk about a woman who, in a male-dominated business, took the brave and rare steps of writing her own material and taking control in the recording studio, and set into song the feelings of countless women about their rapidly changing personal and professional status during this period. She is perhaps the only woman so musically talented that one can identify her almost immediately upon hearing her play her instrument, an accolade reserved in American music for exceedingly few people: Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and not many if any more. This woman is Joni Mitchell.

I announce to my class that I will play the title song from Mitchell's 1976 album Hejira, an Arabic word for a spiritual pilgrimage. I show them the original full-size album cover, with its famous Norman Seeff photograph portraying a road going right through the center of a caped and elegant Mitchell, cigarette set gracefully in her right hand. In the song, she details her own hejira, her struggle to break free of the traditional expectations of women, and to live an independent career and romantic life without marriage or children. But, as she details repeatedly throughout the album, such separations were not always easy to enact in real life. Before I play the song, I dim the lights (I am shameless, and will use any opportunity possible to add a sense of drama to the history classroom). Mitchell’s moody, searching guitar, with its signature alternate tuning, fills the room. I place her lyrics on the digital document camera, so the students can read along with her singing: “You know it never has been easy / Whether you do or you do not resign / Whether you travel the breadth of extremities / Or stick to some straighter line…I’m porous with travel fever / But you know I’m so glad to be on my own / Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger / Can set up trembling in my bones.”

The American Jukebox

I originally started experimenting with music in the classroom as a graduate student teaching assistant for U.S. history survey courses. I was lucky to work for some open-minded professors who encouraged me to try out my pedagogical ideas about history and music in front of large lecture hall classes. As a cultural historian who specializes (among other things) in the history of American music, as well as a music business vet and college radio DJ, I saw this as a way to bring some of my real life expertise into the college classroom. My project, currently called "The American Jukebox," now encompasses four dozen songs spanning all of American history, each of them accompanied by a short essay that relates the music to typical issues in survey courses.

In my courses, I try to make the same kinds of points using music as I would in a lecture. For example, within my lecture detailing Jim Crow discrimination at the turn of the 20th century, students enjoy hearing about James Reese Europe, a nationally renowned black musician of the 1910s, who has unexplainably lapsed into obscurity. Before playing his 1913 recording of "Down Home Rag," I detail for them how Jim Crow extended into the professional music world, keeping blacks from the best unions, and making them accept situations that included washing dishes as well as playing an instrument, something no unionized white musician would tolerate. Europe founded the Clef Club, which provided trade union and booking agency services for black musicians. The club's signature event was the "Concert of Negro Music" in 1912, the first time a black orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall. Through this organization, Europe was able to improve working conditions for his fellow musicians. Soon after the Carnegie show, Europe played a key role in fomenting the national "social dancing" craze, inspired largely by African American music and dance steps, and feared by many middle- and upper-class parents, both white and black. If I have time, perhaps during my World War I lecture, I also mention how Europe headed the first black regiment to fight in the war, as well as the Army band that introduced jazz to Europe. Students love stories; the life of James Reese Europe provides many that hold their attention, as well as introduce important historical concepts.

Another piece I use is John Dickinson's "Liberty Song," written in 1768 to popularize sentiment against the Townshend Duties, which England was attempting to foist upon her American colonies. Dickinson already had written his famous pamphlet Letters From A Farmer In Philadelphia about the issue, but to reach those colonists who did not read pamphlets or newspapers, Dickinson also used the medium of popular song. He declared himself as a loyal British subject in the lyrics, and claimed that if England treated her subjects in a “just” manner, they would continue to loyally serve the mother country: “This bumper I crown for our Sov’reign’s health / and this for Britannia’s glory and wealth / That wealth, and that glory immortal may be / If she is but just, and if we are but free.” But this relatively new and controversial insistence on a more equal, two-way relationship between England and its American colonies provoked increasing friction. “Liberty Song” proved popular, and quite likely contributed to the downfall of the Townshend Duties. It is a rousing piece, and I always ask students to imagine the power of the song being sung at top volume by drinking revelers in a pub or meeting house of the period.

Twentieth-century American music is an especially useful resource in the history classroom for demonstrating how immigrants, women, and people of color broke barriers of marginalization, and in many cases, entered the media mainstream, earning unprecedented money and respect. This perspective can aid instructors who wish to present history from the "bottom-up" as well as "top-down" history in their surveys, and provides useful background in showing students how Victorianism yielded to modernism at the turn of the century. Two of the many figures I have focused on in this area are Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants, respectively. In class, I often play the original 1927 recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue," with the composer at the piano, so students can hear how he visualized the composition as a jazzy and upbeat extended piece, not the abbreviated soporific treatment that one suffers through during modern-day commercials for United Airlines. The recording also serves as a programmatic portrait of 1920s urban America, which was part of Gershwin's intention in composing the piece.

Notes for the Classroom

It helps to vary the genres you present over the course of a semester. Be eclectic. Show your students the breadth of American music, from Broadway, blues, and the American popular ballad, to country, jazz, rock, soul, and beyond. Classical music hasn't worked as well with my undergraduates (their attention usually wavers during Aaron Copland and Charles Ives), but it's worth a try. Each genre will yield significant stories about American history for your courses. I'd also recommend using poetry in the history classroom. For example, there are recorded collections of Harlem Renaissance and Beat Generation poets reading their own material; students seem to perk up when Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg are doing the talking, instead of me. And rightly so.

When presenting music to a class, try to give students a visual component as well. Make the experience as three-dimensional as possible. I've found this helps keep their focus on the music. Always present the lyrics on a document camera or overhead projector. Or, for instrumental pieces, display pictures of the artist, or copies of the sheet music for the piece—these materials often can be found for free on the Internet. Listen to the music as it plays in class, even though you may have heard the piece dozens of times. I find that if my attention wavers, and I start peeking ahead at my lecture notes, student attention will wander too. I try to avoid playing music during the last five minutes of class. Otherwise, some students find it irresistible to start gazing longingly at the clock, and rustling their papers.

I would recommend playing music before class as well as during class. I like to use music to warm up the room, to provide a welcoming atmosphere as the students file in, to show them that this won't be the usual ho-hum lecture hour. I would not advise playing any overly familiar hit music (no need to show them how "with it" their prof is), but, instead, give them music that features a groove, a good beat, from various eras. Challenge them a bit; they'll appreciate it. I find that music from foreign countries works well, as does classic jazz and soul, and 1960s psychedelic music. Do something different every time, so that they will wonder what they might encounter upon entering the room every week.

It may initially seem like a daunting project to include music in your courses. Where does one find the time to put the material together in an entertaining and effective way? Just remember that every college campus has a music library, staffed with librarians who will be able to guide you. I suggest integrating music into your courses slowly and selectively, implementing just a few songs per semester, and building up your "repertoire" over the long term. Experiment—if it's fun for you, it should be fun for the students as well.

In the midst of the Civil War, which featured an unprecedented explosion of American music publishing on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee commented that he couldn't imagine fighting a war without music. I can't imagine teaching a history course in the 21st century without using some either.

— is a postdoctoral fellow and resident scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. His book, Duke Ellington's America, will be published in 2007 by the University of Chicago Press. The author wishes to thank the “open-minded professors” at the University of Maryland that provided advice and encouragement concerning his work on using music in the history classroom: Ira Berlin, James Gilbert, David Grimsted, James Harris, James Henretta, David Sicilia, and Howard Smead.

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