Publication Date

November 1, 1990

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


Teaching Methods

Teachers of history look for ways to make history more meaningful to students, and more lively and memorable as well. Songs and rhymes are sometimes helpful; they can enliven both secondary school and college courses. I am thinking here not of the good music or the best poetry of an age, which of course can be incorporated into many kinds of history courses, but rather of the popular, the unartistic, even the corny.

Rhyme and song indigenous to the place and period being studied are naturally the most appropriate to illustrate and to emphasize events and developments. They form part of the social and political fabric of every age. They represent popular aspiration and condemnation, pride, and anguish. They help to recreate for the student not only the meaning of history, but its drama, which teachers have always, in varying fashion, tried to introduce into the classroom. (James Westfall Thompson’s practice at the University of Chicago of reenacting the baptism of Clovis with some unsuspecting freshman comes at once to mind.) There are also other forms of ditty and doggerel that can help. They follow, under five categories.

First, there is the rhyme, often crude, that comes from the period under study. Simple examples from American history would include rhymes from election campaigns. During his unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1840, President Van Buren’s opponents shouted: “Van, Van, Van/Is a used up man!” One of the better-known chants is the Democratic one of 1884, portraying the Republican candidate for president as untrustworthy: “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine/The continental liar from the state of Maine!” Some history teachers will themselves recall the yells of students demonstrating in the later 1960s against the Vietnam War—for instance, “Hell, no/We won’t go!” or their bitter protests against the bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia sanctioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson: “Hey, hey, L.B.J., How many kids did you kill today?”

In European history doggerel abounds also. An old favorite is the popular rhyme complaining that English law allowed common agricultural and grazing lands to be enclosed as private property, a process that accelerated in the later eighteenth century: “The law locks up the man or woman / Who steals the goose from off the common, / But leaves the greater villain loose / Who steals the common from the goose.” The familiar Mother Goose rhyme also is usually taken to be a protest, even earlier, against enclosures: “Baa, baa, black sheep, / Have you any wool? / Yes sir, no sir, / Three bags full. / One for my master, / One for his dame, / But none for the little boy / Who cries down the lane.” The master represents the king, the dame the well-to-do nobility, and the little boy the common people, left with virtually nothing. Other Mother Goose rhymes have varying political and social origins. From England also comes the Jingo Song. I have never found its tune, and so have used it in class as doggerel, illustrating the swell of Russophobia in Britain in 1878 with threats of war to save the Ottoman capital on the Straits: “We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do / We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too. / The Rooshun Bear we’ve thrashed before, and while we’re Britons true / The Rooshun shall not have Constantino – o – ople!”

The use of doggerel in language other than English helps to broaden cultural horizons a bit, but is often best limited in American classrooms to short samples that are easily translatable. For example, when one discusses Europe after the Congress of Vienna, one can repeat the popular complaint about the unhealthy state of the German Confederation , that “dog,” that collection of thirty-nine states with no real central government: “O Bund, du Hund, / Du bist nicht gesund.” Or one can join Metternich in his criticism of the free-wheeling British foreign minister, Palmerston: “Hat der Teufel einen Sohn / So ist er sicher Palmerston.” (If the Devil has a son / He certainly is Palmerston.) The German is almost understandable to those who do not know the language. One can voice again the wry judgment of the French that their premier, Georges Clemenceau, made too many concessions in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919—that Father Victory, as he had been called, was losing the victory: “Père la Victoire / Perd la victoire.” The pun needs writing out on the blackboard, and explaining, but it is worth doing. Such bits of rhyme, fitted naturally into a discussion or lecture, become signposts to a situation or an event. If students can later repeat the rhyme, they are likely to recall the event or situation in context.

Second, and even better, are songs of a given place or period. One can find a good repertoire to accompany United States history. “Yankee Doodle” is good sung doggerel evoking the Revolutionary age. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is poetry of a far higher level; nothing conveys better the idealistic aspect of the Union side in the Civil War. Dixie is perhaps its best Confederate counterpart. “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Groun”d gives voice to some of the human sadness of the war. Aspects of economic history attach to “Erie Canal” (“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal/ Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal”), to “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (the Mississippi steamer), to “The Wreck of the Old 97” and other railroad songs, to Joe Hill (the Wobbly song), and to many others. George M. Cohan’s “Over There” (“The Yanks are Coming!”) blasts forth the youthful, vigorous American participation in the war to make the world safe for democracy. Popular songs of the Great Depression of the 1930s echo the despair and the hope—”Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” or “Just Around the Corner, There’s a Rainbow in the Sky,” or FDR’s campaign song, “Happy Days are Here Again!” The tunes are catchy. Each song, further, nestles in a rich historical background, and represents an integral part of our nation’s past. Teachers of American history can extend this list almost indefinitely.

Songs are even more abundant in European history, given the variety of cultures and languages; they may also, for that reason, be somewhat harder for the American student to comprehend. But many lines or stanzas are easy to translate. They can convey to students something of the emotion inherent in an event or a situation; the actors of the past are, like them, real people with real feelings. The Don Cossack rebel against Moscovy, Stenka Razin, apostrophizes the great Volga River as he sacrifices to her waters his Persian princess, proving to his followers that he had not forsaken them for a life of pleasure: “Volga, Volga, mat’ rodnaia/Volga, russkaia reka” (Volga, Volga, our own mother/Volga, Russian river). The song, like the event of the seventeenth century, is stirring. The German student fraternities (Burschenschaften), suppressed by Metternichean conservatives for their nationalism and liberalism, are lamented in the nostalgic song: “O alte Burschenherrlichkeit/ Wohin bist du verschwunden?” (Oh, old student splendor/Whither have you disappeared?).

The nationalist Garibaldian anthem of the nineteenth century warning foreigners (especially Austrians) to get out of Italy—”Va fuori d’Italia/Va fuori, O stranier!”—remained popular into the twentieth, powerfully sung by Enrico Caruso. In a different vein, Frenchmen in 1881 at the time of the great anticlerical campaign sang new words to the Marseillaise tune: “Aux urnes, citoyens! Contre les clericaux!/Votons! votons! et que nos voix/Dispersent les corbeaux” (To the ballot boxes, citizens! Against the clericals!/ Let’s vote! Let’s vote! and may our votes/Scatter the black crows.). And the British, in World War II, sang new words to the tune of the World War I hit, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!”: “What’s the use of Goering?/He never was worthwhile—So/Pack up your Goebbels in your old kit bag/and Heil! Heil! Heil!” Perhaps too many songs that relate to specific historical events come from wartime, in both European and American history; one must strive for balance.

What can one do with songs, these and others? The teacher can play one or more occasionally in class, using records or cassettes. Better yet, one can sing. Not all history teachers sing, but many certainly do. Many probably play a guitar, harmonica, accordion, recorder, violin, or other portable instrument. And students can surprise themselves by singing in class, with encouragement. I have sometimes, after discussing the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 (the Jingo Song war), given out sheets with the words of that epic ballad, “Abdul the Bulbul Amir,” a reflection of that war. The students have sung it and enjoyed it. They recapture some flavor of that era when the daily newspaper flourished, carrying telegraphic war dispatches, and Europe lived on quotidian accounts of that conflict.

The teacher can sometimes give a solo rendition. Former AHA President Professor Gordon Craig sang Bunny Berrigan’s “I Can’t Get Started” in a lecture on the 1930s at Stanford University. Professor Carl Schorske has been known to break into a Wagner aria while discussing German culture in class at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Peter Sugar of the University of Washington has related how, when he was a graduate student, his professor, Lewis Thomas, motioned to him to rise in the back of the classroom. “Partant pour la Syrie,” Thomas announced, and together the two sang to the class the song of the French force going off to quell the disorders in Lebanon in 1860. More than one student may know relevant songs, and some can provide instrumental accompaniment, too, if asked beforehand.

A series of songs, as opposed to occasional single songs, can illustrate the long-term development of a people, or some other topic. The teacher can ask students to collect songs representing various periods of American, French, German, or any national history; they can be ordered in class and used for discussion. Some classes may find it profitable to collect songs (or rhymes and poems, too) to illustrate themes like emigration and immigration, labor, social protest, drinking and temperance, revolutions, war and peace. If songs cannot be played or sung in class, teachers will know that their words may serve well even without music.

Once I experimented with a review theme for a course in modern European history, at the end of a semester. The music department had put a piano in the classroom, which prompted me to play fourteen or fifteen songs (my playing is amateur) and ask for identification and historical context. It was surprising how many students in a class of seventy or eighty of the rock generation could identify various songs, and even sing some. The pieces began with “Madame Veto avait promis” (“Dansons la Carmognole”) from the French Revolution. No one could identify that from the tune alone, but singing the words made its origin clear to some. Among the sequels were the “Marseillaise,” known to many students, “Die Wacht am Rhein,” expressing German nationalist feeling in the 1840 crisis with France, Kipling’s “On the Road to Mandala” and “Recessional” of the age of imperialism, the “Russian Imperial Hymn” (“God the All-Terrible” or “God the Omnipotent” in American hymnals), “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” from the Great War, “Giovinezza” of the Italian Fascists (a tune stolen in part from a Swiss Alpine melody), “Lili Marlene” from World War II, and others. The exercise is beneficial. Quite a few students commented afterward on the historical significance of one or another of the songs, or supplied other songs just as appropriate. The piano was a help, but the songs could have been sung without accompaniment.

Third, apart from doggerel and song from the historical period itself, there is rhyme of later date that encapsulates pieces of history. Some history rhyme, once common, has gone out of fashion; perhaps it could be revived. My grandfather used to chant American history with his fellows in a one-room schoolhouse in western New York state in the 1860s, beginning: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” The rhymed couplets went on from there. Each line had almost the same tuneless tune, the accent always on the antepenultimate syllable, as he intoned it to me in the 1920s. English schoolchildren used to recite a rhyming sequence of the kings and queens of England from 1066 on, as I learned from a sister-in-law who learned it from an ancestor: “William the Norman and William his son/Henry, Stephen, and Henry and Richard and John….” it ended, obviously at some date between 1837 and 1901: “Anne, Georges four, and fourth William all passed/And then came Victoria, long may she last!”

No teacher would present such abbreviated chronicle as good history. But all teachers know that mnemonic devices are useful and often interesting. Rhyme helps. To remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives, students have repeated the jingle: “Divorced, beheaded, died/Divorced, beheaded, survived.” I have sometimes used a rhyme I made up to remind students of the geographical boundaries that France, in several periods, sought to attain: “The natural borders of France are these—/The Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees.”

Students can be encouraged to produce doggerel themselves, at least a couplet or a quatrain. Some will try a longer sequence. A senior wrote for me a lively fifty-line ballad on the 1827 battle of Navarino. A junior answered one of my essay questions on a final exam in most presentable iambic pentameter, showing that she was comfortable with the poetic form as well as the subject. Some students might like to devise a rhymed sequence of American presidents (one ought to exist, though I know none). The first two lines might read: “Washington, Adams, and Jefferson too/ And Madison, Monroe, and Adams J.Q….” It is probably worth while to suggest volunteer versification to individual students.

Fourth, students or teachers may be able to compose their own songs on historical subjects, words and tune both. Though it is hard for most, some would enjoy the process and profit from it, and the class may profit too. One has the example of entertainers who do songs commenting on recent history—Mark Russell, for example. Calypso singers of Trinidad have had a tradition of rhyming song about current events. Such was an unpolished but pleasing number on the abdication of Edward VIII so that he could marry Mrs. Simpson: “Tis love, love alone/ That caused King Edward to leave the throne….” Or students can look to Hal Lehrer’s songs, like “So long Mom, I’m off to drop the bomb/ And don’t wait up for me,” a wry commentary on the advent of the atomic age. Not so many students or teachers may be able to compose tunes, but most can set their own words to a tune already familiar. One colleague did a song on the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the great international post-World War II relief effort, to the tune of California here I come. It began: “Cheer up Europe, UNRRA’s come/ To rescue your residuum/With health there, and welfare, and sanitation/ And industrial rehabilitation….” Whimsy is a good ingredient for the home-grown historical ditty.

Finally, as an outgrowth of the preceding sorts of doggerel, there is extended versification in the form of an end-of-semester course summary. Rhyme lends itself well to summation. There are, naturally, other effective varieties of summary. The late Professor E. Harris Harbison of Princeton University created one that became legendary among students, a drama in which his major Ren and Ref characters meet in the Hereafter. Erasmus, Luther, and others participate in a heavy discussion in prose that is sometimes blunt, sometimes elegant. Students appreciate the brief references that jog the memory. They enjoy even more the tone irreverent familiarity with great figures of the past and they like the rhyme and meter.

Teachers inevitably encounter illustrative material for their courses in books and articles, lectures and concerts, broadcasts, and films. They also accumulate rhymes and songs from colleagues and students. There are, additionally, places to look. I discovered recently A Rhymed History of the World by Jack Melone (pseudonym for [Winton Meggison], Chicago, 1933). Its corny quatrains carry one from the pterodactyl to Marshal Foch. The Faber Book of Political Verse, edited by Tom Paulin (London, 1986) is of a higher order, including selections from Dante to John Berryman, all in English. S. Blewett’s Rhymes of Royalty: The History of England in Verse (London, 1849) runs monarch by monarch, through Victoria: “Long may she reign, till called above/ Unrivall’d in her people’s love.” Poetry of the People, Comprising Poems Illustrative of the History and National Spirit of England, Scotland, Ireland, and America, ed. Charles M. Gayley and Martin C. Flaherty (Boston, 1903) has sections on “Historical and Patriotic” poems. Some of Kipling’s poems are almost doggerel, and some have a very modern ring: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains/ And the women come out to cut up what remains/ Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/ An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.” See Rudyard Kipling’s Verse (Definitive Edition, Garden City, NJ, 1940).

Two guides to the historical content of Mother Goose rhymes are Katherine Elwes Thomas’ The Real Personages of Mother Goose (Boston, 1930) and William S. and Cecil Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Mother Goose (New York, 1962). The two do not always agree and agree even less with Gloria T. Delamar in Mother Goose, From Nursery to Literature (Jefferson, NC, 1987).

Of many collections of German poetry Das Oxforder Buch Deutscher Dichtung (ed. H. G. Fielder, Oxford, 1911), and later eds. is the handiest; most of the poems are first-class, not doggerel at all, but many concern historical events. J. G. Legge, Rhyme and Revolution in Germany: A Study in German History, Life, and Character, 1813–1850 (London, 1918) has the advantage of putting its doggerel into English, in the same meter as the German.

It is easier to find American doggerel. Much has been published privately, like E.F. Spicer’s Rhymes for the Times (Spokane, 1939), which includes “New Deal Parodies,” quite anti-FDR. Regional versifiers abound, like Wesley Beggs’ Rhymes from the Rangeland (Denver, 1912); “Farewell, Titanic, Proud Ship of the Sea” is included. William O. Thomson, author of Rhymed Americana (Cambridge, 1967) found that a plethora of posy [sic] flowed from the newly discovered vein” of his rhyming ability as he satirized small town life, Harvard-Yale-Princeton graduates, FDR’s campaign against the “nine old men,” and WPA shovel-leaners. Examples of similar popular versifying—on immigration, Darwinism, patriotism, pelf, and other themes—salt the scholarly work of Robert H. Walker, The Poet of the Gilded Age: Social Themes in Late Nineteenth Century American Verse (Philadelphia, 1963). Some of Robert E. Services’ poetry qualifies as doggerel; see his Collected Poems (New York, 1952) which includes the moving “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man” from World War I.

Songs offer a double potential for the classroom because they can be used either as song or simply as rhyme. There are hundreds of useful songbooks. Reginald Nettel, Sing a Song of England: A Social History of Traditional Song (London, 1954) relates song to politics, religion, and empire. The Ballad Book, ed. MacEdward Leach, explains English, Scottish, and American ballads, giving verse only, without music (New York, 1955). Pierre Barbier and France Vernillat, Histoire de France par les Chansons (8 vols., Paris, 1959) should be a model for music historians everywhere. Combining music, words, and historical explanation, the survey runs from the Crusades to 1918. The Gambit Book of French Folk Songs, ed. Paul Arma et al. (Boston, 1972) has a short section on history, with verses in French and English both.

Deutsche Lieder, ed. Ernst Klusen (Frankfurt, 1980) has a good historical section, words and music both, but no commentary. Similar standard collections, often reprinted, are Das Grosse Balladenbuch (Berlin, 1965; 8th ed. 1984), August Linder’s Deutsche Weisen (Stuttgart; n.d.), and G. W. Fink’s Musikalischer Hausschatz der Deutschen (Leipzig; n.d.) the latter with over 1100 songs. A Russian Song Book, ed. Rose N. Rubin and Michael Stillman (New York, 1962) furnishes words in Russian and English, music and context for the songs. English and Russian verses also accompany the music in a World War II book, Songs of New Russia, ed. Olga Paul and G. Bronsky (New York, 1944[?]). The Spanish Ballad in English by Shasta M. Bryant (Lexington, KY, 1973), presents sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ballads with Spanish and English texts without music. Both music and words are in the great compendium of Irish Emigrant Ballads and Songs, ed. Robert L. Wright, (Bowling Green, OH, 1975).

A good starting place in seeking American songs is John Anthony Scott’s The Ballad of America: The History of the United States in Song and Story (New York, 1966; reprint Carbondale, IL, 1983). Scott gives introductions, words, and music and adds a long bibliography, including works on how to use song in class. Every song in the book, says Scott, has been sung and in effect selected by secondary school students. Classic collections—each with words, music, and explanations—Carl Sandburg, The American Songbag (New York, 1927), John A. and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs (New York, 1934), and the work by the son alone, Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language (New York, 1960). Among the many specialized works are a number on John Henry, the legendary steel-driving man of the 1870s and 1880s; one of the more usable ones is Guy B. Johnson, John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend (New York, 1969).

Oscar Brand, The Ballad Mongers: Rise of the Modern Folk Song (Westport, CT, 1979; orig. ed. 1962), explains the origins, growth, and use of such songs with nineteenth- and twentieth-century examples; he provides no music, but the words are often fine doggerel. B. Lee Cooper,Images of American Society in Popular Music: A Guide to Reflective Teaching (Chicago, 1982), refers to many songs, especially of the post-World War II era, but gives words and music for none; instead, he explores ways of using music in the classroom. Cooper furnishes excellent bibliographies and, like a number of the more recent writers on song, includes an extensive discography.

Roderic Davison is professor emeritus at The George Washington University and is the author of numerous works on Ottoman and Turkish history. He has taught Near Eastern, modern European history, and Western civilization at several major universities.