Making Curriculum Pop

In an effort to make more of my paper piles digital, I was cleaning yesterday and came across a great lyric packet that a colleague Joe Knap (Bay High School, Bay Village, OH) presented at the 2003 Summer Teacher Institute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

I transcribed some my notes from Joe's presentation and added additional resources. All the songs are hyperlinked to their lyrics. After people add songs to the list below I'll put together a cool iTunes playlist so we can download all the tracks from one place!

12 Songs to Teach American Studies Suggested by Joe Knap

1. Cross Road Blues - Robert Johnson I scanned the Take 1 & Take 2 versions of these lyrics from the box set "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings" that Joe handed out. They are uploaded as a PDF at the bottom of the document.

2. Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday
If you don't know the history of this incredible song, check this MOJO (British Rock Mag) blog “Strange Fruit” At 70
Also, there is an entire film about "Strange Fruit" from PBS's Independent Lens

3. This Land Is Your Land - Woody Guthrie
Joe explained that this "Dust Bowl Ballad" was a response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" and directed folks to this great NY Times article about the songs:
MUSIC; Two American Anthems, in Two American Voices
By Jody Rosen - Published: July 29, 2000

Some nice follow-ups to that article:
BERLIN AND GUTHRIE; Different Messages
MUSIC; Dead 40 Years, Woody Guthrie Stays Busy

4. That's All Right - Elvis Presley

5. The Times They Are A-Changin' - Bob Dylan

6. Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)> - James Brown
This NPR Story "'The Night James Brown Saved Boston" could be a nice companion piece.

7. Society's Child - Janis Ian

8. Woodstock - Joni Mitchell
Obviously, the loss of Eden/innocence theme is strong here - he said he teaches this song with The Scarlet Letter

9. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Gil Scott-Heron

10. Hotel California - The Eagles
Joe had a chance to meet Don Henley - when he did asked him to sign a copy of his lyrics. Henley wrote, "to the students at Bay High this song is not satanic - it is, however, about good & evil in the classic sense - Don Henley." Priceless! My notes from the presentation also said that he uses this track with Emerson (Self-Reliance) & Thoreau (Walden)

11. Born In The USA> - Bruce Springsteen
The album cover for this album could be read as Springsteen pissing on the flag.

You can read about Reagan and this song at the fairly comprehensive wikipedia entry. Additionally, it might be worth your time to check out Bruce's reinterpretation of the song designed to refocus people on the lyrics and folk roots of the song. If you've never heard this live in New York version here is the link to the track at iTunes.

12. Rockin' in the Free World - Neil Young
NOTE: Joe recommended that a careful reading of this song as it is extremely ironic.

From there, Joe listed a couple alternative tracks...
1. What's Goin' On - Marvin Gaye
2. Like A Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan
3. 7 O'Click News/Silent Night - Simon and Garfunkel
4. I-Feel-Like-I'm Fixin'-To-Die-Rag - Country Joe and the Fish (see this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum Lesson Plan by Joe).
5. Jungleland, The River - Bruce Springsteen
6. Smells like Teen Spirit - Nirvana
7. Let's Roll - Neil Young

Obviously, there is an infinite list of songs one could choose from, but I know Joe used a pretty careful rubric to select tracks with political, historical, cultural, artistic and literary significance. Each song he listed was a high water mark in American pop music and an important primary source.


Of the top of my dome, I'd probably add two rap songs to that list:
1.The Message - Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (wiki entry)
Reason - Chuck D of Public Enemy likes to refer to rap as "the CNN of black America" this song is the moment when "the message" was broadcast to a mass audience.

2. California Love - 2Pac & Dr. Dre
This song is a little trickier - a clean version of the track could be used in your classroom with careful preparation. Going back to the How To Teach with Pop Culture PDF/blog - I don't think these lyrics are super rich (sans the odd reference to Eliot Ness) but I think the track is loaded with cultural studies/historical connections if you show the music video.

From here you can make a lot of incredible connections to the post-apocalyptic visions of California (the video makes direct allusions to the film Mad Max), Manifest Destiny and the mythology of the "Wild West." Additionally, this song is written on the heels of the LA Riots (see the MB study guide on the issue) and seems to be a reaction to those events, and a harbinger of the deaths of TuPac & Biggie.

In the space below please continue the discussion with your thoughts on the tracks above or other popular songs or articles you use to make American History/Literature pop!

See related post:
ARTICLE: American Culture + Bob Dylan

Views: 115


Replies to This Discussion

Some other suggestions from the EC Ning:

Lauren B. on January 17, 2010 at 11:22pm
A nice juxtaposition might be "Eve of Destruction" bu Barry McGuire from 1965 and "The Ballad of the Green Beret" by Barry Sadler from the following year. The songs do a great job of showing the opposing view points on the Vietnam war.

John Mellencamp has some good songs about the Midwest in general and farming in particular. Scarecrow was pretty scathing in its depiction of the state of the nation in the mid80s.

I would also argue that there is a place for some music from the other side of the political divide. While I don't agree with them, songs like "This Ain't No Rag; It's a Flag" by Charlie Daniels and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" by Toby Keith offer a glimpse into the minds of a lot of Americans.

Reply by Tim Ruoff on January 18, 2010 at 3:58am
I recently used "I Will Not Bow" by Breaking Benjamin to push students to make connections between the song, Frederic Henry, the Hemingway Code Hero, and disillusionment as a Modern motif. Here is a link to the music video: I just play the song in class and provide the lyrics; I don't show the video. Students really make great connections and enjoy the use of a contemporary song.
Tim Ruoff (over at the English Companion Ning) suggested...

I would suggest "Fortunate Son" by CCR for books centered on the Vietnam era, such as The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Also, if watching Apocalypse Now as a tie-in with a particular book from that era, you could read/study Jim Morrison song lyrics...his music is an integral part of the could even make connections between Morrison's lyrics and T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," which also is used in the movie.
Monster-Suicide-America by Steppenwolf

...The spirit was freedom and justice
And it's keepers seem generous and kind
It's leaders were supposed to serve the country
But now they won't pay it no mind...

The Last Resort by Eagles

...Who will provide the grand design?
What is yours and what is mine?
'Cause there is no more new frontier
We have got to make it here...

1916 by Motorhead

...I heard my friend cry,
And he sank to his knees, coughing blood
As he screamed for his mother
And I fell by his side,
And that's how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other,..

Here's a song origin and meaning resource I put together a while back. Some world history songs are explained, most of the songs are American Studies. Whenever possible I quote the artist for further meaning and insight...

The Stories Behind the Songs

Woza - great resources - have you heard about the new Lemmy/Motorhead documentary - an old friend of mine is actually a co-director of the film - I have a feeling it won't be classroom friendly :)



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