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

This is a HUGE amount of work, Ryan (and Joe). Thank you!
Thanks KS!
I love love LOVE the compilation Song of America. If you can get your chalk-dusted hands on it, get it! The last disc is AMAZING for more contemporary ideas and songs, from Little Boxes to Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning). It's also by current folk, country, bluegrass, rap, and hip-hop artists.

Buy it here on Amazon.

It covers the American history in song pretty well. Does anyone else have this?
Sean - that's a pretty cool complication - thank you for sharing! I'm actually working on a similar playlist of more random (less popular tunes) that I will unleash at some point in the near future.

That Amazon wish list may never end :)

May I add "Allentown" and "The Downeaster Alexa" by Billy Joel and "99 Red Baloons".

Great choices, thanks for sharing! If I may ask - what is the reasoning behind choosing those tracks (esp. "99 Red Balloons" since it is a German song)? Would you link those tracks to core content or teach them as stand alone tracks?

Just interested :)

Hi, Ryan,

Most of the time I look for songs to use as primary sources. "Red Baloons" is done in both German and English and pokes fun of the Cold War mentality between the US and USSR at the time. Funny thing is, I never really paid attention until someone mentioned it to me or I read it somewhere. Read the lyrics, its a warning for a potential nuclear holocaust. Songs like that can relay the mindet at the time. For example, I showed my kid sthe Twilight Zone episode called "The Shelter". It creeped them out, it was funny. Also, shows like MASH because they are both a commentary about their topic but also about contempory issues, in this case, Vietnam. The kids appreciate it, especialyl if they've never seen them before and I actually had some kids who hand never seen MASH!
So we could call "99 Luft Balloons" the "Dr. Strangelove" of popular music? I studied the song in German class in high school, so I must say I haven't revisited it since. Sounds like it is worth a careful listen!!

MASH is great, eh?
lol - either that or the music version of "war games"

Actually, was familiar with the English version before I was even aware there was a German version.

love MASH!
Awesome selections! Here's how it echoes in this chamber:
-- Did I share ye Ward Sutton's take on BORN IN THE USA? (12-page history comic)
-- I found learning Woody Guthrie's (and others') songs with my students made great sense with photo documentation to provide images & context. We'd project photos on the wall as we rehearsed, and I gave them the links for further research on my blog. Q.V.: Dustbowl + Great Depression
MB - awesome links, resources, ideas as usual - you rock like a star! That comic is incredible as is your music blog materials! Thank you!
Other suggestions from a place I cross posted this Gaetan Pappalardo suggested:

America- Simon and Garfunkel
Born in America- Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
Society- Eddie Vedder (Into the Wild Soundtrack)



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