Music as a Gateway to Understanding Historical Practice

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By Matenadaran [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsIn the mid-1990s, the music of the Wakami Wailers set me on the path to becoming a historian.  Singing the old songs from eastern Canada’s nineteenth-century lumber shanties, this group of former Ontario Parks workers instilled in me a sense of the past and its importance for understanding present realities.  By connecting some of Ontario’s premier provincial parks and province’s lumber industry, the Wailers encouraged me to consider the complex interconnection between logging and recreation in central Ontario (i.e. Muskoka and Algonquin Park).

I have come to realize over the decade and a half since I first discovered the Wailers that popular music can serve as a useful entry point for understanding the past.  This should not come as a surprise.  Approaches to teaching and learning, such as John Bigg’s SOLO taxonomy, emphasize the importance of understanding foundational concepts before higher order thinking can take place.  Popular culture serves as an easy way to establish these concepts by capitalizing on students’ everyday experience.

Music can be used to teach about the past in at least seven overlapping ways (feel free to add other categories and examples in the comments section):

1) Trivia and basic facts:  Although I am not a hockey fan, thanks to the Tragically Hip, I don’t think that I will ever forget that Bill Barilko went missing after he scored the goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs the Stanley Cup.  The Leaf’s didn’t win another, until 1962, the year he discovered.  Boney M’s Rasputin is another song full of biographical detail about Grigori Rasputin, adviser to Czar Nicolas II.

2) Commemoration of Events:  U2’s or John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Sunday Bloody Sunday can be used to teach about the 1972 killing of civil rights protestors by British soldiers in Derry, Ireland.

3) As a Primary Source: Songs like Pete Seeger’s Bring ‘Em Home, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier, and Edwin Starr’s War (originally recorded by the Temptations) serve as useful primary sources to introduce people to the anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

4) Commemoration of Historical Processes: Neil Young’s Pocahontas is useful for beginning discussions about the European colonization of North America and dispossession of the continent’s Aboriginal people.

5) Change over time: Although it’s a rather simple song, Istanbul (not Constantinople), (first recorded in 1953 but perhaps now better known by its cover by They Might Be Giants) can be used to illustrate how the meaning of places change over time.

6) Teaching Oral Traditions: Organizations like Mariposa in the Schools emphasize the importance of oral cultural traditions in the school system.  Their music program emphasizes themes such as migration and cultural interaction as well as the development of specific types of music such as folk and the blues.

7) Telling Alternative Narratives: On the eve of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 it is worth noting Stan Rogers’s efforts to tell some of the lesser known stories of the war.  One of Rogers’s better known songs about 1812, MacDonnell on the Heights, tells the story of a valiant major who met his death during the battle of Queenston Heights but whose legacy languished because of General Isaac Brock’s legacy (Brock, incidentally, died at the beginning of the battle with which he is most frequently associated).  For more on Stan Rogers and the relationship between ‘official’ and ‘popular’ history see Nick Baxter-Moore’s article “Recording the War of 1812: Stan Rogers’ (Un)sung Heros.”

We have to be careful not to over-emphasize what music can teach us.  Music – particularly folk music – often instills romantic notions of the past and tempts us to create simple and somewhat singular narratives about the past.  Like all primary and secondary sources, music needs to be critically evaluated.  But as a tool through which historical events and concepts can be introduced, it serves as a bridge between students’ everyday experiences and the past.

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2 thoughts on “Music as a Gateway to Understanding Historical Practice

  1. Rylan Kafara

    Great post! I think you’re totally right, and that it’s very important to point this out. Music can work as a way to make the past accessible, and engage people in ways that reading out of a textbook can’t do. I maintain a blog called The Past is Unwritten where I try and highlight some of the connections between music and history, and I think your third point, that music can be used as a primary source is especially significant. As Bob Dylan said, “Popular songs are the only art form that describe the temper of the times; that’s where people hang out.”

    Here’s an example of music showing a particular grievance of American youth since the 1970s, boredom:

    Also, to expand on your point about the Tragically Hip, here’s a post I wrote on how the band can be used to teach Canadian history:

    And I think music can also be used to help avoid the dangers involved with analyzing the past; such as seeing history through our own lens. As you say at the end of the post, it’s important to stay objective when using music as a source. Also, I think songs can be useful in illuminating the views and perspectives of people from the era it was written, which of course my differ greatly from our own.

    Thanks for this, and keep up the good work!

  2. Ian Milligan

    This is a great post, Tom. I wonder how many minor historical facts that I first learned from the Tragically Hip and Gordon Lightfoot as a high school student. I certainly wouldn’t know about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

    I’m a bit spoiled, as I teach Canada’s 1960s, but I find that music’s a great tool in any classroom. It can help students think about how the past is represented as well as appeal to auditory learners. Plus, in a lecture, I think a musical break now and then can keep the class on track but give some digesting time.

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