50+ Essential Songs for the History Classroom

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I am a big fan of music in the history classroom and I have created a number of Spotify Playlists for this purpose. Often this is merely to help create a calm and purposeful working atmosphere, when a bit of Chopin or Debussy sets the tone perfectly. Occasionally it's even possible to have calming instrumental music directly related to the topic in question: for example, Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor, which was inspired by the composer watching British troop ships heading off to France in 1914.

However, some songs are better used to stoke up some energy during lessons, whilst the very best of all are historical sources in themselves, combining musical feeling with powerful lyrical content. What follows is a list of songs I regularly use in class, organised in broadly chronological order in terms of the topics they relate to, with a brief explanation of how you could make use of them with your own students.

What follows is a list of 25 principal songs, but with links to others on similar themes or by similar artists, bringing the total up to over 50. If you have any other suggestions, please contact me (@russeltarr / @activehistory on Twitter) and I'd be delighted to add them to the list (as long as it isn't "We didn't start the fire" by Billy Joel. Which I admit is superb, but we all know this one, surely?).

William the Conqueror (DMX Krew)
Topic: The Norman Conquest
As a revision summary of the Norman Conquest, this song takes some beating. From start to finish, the lyrics provide the story of the Battle of Hastings and William's brutal pacification of England. Even better, it has one of those tunes that gets stuck into your head whether you like it or not. I play it as our theme music at the start of each lesson as students are walking in, also as they are walking out, and frequently in the middle of the lesson too. Then, the following year I get the students to produce a new version of the lyrics based on the life and career of Henry VIII.

Greensleeves (Trad.)
Topic: Was Henry VIII a hero, or a villain?
A genuinely beautiful piece of music, allegedly written by Henry VIII about the breakdown of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. It's nice to play this at the start of the study unit and ask students whether they recognise the tune. Then listen a second time with a focus on the lyrics and their meaning before providing students with the full context. This sets the class up nicely for the complexity of deciding whether Henry deserves to be regarded as a hero or a villain, which I study through the format of an extended classroom trial.

Oliver's Army (Elvis Costello)
Topic: The English Civil War (and others)
This superb song is one that can be revisited many times by students at different points in their studies. Its range of reference is particularly broad, from the reference to Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army in the title to the references to Checkpoint Charlie, Palestine, Winston Churchill and Johannesburg. And like all the best songs (like Bowie's "Quicksand" with its references to Churchill, Himmler and 'bullsh*t faith'), I'm still not sure what it's exactly trying to say - so I'm always keen to hear the views of my students on this question. Costello's second appearance on this list comes at the end with the wonderful 'Shipbuilding'.

The Marseillaise (and other national anthems)
Topic: The French Revolution / Nationalism before World War One
The radical nature of the French Revolution is wonderfully exemplified by the lyrics of this national anthem, with its blood-curdline references to irrigating the fields of France with the blood of her enemies and much else besides. When studying the Origins of World War One, I also like to get students researching the lyrics of different national anthems and picking out lyrics to share which demonstrate the rampant nationalism which morphed into outright xenophobia in the years before World War One ("Germany, Germany above all / Above everything in the world!", "Death or victory to embrace / Strengthen then the Serbian race!").

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite (The Beatles)
Topic: What was life like for Black people in Victorian Britain?
This superb song by John Lennon is based around a Victorian advertisement for a travelling circus which he picked up in a bric-a-brac shop in London (during a break in filming for the "Strawberry Fields Forever" video). It makes reference to Pablo Fanques fair ("The Hendersons will all be there / Late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair—what a scene!") - Pablo Fanques being notable as a successful black businessperson. The Smithsonian Article sums him up well "The showman whom John Lennon immortalized in song was a real performer—a master horseman and Britain's first black circus owner"

Victoria (the Kinks)
Topic: Should the British be proud, or ashamed, of their Empire?
This song by Ray Davies forms part of the late 1960s concept album "Arthur, or the Decline of the British Empire". Students could listen carefully to the lyrics and be asked to consider the message of the song, which is laced with Davies' typical irony and double-meanings. Best of all is to get students to anticipate what the missing verb is in the line "From the West, to the East; from the rich, to the poor; Victoria ***** them all"). Even now, I'm not sure if the word is 'loved' or something which would result in the Queen saying she was not amused. On the same album are numerous songs of historical interest including Mr. Churchill Said by the Kinks.

Redemption Song (Bob Marley)
Topic: The Transatlantic Slave Trade / The Civil Rights Struggle
Although Marley recorded this song a number of times, the unadorned acoustic version of just himself with a guitar is by far the most moving. One on level it tells the story of the Afro-American experience in a broad sweep from being kidnapped into slavery and stowed into the 'bottomless pit' of the slave ships. However, it can also be revisited as part of a study of the Civil Rights movement given Marley's rallying cry to his people to 'emancipate yourselves from mental slavery'. Students could also be asked to listen to Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Buffalo Soldier" and summarise his overall message about Black History. As an interesting counterpoint, it's also worth listening to "Amazing Grace" too: this was written by John Newton, a former slave trader, about his conversion to Christianity (which "Saved a wrtech like me...I once was lost, but now am found").

Pick a Bale of Cotton (Leadbelly)
Topic: What were conditions like on the slave plantations?
I use this song whilst students are doing an against-the-clock 'card matching' exercise with images and captions relating to conditions on the slave plantations. Like chain gang songs, it has an irresistable pace and rhythm which was originally designed to keep people working efficiently. This is also one of those examples where the man is every bit as interesting as the music. Hughie Ledbetter was in jail for murder when he was discovered as a musical genius by Alan Lomax in the 1930s. His recordings are of traditional slave and roots music ("Midnight Special" being a song about the Underground Railroad) and his own original compositions reciting the injustices of living as a black man in segregated America (e.g. "Bourgeois Blues").

An American Trilogy (Elvis Presley)
Topic: What were the causes of the American Civil War?
If clips from the Ken Burns documentary are already being used in class (as they should be) then the official soundtrack of this series is unbeatable as background music during lessons. Other songs have been written about the Civil War (for example "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band). However, "An American Trilogy" by Mickey Newbury is particularly rich material for analysis as it combines three songs relating to the Civil War. First, there is "Dixie", the anthem of the Confederate States. Then "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" which was adopted by the United States; and finally "All My Trials", a famous spiritual. I start by giving students the original lyrics to the first two songs before we listen to the Presley version and then asking them what they think Newbury was trying to say by blending all three of them together. Elvis was no great political commentator, although "If I can Dream" by Elvis is a great song to play in the context of the troubles in America in 1968.

The Ripper (Judas Priest)
Topic: What do the Whitechapel Murders reveal about working-class life in Victorian London?
As a "History Mystery" based around genuine historical sources, the Jack the Ripper murders are one of the most compelling topics I study. Over several lessons, students build up a physical and psychological profile of the killer based on the evidence gathered by police at the time. They then use this to produce their own presentation on who they think was most likely the killer based on the top suspects we have information on. "The Ripper" by Judas Priest is the most chilling song relating to this topic: and Rob Halford's final note is pure heavy-metal, silver-throated screaming genius. Definitely one to practice in the shower and then challenge your class to match at the end of each lesson.

Keep the Home Fires Burning
Topic: What was the domestic impact of World War One upon Britain?
As is the case for many other history teachers, World War One has a special resonance for me as a topic of study, partly for personal reasons and partly due to the Battlefields Trip I organise which is so emotionally powerful. There are of course endless superb songs relating to the war ("Hanging on the old Barbed Wire", "Pack up your Troubles", "The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin", "Goodbye-ee" and many others). However, this Irving Berlin classic is particularly powerful as it is written not by or about the experiences of the soldiers, but for the families back home - and particularly the wives and mothers. In terms of instrumental music, Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor as stated earlier is unbeatable. Also moving, thought, is George Butterworth's "On the Banks of Green Willow": especially in the knowledge that the composer died in the Battle of the Somme and is now commemorated as one of the names on the Theipval Memorial.

Cult of Personality by Living Colour
With references to Kennedy, Mussolini, Stalin and Gandhi, this is a great song to use as a starter when studying propaganda in authoritarian states. "Cult of Personality" prominently includes several audio samples of speeches from 20th-century political leaders. The song begins with an edited quote from the beginning of "Message to the Grass Roots", a speech by Malcolm X ("... And during the few moments that we have left, ... We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand."During a rest in the music at 4:35, John F. Kennedy's inaugural address is heard ("Ask not what your country can do for you ..."). The song ends with Franklin D. Roosevelt saying "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself", from his first inaugural address.

Rasputin (Boney M)
Topic: What were the causes of the February Revolution of 1917?
The pernicious influence of the "Mad Monk" Gregorii Rasputin is often cited as a key factor in the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and Boney M appear to subscribe to this historical school of thought ("Most people looked at him / With terror and with fear"). Like all interpretations, though, it is subject to revisionism: he was arguably assassinated - maybe even with the collusion of the British secret services - because he was persuading the Tsar to pull out of the war against Germany before tragedy engulfed the regime. It's therefore worthwhile listening to this song and assessing how far Boney M are justified in agreeing with "Moscow chicks [that] he was such a lovely dear".

The Horst Wessel Song
Topic: What was life for women and children in Nazi Germany?
The anthem of the Hitler Youth is an interesting case study in Nazi myth-making and propaganda. Written in the depths of the Depression, its lyrics are ripe for analysis by students with contextual knowledge of the period:"The flag high! The ranks tightly closed! / SA march with calm, firm steps. / Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries / March in spirit in our ranks. / Clear the streets for the brown battalions, / Clear the streets for the stormtroopers! / Already millions look with hope to the swastika / The day of freedom and bread is dawning!". As well as analysing it on its own terms, I use it when students are writing their 'Nazi school reports' (they have the duration of the song to write each subject report). In this context it's also worth listening to "Tomorrow belongs to me" (from the musical 'Cabaret') which is a chilling expression of the growing power of the Nazi movement and the Hitler Youth.

Mississippi Goddamn (Nina Simone)
Topic: What were conditions like for black Americans in the Southern states?
One of the most engrossing documentaries I have watched is the brilliant "Whatever happened, Miss Simone?" which is an object study in the civil rights struggle through the eyes of one compelling individual. A musician of exceptional talents, her dream of being a classical pianist was crushed by the racist reality of being a black woman in the south. She turned to popular music instead and used it as a weapon in the civil rights struggle. The lyrics of "Mississippi Goddamn" are laced with rich references to historical events (she frequently changed the lyrics to reflect the most recent happenings). Beyond this, students can place this one song in a broader context of other songs that she wrote (e.g. "Young, Gifted and Black", "Ain't Got No", "The King of Love is Dead"). In this sense I find Simone the true 'voice' of protest song relating to the civil rights movement, notwithstanding other exceptional examples such as Billie Holliday ("Strange Fruit") and even the wonderful Curtis Mayfield ("People Get Ready", "Move on Up", "We People, who are Darker than Blue").

Sophiatown is Gone! (Miriam Makeba)
Topic: In what ways did black South Africans oppose the Apartheid regime?
Music was a powerful tool of social protest in Apartheid South Africa, with songs like "Beware, Verwoerd!" catchy and menacing in equal measure. Of those songs, perhaps the best that was sung in English is this one by Miriam Makeba, commemorating the forced removal of a vibrant black community in the 1950s into a soulless suburb named 'Meadowlands' ("Sweet Sophia is gone forever!"). Makeba herself left South Africa in the 1960s, where she became an outspoken critic of the Apartheid regime and was briefly married to the US civil rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael. During that time she also recorded some wonderful songs that are a perennial favourite as background music in my lessons, including "The Click Song" and "Pata Pata".

Revolution (The Beatles)
Topic: How justified were Chairman Mao's policies for China?
This is one of the rare forays of the Fab Four into political commentary (with the exception of 'Taxman' by George Harrison - "Let me tell you how it will be / There's one for you, nineteen for me...Ha,ha Mr. Wilson, Haha, Mr Heath!"), this classic rocker reflects John Lennon's ambivalence about violent revolution in the line "When you talk about destruction / Don't you know that you can count me out...in...". Lennon himself later said that this was one of the few songs he'd like to be able to change the lyrics to. The line he regretted was "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow" - Lennon had changed his mind by 1972, saying "I should have never put that in about Chairman Mao". Students studying Mao's rule of China could form their own research this in more detail to determine what their position on the communist leader is. On the theme of revolution, Children of the Revolution by T. Rex is one I use when teaching the industrial revolution (as my students are, for those lessons at least 'Children of the Revolution'!)

Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag (Country Joe and The Fish)
Topic: Why did the Vietnam War become so unpopular in the USA?
There is a breathtaking number of songs written in protest against the Vietnam War, many of them absolutely superb: for example, "Ohio" by Neil Young (about the Kent State University shootings), "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire, For What it's Worth by Buffalo Springfield, and Rooster by Alice in Chains. However, my all-time favourite has to be this song by Country Joe and the Fish, recorded at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. It is peerless as an expression of wry student attitudes at the prospect of fighting in Asia ("Put down your books, and pick up a gun, it's gonna be a whole lotta fun"), especially when married to the jaunty tune which sticks in your head from the moment you hear it for the first time ("And it's 1, 2, 3, What are we fighting for? / Don't ask me I don't give a damn / The next stop is Vietnam! / And it's 5, 6, 7, Open up the pearly gates / Oh, there ain't no time to wonder why / Whoopee! We're all gonna die!").

Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
Topic: How and why were the Northern and Southern states of the USA so divided?
This song was famously written as a riposte to Neil Young's "Southern Man" ("Southern change gonna come at last / Now your crosses are burning fast"). "Sweet Home Alabama" is a proud and defiant celebration of the "Dixie" way of life ("I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don't need him around anyhow...Watergate does not bother me - does your conscience trouble you?"). When Skynyrd performed live, they did so with a giant Confederate Flag behind them.

Political Science (Randy Newman)
Topic: What impact did the Vietnam War have upon American society?
Randy Newman is a songwriter of exceptional lyrical ability and does not shy away from historical and political topics ("Dayton Ohio 1903", "The Great Nations of Europe" - and most recently 'Putin' by Randy Newman). This particular song was written in 1972 when Americans were beset with angst about the almost universal condemnation that they were experiencing about Vietnam. Laden with Newman's characteristic irony (which students don't always pick up on!), it considers the benefits of the USA unleashing nuclear holocaust in order to clear the world of all its enemies: "No-one likes us / I don't know why / we may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try / All around, even our old friends put us down / Let's drop the big one / And see what happens..." After listening to the song it's worth asking the students if they find his voice familiar. Invariably they do, but will struggle to recall where they have heard it before. The answer is that he recorded all the songs for the movie Toy Story ("You've got a friend in me" etc).

Gimme Some Truth (John Lennon)
Topic: Why was President Nixon known as 'Tricky Dicky'?
One of the reasons that the Beatles broke up was John Lennon's increasing frustration at being gagged from talking about political issues (his claim that the Beatles were 'bigger than Jesus' set off a veritable storm of protest in the American south and a highly uncharacteristic apology from Lennon in 1966). Beatles songs therefore rarely address politics. Once he had broken free of the group, however, Lennon turned his barbed wit to political protest songs: most famously in 'Give Peace a Chance' and 'Working Class Hero' but perhaps to best effect in this classic from the album "Imagine" where he rants about the hypocrisy of modern politics to such an extent that President Nixon opened an FBI file on him and sought his extradition from the United States ("I'm sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded politicians [and] paranoid primadonnas...No short-haired son of Tricky Dicky's gonna mother-hubbard soft soap me with just a pocketful of hope...").

Sunday Bloody Sunday (U2)
Topic: What were The Troubles in Northern Ireland?
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" is is the opening track from the U2 album War (1983). It is one of U2's most overtly political songs, with lyrics describing the horror felt by an observer of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The song makes reference to two separate massacres in Irish history of civilians by British forces - Bloody Sunday (1920) and Bloody Sunday 1972. On the same album is the song "Seconds" by U2, which is both a protest song and a wake-up call to those who had become complacent about Cold War politics. The song reflects the commonly held fear that nuclear armageddon was literally only seconds away. Sticking with the Irish History theme, Paul McCartney's "Give Ireland back to the Irish" was uncharacteristically controversial.

My Sweet Lord (George Harrison)
Topic: What was the impact of military rule upon the people of Chile under Pinochet?
One of the most twisted features of the Pinochet military dictatorship was its use of a 'torture tape' consisting of various pieces of music played at high volume on a constant loop as a means of 'breaking' prisoners. In the words of this article, "Manchester University researchers claimed that agents of his regime used My Sweet Lord by Harrison to 'break' socialist revolutionaries...Played at intensely high volumes for days on end, otherwise popular songs were used to inflict psychological and physical damage."

Shipbuilding (Robert Wyatt)
Topic: Why is Margaret Thatcher so unpopular in many working-class communities?
Like "Oliver's Army" this is an Elvis Costello song, but recorded and made famous in this instance by Robert Wyatt (the former drummer of Soft Machine, turned vocalist after being paralysed in a tragic accident). The lyrics deal with the rumour 'going round town' that the impoverished community built around a declining shipyard will soon be receiving a new contract. Sung with aching delicacy, it's a genuinely moving piece of music "Is it worth it? / A new winter coat and shoes for the wife / And a bicycle on the boy's birthday / It's just a rumour that's been spread around town / by the women and children / Soon we'll be shipbuilding". Unlike more barbed songs like "Panic" by The Smiths or "Ghost Town" by The Specials, the power of this song is in the tone of sadness rather than bitterness. Robert Wyatt's "Stalin wasn't Stallin'" is another curious song worth listening to.

I have also created a collaborative Spotify playlist for the History Classroom which you can add songs to, as well as several topic-specific history playlists.

 

 


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