Recently, thanks to a kind friend’s invitation, I had the chance to sing in “The Big Sing,” a one-weekend-a-year chorus of over 100 singers, gathered to sing songs associated with social justice. The Sing was glorious fun, and I was reminded yet again of the power of music to express ideas more powerfully than words alone.
I came of age during the Viet Nam war, so my teen and young adult years were filled with anti-war protest music, as well as songs from the Civil Rights movement. Many of those were echoed in the music I sang last weekend. In both places protest songs brought us together and reflected both thoughts and emotions in ways that were familiar.
But protest music has roots long before my experiences. It has been used to express political viewpoints since the earliest days of the United States. Take this song of the Revolution, from the Carpenters’ Hall website collection:
Lift up your hands ye heroes and swear with proud disdain
The wretch that would ensnare you shall lay his snares in vain.
Should Europe empty all her force, we’ll meet her in array,
And fight and shout and shout and fight for North America!
Torn from a world of tyrants beneath this western sky.
We form a new dominion, a land of liberty.
The world shall own we’re masters here, then hasten on the day.
Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah, huzzah for free America!
Some future day shall crown us the masters of the main.
Our fleet shall speak in thunder, to England, France, and Spain.
And the nations o’er the oceans’ spread shall tremble and obey,
The sons, the sons, the sons, the sons of brave America!
I can easily envision it being sung with enthusiasm and cheering (and doesn’t it make you wonder if the word “America” ended with a long ā sound?) In addition to the Carpenters’ Hall information, there are a number of websites that can help you find music from the Revolution, from the Library of Congress’ Lyrical Legacy site to this PBS resource guide. It can be fascinating to compare lyrics from both sides of the Civil War. You can hear (or buy) many of them at the Smithsonian Folkways site.
Of course, songs have been used in times of social unrest that didn’t involve wars. It is impossible to fully envision the American Labor movement without the songs that helped it move forward. The Smithsonian has options to listen or buy that music as well, and the Library of Congress Site has a fine lesson plan for using music when studying U.S. Reform History. And that’s just the beginning of all that’s available online.
How does this fit with creativity? At least two ways. First, using music to learn about history can put primary sources in students’ hands. With them, students can become genuine historians, asking questions of the lyrics and analyzing evidence. In addition to being a fine opportunity for critical thinking, this is a chance to practice what creative historians so. If you are looking for a way to start, the Library of Congress site has a collection of materials to help teachers share primary sources.
But, as evidenced by my recent weekend, songs of protest and hope are not just the stuff of history—they continue important today. What if your students were challenged to create a song for an issue they care about today—perhaps to the tune of a familiar song? The songs needn’t reflect national politics, but could express their thoughts on any local or school issue. What about a protest song about bullying or an anthem mourning the loss of life in the opioid epidemics that are affecting so many of our communities? Writing their own protest songs allows students to take their place alongside passionate and expressive citizens across history. If you give it a try, please let me know. I’d love to hear what they write!