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'What's that stuff you're listening to sir?' Rock and pop music as a rich source for historical enquiry

Building on the wonderful articles by Mastin and Sweerts & Grice in TH 108, Simon Butler urges us here to make greater use of rock and pop music in history classrooms. His reasons are persuasive. First, it provides a rich vein of initial stimulus material to tap, helping us to engage and intrigue even our least motivated learners. Second, it allows students to construct layers of meaning that might escape them purely through the written word. Students often find it easier to 'read' the tone of a source by listening to it and this can be a powerful way to consider perspective. Third, the use of this type of music supports close textual analysis, providing ways of exploring the lyrics at different levels. Finally, it helps us to pose rigorous historical questions about significance and interpretation. Enquiries that explore why people still sing about the Diggers and what impact Billie Holliday's songs had on the Civil Rights movement provide students with both challenge and motivation. They also provide teachers with imaginative ways to combine depth and overview in their planning.

Contemporary pop charts might sometimes be regarded as a bland and anodyne cure for pre-pubescent growing pains. The history of rock and pop music, however, from its earliest days in 'tin-pan alley' to the global influence of multi-national record companies, offers a rich and diverse source of evidence to stimulate the most disenchanted adolescent.

I read with considerable interest the articles by Grice & Sweets and by Mastin in a previous edition of Teaching History.1 The articles highlighted how song and music provide historians with an insight into beliefs, attitudes and feelings in the past. For Mastin, a study of Tallis's changing style perfectly captures the shifting religious moods of 17th century Britain. For Grice and Sweerts, it is the music of the African slaves and the emergence of new genres such as blues and jazz that enhances a study into the emerging resistance of African-Americans to slavery and segregation. Both articles therefore highlighted the value of using music to provide students with a 'way into' a period, by creating an atmosphere and a mood which is frequently easier to hear than to read.

Music to motivate

All of this vividly reminded me of my first experience of using music to motivate a disaffected Year 11 G.C.S.E group and engage them in a study of the Vietnam War in 1988. Paul Hardcastle's song Nineteen (Number 1 in 1985) and accompanying video succeeded in capturing the interest of Mark and Lee, who were usually more concerned with discussing the merits of Yamaha and Suzuki bikes than debating the finer points of history. After this partial success, I sifted through my record collection and identified a number of tunes (see Figure 1) which might provide stimulus for an auditory learner. Fifteen years later, I still listen out for either contemporary or back catalogue material which tackles an historical event retrospectively or which offers an insight into the thoughts, feelings and experiences of people in the past.

As with all resources, each class and the individuals within it respond in different ways to the material. My own favourite memory is of a young man in Milton Keynes who played his 'air-guitar' and sang his own rendition of Billy Bragg's The world turned upside down. Certainly, this type of resource enables students with an interest in music and an auditory learning style to access the curriculum in particular ways. It can, for example, be used as a starter activity to attract the attention and curiosity of the students. It can also be used to develop students' evaluation skills if further evidence is provided for the purposes of cross-referencing. Furthermore, as exemplified by Steven Mastin with his use of a Manic Street Preachers tune, songs frequently present a particular viewpoint or interpretation which students can then reflect upon and evaluate.

Music and historical significance

Music can also provide a perfect lens through which to explore the undervalued strand of the history National Curriculum, 'historical significance'.2 Indeed, the poignancy of an event as depicted in a song raises all kinds of questions such as 'why did someone write a song about this?' and 'why do people still listen to it?' Rob Phillips, in a previous edition of Teaching History,3 referred to the work of Geoffrey Partington who identified five possible ways of measuring or assigning historical significance: importance, profundity, quantity, durability and relevance. Material such as The Farm's 1990 hit All Together Now, for example, can help students to reflect on the profundity and durability of the First World War in our collective consciousness. It is only a small step further to incorporate the idea of 'relevance' by reflecting on the recent conflict in the Gulf and to explore the changing attitudes towards war that have developed within our society. My assemblies, P.S.H.E. and R.S. lessons have all benefited from tapping into this kind of material. Most evocatively, perhaps, I used a Paul Weller song, Ghosts of Dachau, to accompany a power-point presentation of black and white photographs of Nazi concentration camps on Holocaust Memorial Day.

The songs in Figure 1 represent a small selection of material ideal for motivating students. Furthermore, they provide an opportunity to challenge students' historical thinking and indeed their very perception of what constitutes historical evidence. I have selected two particular songs to explore in greater detail in the rest of this article. One can be used as a primary source whilst the other is an historical interpretation. Both provide opportunities to explore ideas of significance and develop skills of evaluation.

'Blood on the leaves and blood at the root'

[Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday]

In keeping with the principles of effective 'Initial Stimulus Material',4 the song 'Strange Fruit' by Billie Holiday provides a perfect illustration of introducing Black Peoples of the Americas in a 'deliberately "oblique" manner'. In other words, the teacher arouses the curiosity of the students by choosing not to provide any historical context before they first listen to the song. Strange Fruit was considered the best song of the century by U.S. TIME magazine in December 1999 and was explicitly called 'a historic document' by song writer Yip Harman.5 Furthermore, its historical significance was acknowledged by jazz writer Leonard Feather, who described it as 'the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism'.6 Several cover versions have been made of the song by contemporary artists, of which UB40's (on the album Signing Off) might be the most familiar to a modern British audience. This reveals the enduring significance of the song as a landmark in the fight against racism and prejudice in contemporary society. Consequently, Strange Fruit can be used as an important primary source which both influenced and reflected its age; indeed, it lends itself perfectly to a consideration of issues of historical significance and to source evaluation.

I usually play the tune as the students are entering the classroom, to the cries of 'What's that stuff you're listening to, Sir?' A second, more formal listening follows, where I ask students to comment on the mood and style of the music, together with any lyrics that catch their attention. A mini-plenary follows to identify their initial thoughts. This might typically include comments like 'it's quiet and soft', 'a bit gloomy', 'it sounds a bit eerie', 'I heard blood mentioned several times', 'She sounds sad', 'someone might have died', 'Yeah - I heard her say 'black bodies' Sir', 'and burning flesh', 'but what's that got to do with fruit ?'

Now all the class is 'hooked' and ready for another rendition. With some groups, the lyrics (see Figure 2) can now be circulated, whilst with others, the teacher might play it 'blind' a second time before investigating the lyrics in detail. This is a perfect opportunity to tackle the literacy demands of the song at both a word and sentence level before taking forward the discussion in the style of Claire Riley's 'layers of inference' diagram.7 This develops speculation around questions such as 'where do you think this might have happened?', 'why might it have taken place?', 'when might it have happened?' 'how frequently did this happen?' 'who is the singer?', 'when was the song written?' and 'why was it written?'

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