Music About American History?
November 15, 2010 7:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm a US History teacher, and have had great results using songs about American History, but I'm looking for more! Can you give some recommendations?

I'm not looking for "historical songs," but rather "songs about history."

For example, earlier this year I used "Molasses, Rum, and Slaves" from the musical 1776 to help explain the various parties interested in the Triangle Trade and today I used They Might Be Giants "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too" and "James K. Polk" in class.

So, what other sort of quirky, kitschy, or just plain out there songs about topics in American History are out there just waiting to be added to my curriculum?
posted by absalom to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Schoolhouse Rock
posted by brujita at 7:35 AM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hard to go wrong with the Animaniacs. States and capitals and Presidents (albeit only through Clinton).
posted by Wild_Eep at 7:38 AM on November 15, 2010

Best answer: Alexander Hamilton
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:38 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Animaniacs, Presidents.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:39 AM on November 15, 2010

Best answer: The Presidents by Jonathan Coulton.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:40 AM on November 15, 2010

Best answer: You might want to check out the soundtrack to the currently-on-Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. [Caveat: I haven't listened to it. May be too sexy.]
posted by purpleclover at 7:46 AM on November 15, 2010

Best answer: the battle of new orleans
posted by lester at 7:47 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

See if you can find some Histeria! songs. It wasn't as popular as Animaniacs, so they might be harder to track down.
posted by natabat at 8:03 AM on November 15, 2010

Best answer: Too Late to Apologize.
posted by bolognius maximus at 8:05 AM on November 15, 2010

Best answer: Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot.
We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel.
posted by bookmammal at 8:06 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

St. Francis Dam Disaster by Frank Black.
posted by amery at 8:19 AM on November 15, 2010

Best answer: We love Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America in my family, which doesn't really edify, but will amuse after you've learned the history. And it is where my theme song, Everybody Wants To Be An Art Director (sung by Betsy Ross), comes from.

More directly useful:
  • Louisiana 1927 (Randy Newman or Aaron Neville) talks about the massive flooding in the delta. The little fat man referenced is Herbert Hoover, who used his relief chief job to vault himself to the presidency.
  • Zoot Suit Riots is about the street fights between young Latino folks and armed service members during WWII in California.
  • Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd (Woody Guthrie) 1930s Bank-Robbing Crime Wave

  • posted by julen at 8:19 AM on November 15, 2010

    "American Woman" as an anti-imperialist number when you get to teaching about Vietnam.
    posted by modernnomad at 8:21 AM on November 15, 2010

    Are you my history teacher?

    If you are, I have already recommended this to you, but otherwise, I have always interpreted Don't Give Up as a song about the Depression.
    posted by mkb at 8:42 AM on November 15, 2010

    They Might Be giants, "James K. Polk" - Napoleon of the Stump!*&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&startIndex=&startPage=1
    posted by Mr. Excellent at 8:51 AM on November 15, 2010

    Best answer: Maybe Hooverville / We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover from Annie? Lyrics (not perfectly correct) here. It's about the Depression and references the previous presidential election.
    posted by amtho at 8:53 AM on November 15, 2010

    You should check out the musical Assassins by Stephen Sondheim, which explores the life stories/motivations of every person who attempted or succeeded in assassinating an American president. The Ballad of Booth is one of its more accessible songs, but I'm sure there's other good ones.
    posted by castlebravo at 9:14 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

    Not exactly PC, but Tom Lehrer's ‘I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" might be fun.
    posted by Ideefixe at 9:15 AM on November 15, 2010

    Best answer: Curtis Eller's American Circus might be good. He has two cds, and they're both packed full of historic references and material.
    posted by Stagger Lee at 9:35 AM on November 15, 2010

    We had to listen to "We Didn't Start the Fire" a lot, so help me. If you feel like, uh, inflicting that on the poor kids.
    posted by ifjuly at 10:10 AM on November 15, 2010

    Do Re Mi by Woody Guthrie is about Dust Bowl migrants. (I especially like Nanci Griffith and Guy Clark's version.)

    The Woody Guthrie catalog is a pretty good place to start from This Land is Your Land to Roll on Columbia Roll to the Ludlow Massacre to Deportees.
    posted by vespabelle at 10:57 AM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

    Best answer: The Cold War, in song.
    posted by .kobayashi. at 11:39 AM on November 15, 2010

    Best answer: The Civil War and Slavery: No More Auction Block - Bob Dylan; The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down - The Band; Follow the Drinking Gourd - Pete Seeger & Ed Renehan

    The Civil Rights Movement: Oxford Town - Bob Dylan; Birmingham - Randy Newman

    Flood of 1927: Louisiana 1927 - Randy Newman; Levee Camp Moan - Son House; Levee Camp Blues - Mississippi Fred McDowell

    The Depression: Ballad of the Boll Weevil - Pete Seeger; Boll Weevil - Blind Wilie McTell; Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man) - Randy Newman

    Miscellaneous Disasters: The Titanic - Leadbelly; London Calling - The Clash (Three Mile Island Meltdown); Peg and Awl - Carolina Tar Heels (being priced out by the Industrial Revolution); Nebraska - Bruce Springsteen (killing spree in the 1950s); Burn On - Randy Newman (industrial river being so polluted it burned)
    posted by colfax at 11:48 AM on November 15, 2010

    How could I forget the Boss?

    John Henry
    (wiki) and "John Henry" via Springsteen and friends.
    posted by MonkeyToes at 11:52 AM on November 15, 2010

    Do they have to be literal?
    Some of the old Disney songs were closely related to the politics of the time.

    "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" from The Three Little Pigs (1933) mirrored the Great Depression and became a sort of theme song for it.

    "Heigh Ho" from Snow White (1937) can be used to draw parallels to the New Deal. Disney was an advocate of the New Deal - read the full lyrics. (i.e., "We don't know what we dig them [gems] for...")
    posted by Knowyournuts at 11:55 AM on November 15, 2010

    Best answer: Randy Newman, "Louisiana 1927."

    Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit."
    posted by MonkeyToes at 11:58 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

    I suggest this album, created with the help of Janet Reno (seriously!): Song of America.
    posted by tacodave at 1:14 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

    Lots of stuff on Randy Newman's Good Ole Boys album. In fact, he has several other songs about history in other albums as well.
    posted by parkerposey at 1:23 PM on November 15, 2010

    Best answer: Ohio - CSNY
    posted by kirstk at 1:54 PM on November 15, 2010

    I couldn't resist doing a little research and thought you might enjoy these 3 lists on Wikipedia:

    Lists of Songs about the Vietnam War

    Lists of Anti-War Songs (not just recent wars....)

    The role of music in World War 2 - international songs included
    posted by kirstk at 2:08 PM on November 15, 2010

    Best answer: Utah Phillips has some great IWW/storytelling songs about being a working man and the early union struggles.
    posted by RedEmma at 2:35 PM on November 15, 2010

    Alice's Restaurant.
    posted by digitalprimate at 5:08 PM on November 15, 2010

    Best answer: Dan Zanes did a fantastic CD called Parades And Panoramas. All of the songs are taken from Carl Sandburg's American Songbag. A lot of wonderful storytelling songs - especially from the Depression.

    One of my favorite CDs. I dare you to not get the Titanic song stuck in your head.
    posted by bibliogrrl at 7:31 PM on November 15, 2010

    Conspiracy Rock!!!
    posted by custard heart at 9:11 PM on November 15, 2010

    The lyrics to "Big Rock Candy Mountain" have evolved over the years, but I think the best-known version (which was a hit in 1939? end of the Depression) describes the hopes and fears of a hobo in the Great Depression. The railway guards, cops, guard dogs, and jails are all ineffectual, the trains are easy to hop, the farms are all hospitable, and there are lakes of free whisky and stew, waterfalls of gin, and trees that grow cigarettes. You could have students analyze the lyrics, define and discuss important terms (hobo, jungle, handouts, boxcars, brakemen, railroad bulls, short-handled shovels, etc.), and relate this lighthearted song to the hard lives of the many actual Depression-era homeless.

    And you could do songs like "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" in the same unit.
    posted by pracowity at 1:45 AM on November 16, 2010

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