From “God Bless America” to “Blowin’ in The Wind”: Learning History Through Music

Issue Date: 
July 2, 2013

Middle- and high-school teachers from as far away as Alaska are meeting at the University of Pittsburgh through July 26 for Voices Across Time: Teaching American History Through Song, an institute that equips educators with an effective tool for teaching social studies, history, and other academic subjects—American music.

The idea is to make American music part of educators’ toolkits for history, civics, English literature, or social studies, specifically to enhance students’ understanding of the people who lived through historical events, as well as the ethnic, political, and socioeconomic diversity of past eras.

For example, spirituals such as “No More Auction Block For Me” can enhance a class discussion on slavery, while Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” can be used to teach about the advent of World War II. Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” can illustrate the atmosphere of protest and domestic upheaval in the 1960s and Billy Joel’s “Allentown” can enlighten young people about the downturn in the steel industry in the 1980s. 

“The sound of history is missing from our classrooms,” said Pitt professor of music Deane Root, codirector of the institute, director of Pitt’s Center for American Music, and the Fletcher Hodges Jr. Curator of Pitt’s Foster Hall Collection. “Over the years, songs have allowed everyday people to voice their attitudes, opinions, and beliefs.”

This is the fifth time Pitt’s Department of Music and Center for American Music have held the institute, made possible through a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Twenty-five educators are participating, arriving at Pitt last week from 14 states, from as far away as Florida, Texas, and Alaska and as nearby as New Jersey and New York. Two teachers from Pittsburgh are taking part. In past years, participants reported that when they returned to their home school districts and used American music in their lesson plans, student enthusiasm exceeded their most optimistic expectations.

The lecturers/performers for this summer’s institute include, among others:

• Alan Jabbour, a classically trained violinist who plays fiddle music in the style of the Upper South; taught English, folklore, and ethnomusicology at UCLA; and headed up the Archive of Folksong and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress;

• Andrew Flory, an expert in the music of Motown who teaches courses on American music at Carleton College and has written extensively on the music of Marvin Gaye, The Beatles, and African American pop singers and balladeers; and

• David and Ginger Hildebrand, specialists in the research, recording, and performing of authentic Colonial American music.

Institute participants also will visit the Fort Pitt Museum and Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.