Rhiannon Giddens – Music and History

Whenever possible, I try to incorporate music into my history classes.  With my high school classes, I teach the full American History.  Therefore, it’s rather easy to find music to play for the 20th century.

With earlier History, finding meaningful music to incorporate can be much more difficult.  Of course, the Hamilton musical, and it’s accompanying soundtrack has made it possible to talk about the earlier time periods with music.  Still, it’s practically impossible to find actual songs from the period.  Either the recordings are archaic, or they’re just too different for students to be able to make a connection.  Therefore, when I found Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I immediately began to think of ways that I could use their music with my classes.  The video below explains their approach to music.

Essentially, they’ve taken some of the traditional songs of the 1800s and reworked them for modern audiences.  Therefore, students can hear what the songs of the 1800s sounded like with modern sound quality.  (They also record their own original songs.) . The song below is inspired by a slave narrative.

One of my favorite remakes is actually from the 1920s.  It’s a song about a woman who has gotten a divorce after being married for five years.  The song seems so modern, so happy, so catchy and fun, it explains why the 1920s were often called “modern times.”

Giddens was originally a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, although recently, she has released two solo albums.  Giddens is purely a genius.  She seems to play several instruments effortlessly, and she sings also (she actually studied as an opera singer).   Her most recent album – Freedom Highway – seems particularly personal and political.

This song from her newest references an ad for a female slave and her child.  I love that the text of the song is displayed along with the actual ad.  I would probably show this song as a bell ringer at the beginning of class, and ask students to read through the lyrics.  (Some of the lyrics are a bit adult, but I think with some context they’re appropriate for high school listeners.) Music helps students to feel the emotions of history, connect with history, and see that history isn’t far away from the present.

How do you incorporate music into your teaching? 





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