JENNINGS: There's history in these popular rock tunes

The Associated PressBilly Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” covers over 100 significant historical events from 1949-1989.

A friend of mine recently gifted me a Johnny Horton record that included the Grammy Award winning song “The Battle of New Orleans.” If you are not familiar with Horton or the song, it might be because the song came out back in 1959 and Horton died in 1960, the same year he won his only Grammy Award.

Horton’s other claim to fame was that his second wife was Billie Jean Jones, who was Hank Williams Sr.’s widow. In an odd twist of fate, Williams died in a car crash after performing a show at the Skyline Club in Austin Texas, the same venue where Williams had performed his last show in 1953.

The legacy of the song “The Battle of New Orleans” is just as fascinating. Jimmy Driftwood, a former high school principal and lover of American history, wrote the lyrics to help students learn about the famous battle. Driftwood set the lyrics to a traditional fiddle tune entitled “The 8th of January” which is the date of the famous battle.

Using popular music to teach history might be a strategy parents could incorporate into a student’s day to break up the monotony. There are many great examples to choose from, but even if they don’t cover topics that will appear on an exam, it may just stoke a love of history.

“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young is about the Kent State shootings in 1970. The event was a turning point in the Vietnam War era and students can study different perspectives on the event after listening to the song. They also recorded a song entitled “Woodstock” about the iconic music festival.

“Black Friday” is a song by Steely Dan about the first Black Friday in 1869.The song could provide an intro to a lesson on how the stock market works and the impact of the two major stock market crashes known as Black Friday.

“The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen is about the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It’s hard to believe for some of us, but even students graduating high school this year will have no recollection of the attacks.

One song that encapsulates a ton of history from 1949-1989 is Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” The song covers over 100 significant historical events, enough to keep a student busy for months if they decided to research all of them. Joel wrote the song when he turned 40 years old after a conversation with a person who was 21 years old said the world was a lot less crazy when Joel was her age.

Of course the most famous use of music as a learning device may be School House Rock. The great thing about School House Rock is that it doesn’t just cover history, it covers all the subjects. Some of the songs are geared towards younger students, but many of them are great primers for students taking an American History or American Government course. “I’m Just a Bill” is a personal favorite.

You can find all of those songs online, and your kids might even discover a new song or music artist that turns out to be their new favorite, and they might learn something new.


Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.

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