The Ultimate Popular Music Guide for American History

Hook your students on American history with popular music.  Post contains a list of songs from historical time periods, as well as songs about historical events.

Do you want to hook your students on American history?  Integrating music into social studies can be a great way to get kids interested in history.  Teachers can use both songs from the time period and songs about historical events.  Songs can be used as an introduction to a unit.  Students could analyze lyrics and then research the event to fact check the song.  Also, songs with opposing viewpoints can be compared, such as The Ballad of the Green Berets and War from the 1960s.

This list is organized by time period.  Each song has a short description after it.  The titles are linked so that teachers can easily use find the songs.  Please preview all songs before using them with your students.

18th Century Songs

American Colonies

Greensleeves (English Folk Song)
Lavender's Blue (English Folk Song)
Yankee Doodle (A Common Drinking Song in the Colonies) (Great video here explaining "macaroni" in the song.)
Springfield Mountain by Woody Guthrie (American Folk Song)
Amazing Grace by Judy Collins (English song from late 18th century)

American Revolution

Fife and Drum music
Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier by Wallace House (English Folk Song)
God Save the King! (Queen) and My Country Tis of Thee (The British Anthem starts at 2:19.)
The Liberty Song written by John Dickinson (Patriot Song)
John Paul Jones by Johnny Horton
Too Late to Apologize by Soomo Publishing (A parody about the American Revolution set to the popular tune.)
The Hamilton Soundtrack (not all of these songs would be appropriate in every classroom.)

19th Century Songs

Early America

Low Bridge by Pete Seeger (about the Erie Canal, built in the 1817 - 1825)
Camptown Races by Stephen Foster (Minstrel Song)
Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)  by Stephen Foster (written from a slave's point of view)
Turkey in the Straw (American Folk Song)

War of 1812

Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton 
The Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key 
On the 8th Day of November by Wallace House 

Westward Expansion

Oh Susanna by Stephen Foster (American Minstrel Song)
Oh My Darling, Clementine (American Western Folk Ballad) 
Red River Valley (Western Folk Song)
Home on the Range (Western Folk Song)
Legend of John Henry's Hammer by Johnny Cash (about the African American Folk Legend) 
Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill (Folk Song about the Building of the Railroads)
Wabash Cannonball by Doc Watson (American Folk Song about a Fictional Train) 
Jim Bridger by Johnny Horton (Mountain Man, 1804 - 1881 )
Comanche by Johnny Horton (Gen. Custer's horse, survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, 1876)
North to Alaska by Johnny Horton(Alaskan Gold Rush, 1899 - 1909)
Ballad of Casey Jones by Johnny Cash (Railroad engineer who died trying to stop his train in 1900)
Indian Reservation (Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian) by Paul Revere and the Raiders (Forced Removal of Native Americans and the Trail of Tears)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Buffy Saint-Marie (Native American Point of View)
Now that the Buffalo's Gone by Buffy Saint-Marie (Extinction of Buffalo and Treatment of Native Americans through the 20th Century)

Battle of the Alamo/Texan Independence

Battle of the Alamo by Marty Robbins
Ballad of Davy Crockett

Civil War

My Old Kentucky Home by Stephen Foster (An Anti-Slavery Song from 1850s)
Two Brothers (About a Family Split by the Civil War)
When Johnny Comes Marching Home (Civil War)
The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Civil War)
Battle of Bull Run by Johnny Horton
Dixie (Minstrel Song)
Goober Peas (Folk Song - popular with Confederate Soldiers)
The Bonnie Blue Flag (Confederate Marching Song)
Johnny Reb  by Johnny Horton (Song starts at about 50 seconds)
Rebel Soldier by Waylon Jennings

Other

Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (The Chicago Fire of 1871)
Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Early Ford (about a Coal Miner and debt bondage)

20th Century Songs

Turn of the Century

Coming to America by Neil Diamond (Immigration in the 20th Century)
Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin (Ragtime)
The Entertainer by Scott Joplin (Ragtime)
Oh, You Beautiful Doll (Ragtime Love Song)
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (Popular Music)
I Ain't Got Nobody (Popular Music)
In the Good Old Summertime (Tin Pan Alley Song)
Alexander's Ragtime Band (Irving Berlin's First Major Hit)
America the Beautiful (Popular Patriotic Song, 1910 - U.S. Geography)

World War I

Keep the Home Fires Burning (British Patriotic Song from WWI)
It's a Long Way to Tipperary (Popular Song with Soldiers in WWI)
Mademoiselle from Armentieres (Hinky-Dinky Parlez Vous) (Popular with Soldiers in WWI)
Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag (WWI Marching Song)
Over There (Patriotic American Song during WWI)
Pipes of Peace by Paul McCartney (Christmas Truce on the Western Front)

Women's Suffrage/Rights Movement

Victory Song (Theme Song of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League - Song Starts about 0:25)
Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette
Your Mother's Gone Away to Join the Army by Billy Murray (Starts 1:05)
Bad Romance Women's Suffrage by Soomo Publishing (A parody on Women's Suffrage set to the popular tune.)

Roaring Twenties

Sweet Georgia Brown (Jazz Standard)
Ain't Misbehavin'/Stormy Weather by Fats Waller (Jazz Standard)
Minnie the Moocher by Cab Calloway
Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (Jazz Standard)
The Charleston (Jazz Song Written to Accompany the Popular Dance)
My Blue Heaven (Popular Music)

Great Depression

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (The Great Depression)
You Oughta Be In Pictures by Rudee Vallee (Unofficial Anthem of the Motion Pictures Industry.)
God Bless America by Irving Berlin (Popular Song by Kate Smith in the 1930s)
This Land is Your Land by Woodie Guthrie (1940s)
In the Mood by the Glenn Miller Orchestra (Big Band Popular Music)
Pennsylvania 6-5000 by the Glenn Miller Orchestra (Swing Jazz Popular Music)
The Great Dust Storm by Woody Guthrie (The Dust Bowl)

World War II

Twenty-One Dollars a Day Once a Month (Popular Song During World War II - refers to the pay of a private in the military)
We'll Gather Lilacs (About Wishing for the War to End)
D-Day by Nat King Cole (D-Day)
Sink the Bismarck by Johnny Horton (the sinking of the German submarine during WWII)
The White Cliffs of Dover (Refers to the Battle of Britain)
Swinging on a Star by Bing Crosby (Popular Music)
Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (Popular Music - about being apart during wartime)
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by The Andrews Sisters (Iconic Song from Era - Popular Music)

The Cold War

If I Had A Hammer by Pete Seeger (In support of the Progressive Movement)
We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel (Cold War)
Heroes by David Bowie (Cold War - lovers separated by the Berlin Wall)
Space Oddity by David Bowie (About a fictional astronaut - people were very interested in space)
Radioactive by Imagine Dragons (Not specifically about the Cold War but refers to an apocalypse including a radioactive nuclear fallout.)
Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Pete Seeger (Anti-War)
Nikita by Elton John (Cold War/East Germany)
Operation Peter Pan by Tori Amos (Operation Peter Pan/Cuban Missile Crisis)

The Civil Rights Movement

Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday (Racism and Lynching - for older students, be sure to listen to the song first.  It is pretty graphic.  Written in the 1930s, so not technically part of Civil Rights.)
We Shall Overcome (Civil Rights - unofficial anthem of the movement)
Lift Every Voice and Sing (Civil Rights - Negro National Anthem)
The Times They are a Changin by Bob Dylan (Civil Rights)
Abraham, Martin, and John by Dion (Refers to the assassinated champions of social change: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy)
Blackbird by The Beatles (About race relations in the United States)
Pride (In the Name of Love) by U2 (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Vietnam War/Counterculture Movement

19 by Paul Hardcastle (Anti-Vietnam War)
Hell No, I Ain't Gonna Go by Matt Jones
8th of November by Big & Rich (Operation Hump during the Vietnam War)
War by Edwin Starr (Vietnam War)
The Ballad of the Green Berets by SSgt Barry Sadler (Vietnam War)
Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel (About the effects of the Vietnam War and poor treatment of vets when they came home.)
Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen  (About the poor treatment of Vietnam Vets when they came home.)
Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire (Refers to a number of events in the 1960s.)
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie (Unofficial Anthem of the Counterculture)
People Got to Be Free by The Rascals (Counterculture)
Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Kent State Shootings May 4, 1970)
What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong (Popular Music - written as a counter to the racially and politically charged climate in the U.S.)
Blowin in the Wind by Bob Dylan (Considered a Protest Song - Dylan never explained the lyrics.)
A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan (Again he doesn't refer to a specific event but more of the times.
Soldier Boy by The Shirelles (Popular Music - about staying true to the soldier away at war.)

1970s

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot (Wreck on Lake Superior in 1975)
American Pie by Don McLean (Not Exactly Anti-War, but McLean eventually stated that the song is about life in the U.S. going in the wrong direction.)
Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell (Environmentalism)
Stayin Alive by the BeeGees (Popular Music)
Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin (Popular Music)
The Wall by Pink Floyd (Popular Music)

Reagan Era


99 Luftballons by Nena (Anti-War Song)
Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears (Anti-war Song)
Right Here, Right Now by Jesus Jones (Perestroika)
The Final Countdown by Europe (About the destruction of Earth)
God Bless the USA by Lee Greenwood (Gulf War - popular song with U.S. troops)
Praying for Time by George Michael (Social Consciousness)
Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson (Social Involvement/Self Consciousness)

Gay Rights

I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor (Female Strength and Gay Anthem)
True Colors by Cyndi Lauper (Adopted by the Gay Community as an Anthem)
Come to My Window by Melissa Etheridge (About a Lesbian Relationship)

21st Century Songs

War on Terrorism

My City of Ruins by Bruce Springsteen (Originally about Asbury Park, but adopted new meaning after 9/11)
The Rising by Bruce Springsteen (9/11)
I Can't See New York by Tori Amos (9/11)
Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning by Alan Jackson (9/11)
Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American) by Toby Keith (Afghanistan)
Enough by Bullyproof Music (Peace Song)

For more ideas on how to use music in your lessons, read Michele Luck's blog post.

What are your favorite songs to use in class?

1 comment

  1. What a great list of songs!!! This is great for both SS teachers and music teachers for integration!

    ReplyDelete

Back to Top