Every event in American history from colonial settlement and slavery through to 9/11 and the Iraq War has generated music that captures the reality and mood of its time. Music remains, as always, the most natural means of expression for the many different cultures and peoples that call America their home…. Music mirrors the new nation’s history, whether it’s the opening up the West, the pain of the Great Depression or the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960s. How traditional music survives and evolves offers a fresh way of viewing historical forces and events that have driven American history across four centuries, a different and entertaining perspective on our nation, its culture and its people.From, “The Music Of America: History through Musical Traditions,” a six-hour television series broadcast on National Public Radio, 2010-11. www.themusicofamerica.org
Songs are the statement of the people. You can learn more about people by listening to their songs than any other way, for into songs go all the hopes and hurts, the angers, fears, the wants and aspirations.John Steinbeck, quoted in American Folksongs of Protest, by John Greenway, A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc. New York (1953) p. vii.
Folk Songs…are historical documents, primary sources that provide first hand information about human experiences at any given historical moment. Virtually every aspect of human life is dealt with in these songs. They are, in effect, the story behind the headlines, the true history of humanity that is screened from the student’s view by the textbook’s dull recitations of battles, elections, treaties, constitutional enactments and territorial acquisitions.Scott, The Ballad of America: The History of the United States in Song and Story (rev. ed.), p. 425)
The ideas developed in popular songs should be examined in contemporary classrooms because the attitudes, values and beliefs expressed in modern tunes depict the major concerns of our times…. “[T]he lyrics of popular songs are valuable tools for accomplishing the twin educational goals of self-evaluation and social analysis.Cooper, Images of American Society in Popular Music: A Guide to Reflective Teaching, p. xiv.
Why reflect on history through songs? Songs can sometimes convey emotions that no other medium can. The real pain of war is revealed through lyrics that only someone touched by such a tragedy could write. The anguish of the Depression was explained in songs that were easily understood by all listeners, even those unable to read or write. Joyful songs of prosperity were universally understood when created, and remain easily accessible footnotes of history.Barnet, et al, The Story behind the Song: 15 Songs that Chronicle the 20th Century, p. vii-viii. I need to emphasize the limited scope of this book. I am not an ethnomusicologist, nor am I a sociologist. I am not a folklorist, nor have I in any way been trained to analyze issues relating thereto. I am not concerned with academic distinctions or questions of authenticity, such as whether the songs are urban or rural or whether they are written or oral. My focus here is only on song lyrics and how they illustrate historical events. My hope is to make historical facts become more alive for students of twentieth century American history. As acknowledged by the editors of the songbook, Here’s to the Women, there are two basic approaches in preparing a book like this: You can either “have a prose book about songs or a songbook that would refer to…culture and history.” Given the scope of the book, with all of its sub-topics, and the objective of providing topical music for the students, the decision was reached to use the latter approach. This is not a history text. It is not meant to be a comprehensive summary of the American twentieth century. It is a teacher and student resource—an aid. The factual sections are not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of the events discussed. Rather, they are meant to provide context for the songs—to give the lyrics more meaning. The person who uses this resource should supplement the materials to the extent deemed appropriate. The amount of material is massive and it would be impossible to compile a complete catalogue of music that was relevant to the study of twentieth century American history. Given the huge scope of this book (both as to historical topics and number of songs), it was necessary to be selective. The selection process, of course, was subjective, reflecting my biases, likes and dislikes. I encourage others to add their own compilations; there certainly is enough music out there. This book would not be as nearly complete as it is without the miracle of the Internet. The Internet allowed me to supplement what I read in the books listed in the bibliography. Using several browsers (it is interesting to note that different sites with different information come up on different browsers), I read multiple articles on the topics I was researching. I collated information from these various sources into what I hope are informative background discussions. I attempted to make my narratives as historically accurate as possible based on my reading of many sources; however, the purpose of the narratives is not to provide textbook depth; the purpose of the narratives is meant to set out a context for the songs that are presented. The narratives are background. One can find songs almost anywhere. I started compiling songs for this book long ago, but most of the songs were obtained by reading the books and articles that are listed in the bibliography. It was when I tried to find audios for the songs on the Internet that I found many other songs that I had not seen in published sources. There are songs about virtually every possible topic of American history somewhere on the Internet. Some sites are devoted to music related to an era; some are devoted to specific topics or events; some related to specific people, etc., and in each of these places lists of multiple songs are set out. In other instances, individual songs lurk in the corners; to find them, run searches on your browser and be persistent. I found many of the lyrics that are set out herein and virtually all of the audio links on the Internet. Lyrics were also found in the cited books, album covers, YouTube comments, etc. I personally transcribed some of the songs, and I apologize for any errors. For the best, most complete learning experience, it is important that audio of the songs accompany the lyrics. In almost all cases, I have been able to find audio for the songs, either on YouTube or some other source (e.g., mpg) and have included URL links to the audio. There are a few exceptional songs with such significant lyrics that I did not want to leave them out even though I was unable to find audios for them. Thanks to Dave Schofield, Tom Naples, Christine Lavin, and Tom Wolfe who provided songs, and to many family members and friends who reviewed and commented on versions of this book prior to its publication on the Internet. Thanks also to Karl Knelson of Site Mechanix, who created the web site, and Mary Holden, who edited the manuscript. Thanks also to Estela Blackmountain, my long-time loyal secretary, who helped with formatting.