The Populist Movement

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The Basics

Subject Area and/or Course Title:

 AP US History


Targeted Grade Level:



Time Required:

 3 days


Related Standards:

PA Core Standards Reading for Social Studies 6-12

PA Core Standards Writing for Social Studies 6-12



Cathy Fratto


The Lesson


Introductory Narrative to Lesson:

As the United States raced toward an industrialized 20th century, farmers, sometimes referred to as “the backbone of American democracy”, were becoming increasingly marginalized. They fought to preserve their free and independent way of life despite the challenges presented by natural disasters, hard money economic policies, laissez-faire attitudes, and high tariffs enacted by the federal government, as well as the rapid industrialization of the nation’s transportation networks and methods of production.

As a result of these challenges, farmers were falling behind by the late 1870s, falling into poverty and rendered politically powerless at the hands of what they saw as a concentration of wealth and political domination by northeastern bankers and industrialists. In response to these economic, social, and political challenges in the 1880s, the farmers of the Midwest tried to unite, and formed the Populist Party, the most successful third party movement in U.S. History. The farmers went so far as to coopt the Democratic Party in the Elections of 1896 and 1900 by running Populist William Jennings Bryan for President under that party’s masthead.

Although the Populist Movement was all but defeated by the turn of the 20th century, the songs and music that it generated still resonate today with those who feel economically, socially and politically disenfranchised and help us to better understand that America’s industrial rise as a 20th century superpower did not come without a price—namely the farmers.

Instructional Goals or Objectives:

Upon completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  • Identify and connect key terms to the various aspects and stages of the Populist Movement through economic, social and political aspects.
  • Understand and apply the music and lyrics of the Populist Movement to the historical phenomena taking place in the United States at this time.
  • Incorporate the music and lyrics of the Populist Movement as primary source documents in AP US History assessments.


Procedures/Lesson Activities:

This will be a two-day (40 min class period for each) lesson and will follow several days of lecture and discussion about the economic, social and political causes and aspects of the Populist Movement. Therefore, the students will already have a working knowledge of the terms, concepts and narrative of the Populist Movement.

Day 1 & 2:
1. After briefly reviewing the economic, social and political narrative of the Populist Movement era with the students (see intro narrative above), the teacher will place the students into groups of three. Students will access their Edmodo (an online classroom and curriculum management platform) folders on their MacBooks to analyze the following six songs from the Populist Era. Students will use “The Story Behind the Song” template from Voices Across Time to analyze each of the following Populist era songs:


  • “Where There’s A Will There’s A Way” (lyrics by Harry Clifton)
  • “The Kansas Fool” (Traditional Folk Song, author unknown)
  • “The Hand That Holds the Bread” (music and lyrics by George F. Root, 1874)
  • “Dad’s Old Silver Dollar Is Good Enough For Me” (music and lyrics by James Volney)
  • “Goodbye, My Party, Goodbye” (music by T. H. Allen, 1882, lyrics by Courtland Snow White, 1891)
  • “Upon A Cross of Gold” (music by Hattie Pershing, 1896, lyrics by Robert Ashe, 1896)


Suggested guidelines for using “Story Behind the Song” template:

Listen to the song.  What strikes you most about the song? What musical phrase is most memorable and why? Is it the melody (tune), rhythm (beat) or lyrics that make it memorable? A combination? Where does the phrase occur and how often?

Write down the images that the music evokes. What vivid metaphors or similes help to create this imagery? What voices or instruments do you hear? What kind of changes do you hear in tempo (speed), dynamics (loudness or softness), or timbre (tone of voice) throughout the song?

Gather facts about “The Kansas Fool”. Who wrote the song? Where and how was the song composed? Who was the intended audience? How was the song performed? How was it distributed? When was it popular? What is the song’s point of view? Is a composer a member of the group whose point of view is being expressed? In whose voice is the song written (1st, 2nd or 3rd person)? What is the purpose of the song? To entertain, inform, persuade, etc? How does the music reinforce the message of the lyrics?

What does it mean? What occupations or pastimes does the song refer to? What emotions does the song express? What questions does this song raise in your mind? If you couldn’t understand the words, what would you assume from the music about the style and purpose of the song?

2. The students will place in each song into one of the following categories: economic, social or political message. This will help them to organize their narrative when they begin to create their essay outlines, by giving them 3 divisions with which to work.

3. The students will also ascribe at least 5 terms to each song from the unit to demonstrate their understanding of the song’s content and message.

4. The students will then find at least one accompanying primary source document for each song (it can be an image, a political cartoon, text via letter, speech, diary entry, etc.)

Day 2
On day 2, the students will create a DBQ essay question based on the primary sources they have (the six songs, and the (at least) 6 accompanying documents that they have found. Students should select the most powerful excerpts from each of the songs to create documents for their exam. The DBQ should have no fewer than 10 documents and should include a student-generated prompt. Finally, students will write an outline of an essay based on the question they created that will include: an intro paragraph with central idea and 3-division thesis statement (probably economic, social and political), a topic sentence for each division, and the use of 4-5 of the previously generated terms in each division to provide evidence, along with a concluding sentence.


Assessment and Evaluation:

Students will share out their essay prompt and documents with the other groups orally and will post their essay outline on Edmodo class site. Students will be assessed on the quality of the DBQ question they created and their interpretation of the songs as primary source documents



The creation of this final project (and the entire NEH VAT Institute) has truly increased my appreciation for the role that songs can and should play in the teaching of History. Song brings the subject of history to life and creates yet another dimension by which to understand better interpret the past. I have been exposed to many practical applications for using song in the classroom, and have been so impressed by the many scholars, my VAT professors and my colleagues throughout these past 5 weeks. Their knowledge, passion, professionalism, and diligence has been inspirational to me, increasing my love of music and my desire to become a better teacher through all that I have learned.



"Dad's Old Silver Dollar Is Good Enough for Me" by James Volney [sheet Music]:Print Material Enlargement: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress. Skidmore Heck Co., 1896. Web. 19 July 2015.

"Kansas Fool Sheet Music for Treble Clef Instrument." - N.p., n.d. Web. 19 July 2015.

Kennedy, David M., and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2013. Print.

Miles, William. Songs, odes, glees, and ballads: a bibliography of American presidential campaign songsters. New York:  Greenwood Press, 1990.

Rivers, Earl. The Hand that Holds the Bread.  Progress and Protest in the Gilded Age: from the Civil War to the Columbian Exposition. New York: New World Records, 1978.

"Upon a Cross of Gold / Hattie Pershing [sheet Music]:Print Material Enlargement: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress." Upon a Cross of Gold /Robert Ashe, Hattie Pershing [sheet Music]:Print Material Enlargement: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress. FW Pershing, 1896. Web. 19 July 2015.

"Where There's a Will, There's a Way." The Library of Congress. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 July 2015.

Audio Recordings**:

"The Hand That Holds the Bread"

"The Kansas Fool"

"Where There’s A Will There’s A Way" (at 1:00:00 minute mark)

**for songs in which audio recordings are not available, students may just work with the lyrics presented to them, or may, if musically-inclined, and play it themselves. This might be an extra credit opportunity for students, although non-musical students should have extra credit opportunity, as well, possibly singing the accompaniment to the student-played audio recordings.




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