Songs have a special power to express what words alone cannot: hopes, fears, dreams, love, hate, anger, pride, aspirations, and disappointments. Because songs span the breadth of human experience, they are uniquely able to communicate across time and space the beliefs and ideas held by their composers, performers and listeners. Yet textbooks are silent.

Visual primary resources, like paintings and photographs, are increasingly used as primary resources for teaching history, not just as illustrations. But music seems to be more challenging for teachers: "I can't carry a tune in a bucket!" or "I can't read music!" or "Even if I had enough planning time, where do I begin to even look for songs popular during the War of 1812?" Songs don't stand still for discussion like visual sources do — they exist in time, as well as space. How can you do more than just play music in the background?

Voices Across Time was created to help teachers harness the power of song as primary source. Expert musicologists have searched out songs for every era of American history and written background information. An arts-in-education curriculum specialist has developed discussion questions and exercises that allow you to feel comfortable using songs as primary sources for teaching history. Units have been structured with ease of integration with educational standards in mind.

Whenever possible, we've acquired rights to provide recordings and/or sheet music for every song. When not possible, we've provided published sources to help you find things fast. On the following pages, "Anatomy of Voices Across Time" will show you where to find these features. For all Voices Across Time's depth, it is not intended to serve as a standalone history or music curriculum. We aren't trying to squeeze yet one more topic into a crowded curriculum. Rather we have tried to create a resource to help you meet your existing instructional objectives more effectively.

While we've provided background information, discussion questions and activities for every song, these are not lessons in themselves. It is up to you to decide when to use the songs in a lesson, based on your goals. For example, a song is a great way to introduce a lesson; songs are excellent for humanizing abstract government or economic events; songs can provide an effective and memorable lesson wrap-up or become part of a creative assessment.

The following is the basic procedure we suggest when using these songs in a lesson, though you should always feel free to adapt to your needs:

Play songs through once first, letting students just listen quietly. Photocopy and distribute the song sheets for students to follow.

Choose some of the general questions from "The Story Behind the Song" section to ask. Or use the exercise "I Can Hear it Now" as an alternate way to encourage careful listening.

After posing a few general questions about the song, ask students the specific discussion questions on the song pages.

You may wish to play the song again before launching into the more specific questions.

Follow with an activity that helps students apply what they learned from the song to the main topic of your lesson (most songs list activity ideas).

During pilot testing, some of the very best results came from schools where several teachers collaborated to use Voices Across Time. A team of social studies, music and language arts teachers is an ideal way to work! Involve the music teacher; there is nothing like singing the songs to understand them better. Literature teachers can lend their skills teaching poetry and making connections to other literature of the era that students are familiar with.

No one knows better than we do how many songs we didn't include in Voices Across Time! Many more excellent songs exist out there to serve as primary sources in teaching American history.

In the "Teaching Tools and Techniques" section of this guide are generic exercises that can be applied to any song.

Other ideas for using songs as primary sources:

Compare and contrast songs within an era or with similar songs from other eras.

Translate songs to another medium to help students understand: act out ballads or draw a ballad comic-strip style.

When you introduce a new unit, ask students to predict what kinds of songs might be popular with various groups during this era.

Find a visual (photo, drawing, political cartoon, etc.) or written primary source or artistic work that sends the same message as the song.

Find a song from today with a similar message; compare.

After using a number of songs in lessons, ask students to evaluate the legacy of this era's music (consider using songs in assessing student achievement)

Which of the songs from this era are still around today?


Who sings them? When? Where?


Why do you think these songs are still around? Are they still associated with this period of history?


How have people adapted these songs to modern attitudes, ideas, tastes, or technology?

What ideas and feelings expressed in this era's music are still relevant today?


How are these ideas and feelings being expressed now?


Who is using music to communicate these ideas. What style?

What modern songs would you compare to these songs?

What other historic songs express similar ideas or feelings?

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