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Music in the History Classroom

One of the highlights of the highlights [sic] of this year’s SHP Conference was the plenary by Neil Bates and Ronan MacManus on using music in history lessons. Happily Neil was willing to be cajoled to write up his session so here it is – it’s not as good as being there but it’s very much worth reading.

Like Neil, I’ve always been a fan of using period music to link into the subject being studied - it helps create a sense of period and is something different (do Maths teachers use music suited to their tables?) but I hadn’t appreciated before I listened to Neil and Ronan the value of music for engaging students’ curiosity and motivation and that hearing it (as opposed to only reading the lyrics) is vital for understanding the nuances and emotions behind the music. In fact this makes me think we should read documentary sources out aloud, maybe act them out to get across the voice and mind behind them because bringing words on a page ‘to life’ will help students appreciate their meaning and the issues and problems of interpreting them – reading words, giving them voice, should not be just about making ‘hard words’ comprehensible.

Over to Neil and let the music begin!

Neil writes …

According to the Marxist scholar A. L. Lloyd, rebels in the 1381 peasants’ revolt sang the song, The Cutty Wren, in protest at feudal oppression - sadly he offered no proof to back up his claim. Nonetheless, folk music and protest songs provide a rich vein of source material which can be mined to enliven our History curriculum and serve as a window into a deeper study of the past. For a young teacher it may seem like a risk- to expose students to unfamiliar music- especially as folk might seem about as un-cool as you can get. The benefits however, are significant.

Firstly, let’s consider why we might bother with music in our History lessons. What follows is my own by-no-means-exhaustive list.

• Songs tell stories - they provide a narrative on past events.

• Some songs, if they are contemporaneous with the events being studied, are historical artefacts in their own right and as such are as worthy of consideration as any other source.

• They provide interpretations and representations of the past that can be analysed, debated and evaluated.

• Song lyrics provide an insight into the minds and motives of their authors.

• Music livens up lessons and introduces students to new musical artists.

• Music helps create memorable lessons you can link back to by asking ‘do you remember when we listened to…?’ – this gives students confidence as they can remember and re-use what they learned previously.

One further point before moving on – you could play safe by just using the lyrics but reading lyrics can only capture about 5% of the impact of the music itself. Hearing a song provides drama, emotion, nuance so by playing safe you actually undermine, even emasculate the activity. Of course they may well benefit from having the lyrics to read after they’ve heard the song once and to follow them at second playing but don’t let the written word get in the way of the message of the music.

My own early forays into using music were done more as a backdrop to a lesson. Medieval plainsong or Gregorian chants playing while students entered a lesson on religion in the Middle Ages served as an effective mood setter. I also used Jazz as a backdrop to a whole class role play where we held a cocktail party at the White House to investigate the success of Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, it was once I began to use songs as a central part of longer enquiries that I really began to tap into the learning potential of music.

A couple of examples will serve as illustration.

The story of the boxer James Braddock

Working with the musician Ronan MacManus, I used two of his and fellow song-writer Andy Nolan’s songs as part of full scale enquiries. The first example was to use the story of the boxer James Braddock to allow students to overview aspects of American history in the 1920s and 30s. My way in to this was use the song Cinderella Man by Ronan and Andy’s band the Biblecode Sundays to get students to examine Braddock’s life. The song can be found here: Once students were intrigued by the persona of Braddock they then created a living graph of the ups and downs of his life and compared it to the ups and downs of the US economy in the same period. In so doing students were empowered to consider whether Braddock is a suitable metaphor for the story of America in boom and bust.

Experiences in Birkenhead during WWII

The second enquiry I’d like to share comes from Ronan working with his Dad, Ross to create an account of Ross’s experiences in Birkenhead during WWII. 

The song, Trumpets of Jericho, encourages a sense of place by focusing upon one street and then introduces students to a range of characters who lived in the area. What I then did was work with a Birkenhead archivist, Annette McGinn-Roberts, who happens to be Ronan’s cousin, to research the biographies of the people mentioned in the song. The students then investigate the people in the song to see how accurate the song is about life on Cathcart Street during WWII. This approach also allows students to generate their own questions which we were fortunate to have Ronan answer in a telephone interview.

The song, Trumpets of Jericho can be found on the Biblecode Sundays album, New Hazardous Design ( or via bandcamp (

Migrant Experience

My love of Irish folk music has inevitably led to me access to many, many songs that describe the emigrant experience. A couple of examples that readers may like to examine include:

• Using the song “No Irish Need Apply” by the Wakes ( to challenge an MP’s rather cosy view of life in 1950’s Britain. Would Irish immigrants agree?

• Using Dixieland by Steve Earle to look at the experience of Irish migrants in the American Civil War:

• You could also have a listen to Thousands are Sailing by the Pogues: or the Fields of Athenry if doing some work on the Famine/Great Hunger.

These are, of course, only a few possibilities for using music in the History classroom. Included below is a far from exhaustive list of other possible songs that readers may like to consider as part of their own historical enquiries.

Some other possible songs to explore in your History teaching

The Diggers Song - Leon Roselsonn (Interregnum)

Free Born John (Album) - Rev Hammer (English Civil War) or the song of the same name by Ferocious Dog

Tobacco Island - Flogging Molly (Forced Irish slavery)

Oliver Boy - Flogging Molly (Oliver Cromwell/ 17th Century Ireland)

Young Ned of the Hill - The Pogues (Oliver Cromwell/17th Century Ireland)

Kitty Jay - Seth Lakeman (18th Century poverty)

Destitution Road - Roaring Jack (Highland Clearances)

To Hell of California - The Wakes (California Gold Rush)

57- Kilmaine Saints (Irish Diaspora/USA)

The Hardest Mile - Dropkick Murphys (Irish Diaspora/USA)

Green Fields of France/Band Played Waltzing Matilda - Eric Bogle (WWI)

The Foggy Dew - Charles O’Neill (1916 Easter Rising)

Ballad of Sacco & Vanzetti - Christy Moore et al (1920’s USA)

Ghost of Tom Joad - Bruce Springsteen (1930’s USA)

Strange Fruit - Abel Meeropol/Billie Holliday - (1920’s USA/Racism)

Cinderella Man - Biblecode Sundays (1930’s/New Deal)

Between the Wars - Billy Bragg (Inter-War Britain)

McAlpine’s Fusiliers - Dominic Behan (Irish Diaspora, 1950’s)

Johnny Come Lately - Steve Earle (Vietnam)

Fixing to Die Rag - Country Joe & the Fish (Vietnam)

Masters of War - Bob Dylan (Cold War)

A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall - Bob Dylan (Fear of Nuclear War)

Running Gun Blues - David Bowie (Vietnam War)

10 - Paul Hardcastle (Vietnam War)

I would also recommend checking out the website as it contains not only song suggestions but also short vignettes for each song putting it into historical context.

Neil Bates, Fort Hill Community School, Basingstoke


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Neil writes …

James Braddock

WW2 in Birkenhead

Migrant Experience

Other Examples