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Table of Contents What Is A Song? American Popular Song: A Brief History Who Created the Song? What Is the Song's Structure? What Was the Song's Historical Context? What Does the Song Mean? What Can Songs Tell Us About People and Society? Model Interpretation Sources of Song American Song Online Annotated Bibliography Try It Yourself! Download Entire Essay (Adobe PDF) What can songs tell us about people and society?

Songs serve to unify groups of people and to move them to common action or help them express common emotions. Certain songs become “anthems” for particular generations, as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1962) became for many in the 1960s. In times of national crisis certain songs seem especially appropriate, such as “God Bless America,” or even John Lennon’s “Imagine” (1971). They express widely-shared values or experiences and emotions that help define a group’s identity and solidarity.

Songs, singers, and genres also help people construct self-images and provide models for how to behave. Pop stars–from Jenny Lind in the nineteenth century to Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Britney Spears in the twentieth century–set styles and shape their fans’ attitudes. They do this, moreover, in several ways. One is by how the singer represents him or herself: Lind’s charitable contributions, Bing’s pipe, Elvis’ ducktail haircut, and Britney’s bare midriff. Genres such as punk rock or bebop provided fans with styles of dress, slang, and non-conformist identities.

Song lyrics also express judgments—and even conflicts—about lifestyles, values, and appearances. In the early 1970s, for example, Neil Young released two songs expressing anti-southern opinions: “Southern Man” (1970) and “Alabama” (1972). A few years later a southern rock band, Lynard Skynard, responded with a defense of the South entitled “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974), containing the lines “I hope Neil Young will remember a southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.” Finally, music can express attitudes and values by how it sounds. Various popular forms like rock ‘n roll, and, beginning in the 1970s, such forms as punk, heavy metal, and rap, sounded defiant, like an assault on the ears, as well as the values, of older generations.

Historians sometimes consider songs as more or less straightforward “reflections” of the society and culture in which they were produced. These songs are then used to illustrate what historians already think they know about that society and culture. Thus, an anti-drinking song like “Come Home Father” (1864) might be interpreted to mean that nineteenth-century Americans were concerned about alcohol and opposed to its abuse. On one level, this view of music makes sense: a musical work is a product and a part of the society and culture from which it emerges. But such a view is also highly simplistic. For one thing, it ignores the fact that songs exist in relation to other popular texts, including other songs. “Come Home Father," for example, inspired a sequel by another composer, "Father Don’t Drink any Now!” (1866) and both were part of the same musical universe as songs that treated drinking lightly, like “Pop, Pop, Pop. A Comic Song” (1868).

The assumption that songs merely reflect their times also ignores the fact that songs are almost always open to multiple interpretations. For example, in the 1960s “Puff the Magic Dragon” (1963) was widely associated with marijuana and its effects. Yet the lyricist, Leonard Lipton, claimed that the song was about loss of childhood innocence. Evidently this interpretation prevailed because by the 1970s it had become standard repertory at nursery schools and children’s sing-alongs. The richness of using songs as sources for understanding history—and the need to delve deeply into the available evidence when doing so—lies in their openness to such multiple uses and interpretations.

The fact that multiple uses and interpretations exist, however, points to another important aspect of music: it serves as a forum for public debate about manners, morals, politics, and social change. Musicians and their audiences are social actors; while they reflect the world around them, they also interpret and change it. For every anti-Vietnam War song like “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” (1967) there were pro-war (or anti-anti-war) songs like “Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966). In cases like this, songs are most valuable for telling us what concerned people, how they saw issues, and how they expressed their hopes, ideals, anger, and frustrations.

Study these song lyrics for the stories they tell about the past

Many historians have used song lyrics to help understand the culture and consciousness of the people who sang and listened to them. Especially when considering people who left few written accounts of their lives, song lyrics can give important clues about what people thought and felt, their daily struggles, and their dreams about the future. Read the following lyrics. What information do they provide about the lives of the people who created them? What stories can you tell about the singers based upon the lyrics?

In 1855, former slave Frederick Douglass related hearing the following song improvised by southern slaves:

We raise de wheat, dey gib us de corn;
We bake de bread, dey gib us de cruss;
We sif’ de meal, dey gib us de huss;
We peal de meat, dey gib us de skin;
And dat’s de way dey takes us in.
We skims de pot, dey gib us de liquor,
An’ say, “Dat’s good enough fer a nigger.”

Can you use the song as evidence for:

The scope of work done by southern slaves in the 1850s?

Slave owners’ willingness to provide food and shelter for their slaves?

Slaves’ resistance to their enslavement?

In 1929, a white Mississippi singer named Dutch Coleman recorded a hillbilly tune titled, “Granny Get Your Hair Cut.” At a time when the Great Depression had already hit southern cotton farmers, Coleman sang:

Some folks they talk about the farm relief
Listen here folks, this is my belief
The boll weevil he’s an awful pest
So the flappers and the short skirts done the rest

So Granny get your hair cut, paint your face and shine
Granny get your hair cut short like mine
If you want to kick high, have a big time
Granny get your hair cut short like mine

In eighteen hundred and ninety-two
The women wore their dresses down to the top of the shoe
Nineteen hundred and twenty-three
They went to wearin’ ‘em up above their knee

If the women wear their dresses like-a they used to
Let me tell you farmers what it surely would do
Cause your cotton to go to twenty cents a pound
After the dresses went upward, why the cotton went down

When women wore their dresses long the farmer was sublime
When they cut the dresses cotton went to a dime
Keep on getting shorter, I’ll tell you what they’ll do
Instead of three yards they will only get two

Now let me tell you ladies and let me tell you straight
You better make ‘em longer before its too late
‘Cause there’s one thing about it and it’s not no joke
If you don’t make ‘em longer, why the farmer’s goin’ broke

Can you use the song as evidence for:

The troubles facing cotton farmers in 1929?

The politics of women’s fashions?

Gender relations within farm families?

The classic blues of the 1920s provided many female African-American singers a new public space to discuss their lives and assert control over their own careers and images. In 1923, the popular blues singer Bessie Smith recorded “Sam Jones Blues.” In a strong, defiant voice, Smith declared:

Who’s that knocking on that door? Jones?
You better get away from that door.
I don’t know anybody named Jones.
You’re in the right church, brother, but the wrong pew.

Sam Jones left his lovely wife just to step around.
Came back home, about a year, looking for his high brown.
Went to his accustomed door
And he knocked his knock of four
His wife, she came, but to his shame,
She knew his face no more.

Sam said, “I’m you husband, dear,”
But she said, “Dear, that’s strange to hear.”
You ain’t talking to Mrs. Jones,
You’re speaking to Miss Wilson now.
I used to be your lovely mate,
But the judge done changed my fate.

Was the time you could walk round here
And call this place your home sweet home.
But now its all mine for a time,
I’m free and sitting all alone.

Don’t need your clothes. Don’t need your rent.
Don’t need your ones and twos
Though I ain’t rich, I know my stitch
I earned my strutting shoes.

Say, hand me the key that unlocks my front door
Because that bell don’t read “Sam Jones” no more.
You ain’t talking to Mrs. Jones,
You’re speaking to Miss Wilson now.

Can you use this song as evidence for:

Black women’s struggle to control their own lives?

The relationship between economic independence and gender equality in some women’s lives?

Popular ideas about women’s independence?


What Is a Song? American Popular Song: A Brief History Who Created the Song? What is the Song's Structure? What WAs the Song's Historical Context? What Does the Song Mean? What Can Songs Tell Us About People and Society? Model Interpretation Sources of Songs American Song Online Annotated Bibliography Try it Yourself! Go to MAKING SENSE OF AMERICAN POPULAR SONG Home Page Go to MAKING SENSE OF EVIDENCE Browse Page