Keep on Rockin' in the Free World: The

Advantages of Using Rock and Roll in

Teaching Social Studies

James Lane

Orange High School

The first part of the title of this article, "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World", is taken from a rock song written and recorded by Neil Young. The tune warns us of the complacency of our own lives and the lack of empathy we express for people who are not blessed with the benefits and cushy lifestyle the majority of Americans enjoy. The song is a musical signpost telling us not to lose sight of the problems our society and its less fortunate members face. It is a song of insight attempting to awaken us to the reality of a culture seen on a wider screen, one with "a thousand points of light / For the homeless man / ...a kinder, gentler / Machine gun hand."

In the same manner that this song tries to jolt us into a new awareness, we, as social studies teachers, need to be jolted into a new state of awareness about our teaching. The use of rock and roll music in our classrooms can provide a new tool, a new source of subject matter and interpretation rich in possibility and content. It is a way of expanding our teaching from the confines of the classroom and the limitations of our textbook and media sources into the world of our students' daily lives, into a world where they generally spend far more time getting lessons about society from rock music than they do getting those lessons from us.

Society and Rock and Roll

Within the wide venue of rock and roll, one certainly finds a great number of songs which protest the conditions around us and ask us to face up to a responsibility we have individually and collectively failed to shoulder. But there are other types of rock and roll songs which can be easily utilized in the classroom as well.

Recently, President Bill Clinton was the focus of an MTV program entitled "The Rock and Roll President." Clinton is the first of our chief executives to have grown up attached to rock music as someone who danced to it, played it, and collected it. He appreciates it and is fairly knowledgeable about its variety of forms. At one time he stated that "Rock... pick(s) up the issues of each generation and preserves them in a comprehensive format. It is a kind of history of the development of modern society. It's a living thing -- a folk art."

Clinton's statement reveals several elements about rock and roll which social studies teachers can utilize in their teaching. First, it often focuses on social issues. As noted at the beginning of this article, Neil Young's "Rockin in the Free World" warns that not everyone enjoys the pleasures of a modern lifestyle. Other songs could be used with great classroom effect to talk about the following issues:

Foreign Policy—

"Washington Bullits" by the Clash

"Civil War" by Guns-n-Roses

The Environment -

"Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell

"What's Goin' On" by Marvin Gaye

"Bogusflow" by Beck

Justice System -

"Hurricane" by Bob Dylan

"Ride the Lightning" by Metallica


"Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson

"He Calls Home" by Candlebox

Child Abuse-

"Luca" by Suzanne Vega

"What's the Matter Here?" by 10,000 Maniacs


"Philadelphia" by Bruce Springsteen

"She Thinks His Name Is John" by Reba McIntyre

Social Change -

"At Seventeen" by Janis Ian

"Revolution" by The Beatles

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana

Apartheid -

"Biko" by Peter Gabriel

"Talk to the People" and "The Waiting" by Johnny Clegg and Savuka

Suicide -

"Richard Cory" by Peter, Paul and Mary

"Jeremy" by Pearl Jam

"Bob" by Primus

Native Americans -

"After the Buffalo Are Gone" and "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" by Buffy St. Marie

"Freedom" by Rage Against the Machine

Violence -

"Johnny Got a Gun" by Tom Paxton

"Bang, Bang, Bang" by Tracy Chapman

"Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio

Prejudice -

"Listen Mr. Bilbo (Mr. Bigot)" by Peter, Paul and Mary

"Fight the Power" by Public Enemy

Drug Use-

"The Needle and the Damage Done" by Neil Young

"A New Way to Fly" by Garth Brooks

The list could go on and on, but there is a second area of awareness which President Clinton alluded to when he indicated that rock and roll "is a kind of history" for each generation. If tuned into this, teachers have two more ways in which to use rock music. One would be to develop a study of themes across generations or decades and see what popular songs have to say about things like dating, coming of age, automobiles, family life, freedom, experimentation, sexuality -- things which have always interested teenagers but which are answered very differently by various generations and subcultures within those generations.

Or one could search for those songs which record specific sound bytes about historical events and treat the recordings as historical documents. Examples of these types of recordings would be:

"The Battle of New Orleans" and "Sink the Bismarck" by Johnny Horton "Ballad of the Alamo" by Marty Robbins "The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti" and "Joe Hill" by Joan Baez "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by Barry McGuire "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot "Allentown" by Billy Joel "Youngstown" by Bruce Springsteen "Wind of Change" by the Scorpions

Again, this list could continue at great length. But there is a third idea President Clinton hit upon which should not be overlooked -- it is an art form. Indeed, it is a folk art, but in that very essence of coming from the people, it provides a perfect window for viewing the scenes which social studies teachers wish to survey and build upon. As an art form, the songs combine music, the symbolism and references of the Lyrics, and the stage and real life presence and attitudes of the performing artists to express an opinion they want the audience to hear. As an art form, the message has to be interpreted. Since the message is not always ways

straightforward and clear, the interpretations lend themselves to many possible debates and interactions in the classroom. The lack of surety of knowledge is a sophisticated understanding our students should possess. Their constant demands for "The Answer" needs to be met with the challenge of the uncertainties about the answers available at this time and place.

Rock Lessons on History

I would like to provide two short examples of related lessons which utilize rock and roll for the teaching of social studies material and skills. Since the teaching of history is so critical to the social studies arena, both lessons will relate to the process of historical interpretation.

Lesson One would follow after the introduction of the historical method and the explanation and discussion of essential terminology: hypothesis, interpretation, data, evidence, credibility, corroboration, interpretation, etc. Using the song and videos "One" from U2's album called Achtung, Baby, Lesson One involves the interpretation of the song (music and lyrics) and the three different videos (visual interpretations) of the "meaning" of the tune. In a two month period in February/March of 1992, U2 had three separate videos created to provide the "right" mood on MTV. The first two were rejected and, ultimately, the last one received the greatest airplay.

The very first interpretation on video was shot in Berlin following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany. Trabant autos zoom around in front of misty Berlin monuments such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Olympic Stadium. Each car has the cartoonish figure of a male or female painted on it and eventually meet each other, bumper to bumper, face to face. Throughout the video, various members of the band appear in drag outfits. This video was deemed unsuitable for MTV and the band was told to create another.

The second attempt was a great artistic accomplishment which followed a first a solitary buffalo, then a pair, and finally a herd of buffaloes running across a plain. The film was shot in black and white and even used negative film images to show the bison moving backwards. Interspersed with the buffalo footage was the word One written in many languages. The video ends with a photograph by David Wojnarowicz of buffalo falling off a cliff. Though chosen by Rolling Stone magazine as 99 in the top 100 videos of all time, this video was too abstract and "artsy" for very much play on MTV.

A new and finally "appropriate" video was created. Bono, the lead singer, is portrayed as sitting in a tavern, smoking and drinking in a sad, sexy way as images of supermodels move about the scenes. More in fitting with the image MTV wishes to project, this video became the most widely seen.

In relation to Lesson One, the music and videos are art forms which must be interpreted. In trying to ascertain meaning from data, the students will be forced to interpret the aural and visual evidence. They must construct meaning, hypothesize and test their hypotheses in public discussions with their classmates. This is the stuff of history. The process is identical but the subject matter is engaging and easily accessible to the students.

Students could first try to interpret the musical lyrics and, after discussion, see the first video. Powers of observation will be tested here and discussion should focus on visual sights and symbols, how they relate to the lyrics, and a possible interpretation of the video as an analogy to the coming together of East and West Berlin -- in unification one with each other again, just as male and female may be joined. Coupled with the Scorpions' song "The Wind of Change," it could stand as an independent lesson on the unification of Germany and provide some insight into German history from decadent pre-World War II Berlin to the present.

The second video also needs great interpretation dependent upon the images noticed by the students. It could have historical reference to the destruction of the buffalo and the way of life for the Plains Indians or even be more wide-ranging as a condemnation of the environmental change and degradation occurring today. Linked with the two songs by Buffy St. Marie listed above, it too could become the basis of a single lesson on the demise of the Native Americans and their lifestyle.

The final offering provides great insight into what is marketable in our present-day culture and provides insights into the values which are spewing forth from our media sources. It provides fertile social commentary on aspects of the American Dream.

As a final piece of the interpretation puzzle, the teacher can interject that the band has indicated that the second video with the shots of the buffalo has to do with AIDS and intolerance to gays. It was meant to be the visual backdrop of the band's on-stage concert performance of "One". Now, knowing this, ask the students to reinterpret the music, lyrics, and videos using this new data. How can they be reinterpreted as AIDS related? Does the band's choice of topic carry credibility in relation to their stance on and concern about other social issues?

Following on the heels of the previous lesson about historical interpretation, Lesson Two can be utilized in a course wherever the idea of revisionist history arises. This lesson is also grounded in the use of only one rock and roll song, this time Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band's "Revisionism Street" from their It's A Mystery album. Start by having the students hypothesize about what history is as a check upon their understanding of it as a living, changing discipline, intimately connected with and colored by the era in which it is written.

After having done this, play the song and have the class write down what they think Seeger is singing about. Though the song really has nothing to do with history directly -- it refers to former "star" singers, authors, performers and scientists who are lamenting their fall from prominence and the propensity of people to attack them and their work --it does deal with the concept of revisionism and the inevitable reinterpretation of the "facts" to create new meaning.

The location of such a lesson could be in a unit dealing with Christopher Columbus and the radical reinterpretation of his contributions which were all the rage around the 1992 Quincentenary of his initial voyage. The escape of Princess Anastasia from her Communist captors, the flight of Hitler to Brazil, the Holocaust seen as a figment of Jewish imagination, the reinterpretation of the Cold War and its various incidents with the United States often cast as the bad guy, the conspiracy theory behind John F. Kennedy's death, even the most recent charge by members of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s family that there was a conspiracy to kill King that involved President Lyndon Johnson (Robert E. Thompson, "A Cruel Charge" syndicated in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 29, 1997) -- all these would be wonderful jumping off points for the examination of the concept of revisionist history and in-depth research upon this phenomenon of interpretation and reinterpretation.

Advantages of Using Rock and Roll

Hopefully, through the insights provided by these two lessons, social studies teachers will see the multiple advantages of bringing rock and roll off the airwaves and into the classroom. The lessons which utilize rock 1) build critical thinking skills, 2) deal with social issues and historical happenings, 3) can be used as documents to be studded, 4) are interdisciplinary by their very nature, 5) contextualize art and music by placing them in a societal context, 6) teach artistic appreciation for a more complex art form than usually thought, 7) are highly motivational, engaging, and accessible for the students and 8) the popular songs -- with lessons attached to them -- will be remembered far longer by most students than lessons crafted in a more traditional mode. Their use lends them to many student-centered methodologies -- analysis, interpretation, critique, discussion and debate, research, presentation, portfolio creation, and assessments.

In a 1963 article in Seventeen magazine, Woody Guthrie was quoted by Pete Seeger: "The worst thing that can happen to you is to cut yourself loose from people. And the best thing is to sort of vaccinate yourself into the big streams and blood of the people . . . to feel that you know the best and worst of folks that you see everywhere..." If educators do not utilize the wisdom of their clientele, their students and the musical culture which reflects and shapes them, then we are committing an educational decapitation which will continue a gap between classroom learning and student retention and application. We will perpetuate the myth of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and give credence to why teachers should "leave those kid's alone".


One of the best ways to find songs to use in the classroom is to check out various categories of social issues or topics and events which are listed in the 21,000 song title anthology called The Green Book of Songs by Subject: The Thematic Guide to Popular Music (Teff Green, Nashville: Professional Desk References, Inc, 1995). The Internet will also provide a host of references and cross-linkages to artists and their lyrics - -just type in the name of the group you are searching for. A good place to start and where to find more lessons of use to social studies educators is The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum website.

Deep appreciation is expressed to Bob Santelli and Emily Davidson from The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum for their help in getting me started in this area of teacher education and for their ideas regarding music to use. Likewise, teachers Joe Knap, Paul Brown, Andy Kenen, Diane Seskes, Johnathan Chase, Brian Burgess and Paul Friedlander are recognized for their contributions to whatever musical acuity I may have come to possess.