Teaching American History with Favorite Folk Songs

Closeup of historical documents

Teaching American History with Favorite Folk Songs is the title of a popular book and CD set by Tracey West. Suitable for preschool through approximately grade four. The book includes basic American history facts and resources to teach history through the use of song.

About the Book

Tracey West's name may be familiar to homeschooling families through her other books. She's the author of Teaching Tall Tales, published by Scholastic Inc. This book engages children in American history through the use of songs, and includes a CD you can play while teaching the topic along with song sheets for participation and analysis. Like the popular American Girls series, it uses a combination of media to bring history to life for children.

Teaching American History with Favorite Folk Songs

Do you absolutely need this book for teaching American history with favorite folk songs? No, although it's a good book for any homeschooling family. You can use the same concepts presented in this book and used by classroom based teachers for an interdisciplinary approach to teaching American history.

Select the Time Period

First, choose a time period in American history to research. Many CD's are available with pieces suitable for children, including compilations of folk songs. Look for songs that children may know already, such as "Yankee Doodle Dandy," written during the Revolution, or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" which was written during the Civil War. Good CD compilations will include about a dozens songs, many of which you may already know.

Research the Song

A quick online search for a common folk song such as "Yankee Doodle Dandy" yields the history of the song. "Yankee Doodle" first made its appearance in 1755 and was sung by the British at the Americans to degrade and humiliate them. Yet the Americans turned the song around, refusing to accept the silly labels the British tried to put on them. It became a patriotic song instead! The E Pluribus Unum project offers a fascinating look at the history of Yankee Doodle Dandy, but there's a lot more out there for various songs and hymns. Each presents a snapshot in time of what people deemed important and freezes living history forever into music.

Here are more resources to help you choose folk songs:

  • Major American folk songs, with links to more information, are available from American Folklore.com.
  • Contemplator offers a page on each song with the history, lyrics, and audio files of recordings if available.
  • Songs for Teaching offers folk songs as well as other songs to teach social studies concepts.

Develop Questions

Develop a series of questions related to the music and history. Students can write their responses or present them. You can even ask students to write their own lyrics to popular folks songs about a historical event. Try picking a modern event and asking older students to develop a song to describe it. They'll get the feel for why songs are so intertwined with history!

Other Ideas for Exploring History through Music

There are many other ways history can be explored using music. Folk songs offer a glimpse into the past of a people. They also offer insight into cultural identities. Many American folk songs were tunes borrowed from England, Ireland and Scotland. Some folk songs came from the slaves working the plantations, and others were religious hymns. Use the history of each song as a springboard to explore cultures, events in history, or historical periods.

While using the actual book and CD collection is great, you can use resources on your own to develop unique lesson plans to make learning American history fun.

Teaching American History with Favorite Folk Songs