Music: The Natural Resource of a People

Can making or listening to music shape our identity? Can music effectively challenge stereotypes? How does music impact the way people think and act? What role can music play in a movement for social change? These were some of the guiding questions I pondered recently while taking part in the Facing History and Ourselves workshop FullSizeRenderentitled “The Sounds of Change” on, quite poignantly, both the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots and the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s historic civil unrest.

Together with my teaching partner, Steve Futterman, I am tasked with preparing our 7th graders for their upcoming trip to Memphis, Tennessee and Little Rock, Arkansas by bringing to life the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and by encouraging the students to consider its relevance to the divisiveness and unrest that seem to be permeating our country right now.

While attending this workshop, I had the opportunity to try out lesson plans that delveFullSizeRender[1] deeply into several classic soul songs produced by legendary Stax Records, placing them within the context of the African Americans’ struggle to gain equality and examining how the stories of the artists, the music and the lyrics provide a window into the ways that music can both inspire and reflect social change.

Steve and I are excited to incorporate this approach into the 7th grade Core (Humanities) classroom. Students will analyze the lyrics of “Soul Man” within the context of the Detroit riots, compare and contrast Otis Redding’s “Respect” (later immortalized by Aretha Franklin as a feminist anthem) and “Respect Yourself,” a Staple Singers hit, investigate how music is able to build community among seemingly different groups through a close study of The Staple Singers’ “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” and examine more contemporary message music.

The soul music that came out of Memphis and the musicians who followed in their footsteps offer a very compelling pathway into some pretty challenging material. The idea here is to give our students the opportunity to engage deeply with the music by exploring each song’s social and political commentary, by reflecting on how they connect with the music intellectually, emotionally and ethically and to consider which aspects of the music challenge their thinking. What shocks or surprises? What is most interesting or intriguing? What is particularly troubling? What can they discover in the music that offers insight into something new or unfamiliar or, conversely, that serves as a mirror of their own lives?

These lessons extend the curriculum that Steve IMG_5303and I have developed to further our students’ comprehension of not only the history that they will encounter on our field trip to the South, but also of the complexities that characterize the contemporary American experience. And they touch on some of themes that run through our instructional program: society and the individual, the oppression of one group over others and those moments when people take action to change the status quo.

This is what I learned at “The Sounds of Change” workshop and through my ongoing work at The Willows: People make choices. Choices make history. And unless people begin to make different choices, history will continue to repeat itself. I am hopeful that as our informed, compassionate and thoughtful students come of age, they will have in their possession the tools necessary to promote greater understanding, inclusivity and kindness.

In the meantime, the 7th graders and their teacher chaperones head to Memphis and Little Rock in early June to learn more about our country’s past, its present and the role of music to reflect and incite social change and to bring people together as we embrace the future, come what may.

3 thoughts on “Music: The Natural Resource of a People

  1. Julie

    Just seeing this now that we are back and it sounds like you guys have put together an amazing trip! I hope everyone is having fun and gaining an appreciation for the struggles that people faced in the past and that this will, as you say, inform this generation who will soon be dealing with the complex social situation in the country now.


  2. While searching the web (for something else) I came across the article you had written entitled “Music: the Natural Resource of a People”. Although I am a long term musician myself (I’ve played with many of the people you cited in the article) I have come to realize late in my life that it is a struggle between “the way things are” (the status quo) and innovation (which is not very pretty). It is not a struggle between black and white (as most would have you believe) but a struggle between “the way things are” (as represented by the Antebellum South because things never changed) and innovation (as represented by the tremendous growth, primarily in the Northern sector, between the Constitution and the Civil War). Although most people will tell you they are for innovation, it is possible to pay attention to how much they actually invest their money in businesses outside of the ones they found.. The reason Willow School is so innovative is because they are also so rare. Although I would like for innovative businesses to succeed, it is apparent that all the innovation will come from large businesses, and things will stay pretty much as they are.

    What is the way out of this conundrum? We all have to get off the “Road to Damascus” and become a slave to the will of the Master. The Road to Damascus is the way of mankind’s efforts to right the wrongs that are perceived. Nothing is ever resolved by mankind’s efforts and it takes a divine intervention, and the divine intervention can take centuries to fulfill. Is there any doubt that communism is the latest retelling of the oldest book in the Bible, ‘the Tower of Babel”? Mankind cannot lift himself up by the bootstraps and become a better man thru socialism. The rise and fall of communism took 80 years.

    Music represents the best of mankind and is tied to the emotional state of the composer, performer and listener. The best songs are the ones that express love. I am sure that you remember the song that was playing when you first fell in love.

    In expressing the emotion thru music, it pays to have a very rich set of contradictions to play against. What better way;than to use the “land of opportunity” bias (the Indians got it right when they expressed creativity – Brahman, as a two headed monster whose other head is Shiva – the destroyer.). The alternative is to be a “Banana Republic”. When haciendas have 20’ cinder block walls topped off by broken glass, you have to wonder who is really the prisoner in this situation. So far, the “Banana Republic” is winning the war, but the Fat Lady has not sung yet.

    Mike Mazarick
    Raleigh NC


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