Granted, we never know as professors whether a new assignment will work. In the University of Alabama’s College of Arts & Sciences, we encourage our students to be “active learners,” an idea on which I riff via my blog’s mission statement. The idea is that we want our students to analyze information rather than “parroting” back answers.
This semester in my “American Civilization to 1865” course, I asked the students to narrate this giga-normous window called “American” “civilization” via a mix tape essay. Unlike the students in my upper level course “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America,” the students in the Am Civ survey don’t have actual mix tapes. But they can come up with a playlist and they must write an essay. Allison Helmbrecht, a native of Huntsville, Alabama, wrote a great essay that can be found here. Allison is one of those students who does something I have mentioned on this blog before: she makes me remember why teachers do what we do. We do what we do because many students deliver and help us see our work is worthwhile and maybe the world might someday be a better place owing to our time together.
Some background on the assignment as presented on the syllabus: the student must write a list of 5-7 songs that captures critical ideas in this pretty long window we often call “American Civilization to 1865.” Indeed, it is my hope that they learn a lot this semester as we progress from the Paleo-Indians – or indigenous people who arrived here thousands of years ago after, according to some scholars, crossing an icy bridge – to the end of Civil War. The experiences of later indigenous people who, if they survived, made adjustments as they encountered Europeans and African people, have been addressed in class, too.
I told the students the following: if they had to sit back and think about a significant theme that keeps coming up, what would it be? Find some songs that seem to capture that theme. The songs or song titles do not have to be precise. They can even be humorous and seem tangential. But there must be a way for the student to explain why they picked the songs. They have to do as much by writing an essay. In fact, they should think of their essays as liner notes, or the summaries that used to appear on album/CD jacket sleeves before folks started downloading digital music files.
I also told them that their playlist essay had to address a critical issue (Allison selected the concept of “independence;” another classmate who turned in an early draft explored “freedom” as it relates to enslaved people and early white settlers who relocated for religious reasons).
The students may also look at a pivotal moment and/or significant people who captured their chosen theme that reveals some aspect of life before the Civil War ends. And they must select songs that have or once had an audience (in other words, they can’t submit a song written by their cousins that no one has ever heard). Also, they cannot present lyrics that they would not show to their parents or some adult who would expect better from them.
Assignments that may seem as unorthodox as this one feel risky until you meet a student who almost nails it on her first try even when the topic is addressed in the most basic way. For her willingness to share her essay to help her classmates as they prepare their own, I thank Allison. She is Accounting major, who says she loves history and plans to be a CPA in a “big” city someday. Roll Tide!
Her classmates’ papers are due by noon Oct. 1. And now, here is Allison’s essay:
Without the initial idea of Independence, America arguably would have never been born. We owe our ability to live in the “land of opportunity” to many people, among them Thomas Paine, an Englishman, and founding father Thomas Jefferson, and many more who refused to keep quiet about their discontent with the oppressive English. If the Founding Fathers in particular had the same technology that we have today to express their feelings, I imagine the sound of their mixtape might include the songs presented in my mix, ones that unveil the idea of independence. To be clear, I believe that the most fitting name for the mixtape of the American Revolution is none other than, “Independence.”
The first song is Drake’s “Too Good.” Released in the summer of 2016, the song is relevant to the 1700s as expressed by Drake’s words “I’m way too good to you, you take my love for granted, I just don’t understand it.” Accompanied by Rihanna, Drake represents England while she represents the colonies. Both parties believe that they are “too good” for the other and deserve to be treated as such. The English think that the colonists are in debt to them, which is understandable considering that the English provided them with the means to establish themselves in America as well as financially aiding to protect them amidst the conflicts with the French and Indians.
Indeed, the colonists were technically also still citizens of England, meaning the country heavily asserted its power over them, despite being an ocean away. The colonists did not appreciate the English absent yet oppressive nature. Following the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the standards imposed on the colonists by the British were elevated even more. They were expected to produce goods, pay taxes, and forego international trade for the benefit of their mother country. The final straw seem to come in 1767 with the Townshend Acts, which was an approach to make the colonists comply with trade regulations, pay the salaries of governmental officials and even affirm that Parliament had the right to tax the colonists.
Three years after these enraging acts were passed, a group of Patriots triggered the first official bloodshed of the revolution by cornering two British soldiers, causing them to fight back. Two months later, colonists once again heckled British soldiers, sparking another brawl branded the Boston Massacre. The lines from Drake’s song, “I think I lost my patience, I came to a realization,” may best explain the colonists’ reasoning for this violence. They were fed up with the English walking over them.
By 1775, it was declared by Parliament that Massachusetts was formally in rebellion. England’s grip on its settlements was quickly slipping as war brewed on the colonial soil. The Patriots urged their neighbors to fight their native land, and here, the Imagine Dragons in their song “America” resonate via these lyrics, “Rise to the top of the world, America, don’t you cry; Lift me up, give me the strength to press on.”
The Americans began to depend on each other for strength and motivation. For example, John Adams, a lawyer and later the first Vice President and second President, encouraged the rise of military leader George Washington as a means of helping Virginians to see how issues in New England, like the Boston Tea Party, affected, not just people in the north, but all of the colonies.
The American leaders recognized that the war would not be won without the support of the majority. Ironically, it was Paine, the Englishman who wrote the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which via plain English, inspired the Americans. He called attention to the abuse of the colonies by England. His literary work converted even Loyalists to the Patriot cause and helped prepare the mindsets of the colonists for war. Paine, perhaps like the Imagine Dragons, seemed to ask the colonists to “rise to the top of the world” and be independent from England.
Rihanna’s “Consideration” also resonates against the colonists’ rebellion and fight for independence. Rihanna sings, “I got to do things my own way darling; Will you ever let me? Will you ever respect me? No. Why you will never let me grow?” These words may have easily come out of the mouths of the Americans because England’s restrictive trade laws and other measures including harsh taxes. The colonists were not fooled, and called out their opponent just as Rihanna seems to do because England did not “respect” them or let them “grow.” England lacked “Consideration” for the colonists.
England did attempt to compromise, however. In February of 1775, Lord Frederick North, the Prime Minister between 1770 and 1782, sent propositions to America from London. He agreed to lift all colonial taxes as long as the settlements paid for their own military as well as the salaries of royal governors. It was too late, though, because America was, in the words of Kelly Clarkson, “Already Gone.” “I’m already gone, you can’t make it feel right, when you know that it’s wrong,” sings Clarkson, reflecting a sentiment the colonists likely had. The lyrics, “It doesn’t matter where we take this road, someone’s gotta go,” certainly fit Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” The Patriots would have rather died and gone to Heaven than inhabit a country controlled by England.
Despite knowing that the odds were against them, and that a hefty English army on the opposite side of the battlefield, the colonists decided that it was worth the fight. Tom Petty captures their feelings with his song, “I Won’t Back Down.” The Patriots suffered numerous defeats in the war, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill, Battle of Kemp’s Landing, the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga, Battle of Charlotte, and many more, but they were not discouraged. And in this way, Petty’s lyrics “There ain’t no easy way out, I will stand my ground, and I won’t back down” also resonate because they could have been sung by the colonists who knew that it would be a difficult challenge to defeat the British. At time, their dreams seemed impossible, but they believed that it was worth the effort to stand their ground. They become “Warriors,” like the souls in the Imagine Dragons’ song. In this tune, we hear, “Here we are, don’t turn away now, we are the warriors that built this town from dust.” The colonists could have sung those words because America was now their home.
Although the songs mentioned were not specifically written for the American Revolution, they resonate with the idea of independence as experienced by the colonists. Through this mixtape, we are able to travel back in time and experience with our ancestors the frame of mind of what it was like to be an American rebel seeking independence.
Postscript: My own often anachronistic mix for this assignment is as follows:
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Diana Ross
Black Butterfly – Deniece Williams
Where I’m From – Digeable Planets (peace be the greeting of the insect tribe)
Cease the Bombing – Grant Green
I Don’t Want to Hear it Anymore – Dusty Springfield
I’d offer the music to my mix, but I am locked out of my Spotify account. Arrgh! And I’d make an actual tape, but I am exhausted. T & P file time. Maybe later. Maybe I will even make a fancy cover using cut-out photos or drawings of historical actors, too. Maybe.