Bringing History to Life in Song
by Monty Harper
This issue’s theme has inspired me to write one more column on nonfiction songwriting. This time, let’s see if we can get on board with some techniques for bringing history to life in an original song.
Today, we’ll dig deeper in to focus on an angle I introduced in “Passionate People, Part II.” We’ll look at what kinds of details to include and where to find them, and we’ll touch on keeping it fun for the kids.
Probably the most common goal among the history songs I’ve heard is to help students memorize a list of facts. But in this column, I want to encourage a more ambitious, more meaningful approach.
History is more than names, places, and dates. History is the great story of humanity, and humans are driven by passion to what they do. To truly understand and appreciate history, we need to understand those passions, and what better way to express them than through song? An extraordinary history song should illuminate and celebrate the passions of the past, giving the listener a taste of what it was like to be there, making us feel the hopes and sorrows that shaped our story. A history song that moves the listener will inspire curiosity and further exploration.
To see how this might be accomplished through focus and angle, let’s look at Jonathan Sprout’s American Heroes series. Sprout and his co-writers focus each song not just on a single historical figure, but on that person’s defining quality. The chorus always keeps this focus simple and clear. Consider the opening lines of the chorus for each of the following figures.
For Walt Disney:
Through the eyes of a child
He could see what was fun
For Neil Armstrong:
First man, first man on the moon
For ecologist Rachel Carson:
Interconnected, one and all
Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite Jonathan Sprout lyrics, “Take a Ride” (Harriet Tubman):
Be brave and just remember
Dreams cannot be sold.
I am reaching out to take you
Where your chains have no hold.
So, wish upon the North Star
And you won’t wish in vain
If you climb aboard this freedom train.
Take a ride. Take a ride.
Take a ride on the Underground Railroad with me.
Of course, in all these songs, the details in the verses support the main idea of the chorus. But what kinds of details do we get? In “Take a Ride,” we see no dates, numbers, place names, or peoples’ names. “Underground Railroad” is the only phrase identifying the context of the song.
This approach allows the listener to focus on what made Harriet Tubman tick. All the lyrical content is about human emotion—what it feels like to be enslaved, to yearn for freedom, to help others.
Other Jonathan Sprout songs do sprinkle in facts and figures, but always in service of the main point, illuminating some fundamental quality about the hero in question. The goal is never to reproduce a textbook by including all available information.
Writing with focus allows you to restrict the flow of details in order to create a more meaningful song.
Another engaging aspect of “Take a Ride” is the song’s angle. The singer is speaking through Harriet Tubman’s imagined voice as she entreats the listener (an enslaved person) to join her on a ride to freedom. This song isn’t just about Harriet Tubman, it is Harriet Tubman.
Here in Oklahoma in 2007, we celebrated our state’s centennial, so I borrowed a fourth-grade textbook to see what topics I might write about. Big topics included the land run, the dustbowl, and the oil boom. But the textbook listed just the basic facts from a third-person point of view. To write from a different angle, I needed more details.
A trip to the library yielded a book called Drumright! The Glory Days of a Boom Town by D. Earl Newsom. This book helped me start to imagine what it would have been like to live in an oil boom town in the 1920s, and it gave me an angle for my song “Boom Town.” Still, while Newsom’s book provided a wealth of dates, places, events, and information on how the oil business worked and how the town was built, almost none of that made it into the song.
Instead, “Boom Town” is written from the point of view of a young man celebrating the success of the town he helps to build. The chorus states the focus clearly:
Boom town, boom town
We’re gonna build a boom town, baby
The verses are broken into short musical phrases with a driving beat to give a sense of the frenetic activity of a boom town. Details in the verses were carefully chosen to convey the main character’s actions and attitudes in those exciting times:
Big, big news, the kind I like
Wildcatter made an oil strike
I’m heading for the field to find out more
Gonna take me out a lease on that reservoir
I don’t explain what “taking out a lease” means, though it was detailed to death in the book. The words are used to give a flavor of the time and place. All the listener needs to know is this guy has plans; he’s getting involved in prospecting for oil.
By the final verse, the brand new town is starting to feel like home:
Twelve rooming houses, five pool halls
Restaurants built with wood plank walls
The future of our city burns bright and clear
A man’ll be proud to raise a family here
All these developments, including the “wood plank walls” of the restaurant are details from the book that serve to show how the town has progressed.
In the bridge, the man celebrates his good fortune along with the rest of the town:
Derricks bloom like daisies, popping up all over
Tanks are overflowing, spilling down the river
Oil fills every plate, cup, and pitcher
Everybody’s busy; everybody’s richer
Some of the images here may seem controversial. Today we’d see overflowing tanks spilling into the river as an environmental disaster. But to people at the time, this was a sign of prosperity; they saw oil in the river as cause for celebration.
I couldn’t have my character criticize the oil spill and stay true to the angle of my song. I might’ve simply left this detail out since it clashes with modern sensibilities, but it seemed quite revealing about the mood of the time, so I wanted to use it. I trusted my listeners to understand that I’m not endorsing oil spills with the song. Indeed, the fourth graders I presented this song to were impressed that the people at the time “didn’t know any better.”
Writing from the point of view of the bad guys in history may not always be appropriate, but it can provide an instructive, unique angle. In one songwriting residency on “The Age of Exploration,” I asked my fifth-grade students to choose angles for their songs that would put them into the situations they were studying.
One class wrote about the Spanish rule over the Pueblo natives from the Spanish viewpoint. Their angle was to write a recruitment song, tempting young Spaniards to come to the new world:
New Spain is brimming with riches
The natives will work while you slack
They’ll dig a mine for your silver and gold
And they hardly ever fight back
Another class wrote the counterpoint to this song from the point of view of the Pueblo people planning their revolt in 1680:
In the beginning we were fine, fine, fine
Then came the Spanish saying mine, mine, mine
They took away religion; they made us sing their song
Very soon they’re gonna be gone
What-o, what-o rising rebellion!
Which brings me to one final point: when writing history songs for kids, don’t shy away from finding the fun.
Starting in 1889, our federal government gave away unoccupied land in the Oklahoma Territory by having people literally race for it. This is how Oklahoma City and most of the surrounding towns were founded. To research this topic, I looked up local newspaper articles from the time, and it seemed to me these land runs were conducted in a rather circus-like atmosphere.
To convey this sense of whimsy and fun, I structured my song “Oklahoma Land Rush, 1889” around different methods people used to take part in the race—riding the train, sneaking in early and hiding in the bushes, or riding race horses, bicycles, or even hot air balloons (only rumored). The intro asks the question, “What’s your plan of action when the buglers blow?” The verses are cumulative, listing each mode of transportation along with a corresponding sound effect and motion for audience participation.
Next time you’re called upon to write about history, consider avoiding a third-person list of facts. Do some research, explore your options for focus and point of view, find the fun, and transport your listener.