Using popular music for learning and teaching the struggle for black equality in the USA

Thanks to David Ingledew, Principal Lecturer in Education (History), University of Hertfordshire, for writing this blogpost. David picks up on previous Teaching History articles and shares some of his extensive knowledge of music to suggest tracks as sources that can be planned into your teaching of this topic. Coming soon, an equivalent list for Britain!  

Music can be a powerful resource in history learning and teaching. It can introduce a topic, set a mood, act as a prompt or hook, engage and generate interest, be used as a source as well as the focus for historical interpretations. I often used music in lessons and was strongly influenced by the persuasive arguments set out in Simon Butler’s article ‘What’s that stuff you’re listening to Sir?’ in TH111, Robert Phillips article on Initial Stimulus Material (ISM) in TH105 and Andrew Wrenn’s little stories/big picture approach in TH107.

Recent events in the USA, UK and across the world have reminded me of how valuable I have found the use of popular music for learning and teaching the struggle for black equality in the USA from KS3 to GCSE and A-Level. Popular music was an important document of that struggle, reflecting the prevailing mood of the time and charting the way in which it evolved and developed during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Furthermore, as the struggle for black equality changed. so too did the popular music, but I find it striking how many of these songs are still very relevant and resonant today.

Below is a list twelve songs, plus alternatives, that I think are particularly useful in helping pupils learn. I would often play these songs at least twice. The first-time pupils would be encouraged to just listen to the song, the second time to listen while reading through the lyrics. Pupils be asked to pick out key words or phrases and we would then discuss meanings. Using songs this way in history can easily be adapted to online learning and teaching and all of these songs are readily available on YouTube and streaming services.

  1. Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit (1937)

A powerful invective against lynching, I used Strange Fruit to introduce pupils to the violence and brutality of racism in America and as a starting point for discussing de jure and de facto segregation. I found Holiday’s haunting voice and the dramatic orchestration, which still send shivers down my spine, acted as powerful hook to grab the attention of pupils. Holiday co-wrote the song with Abel Meropool, an American communist, who adopted the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed in 1953 for espionage.

  1. Chuck Berry – Brown-eyed Handsome Man (1956)

Not an obvious choice, but I found Brown-eyed Handsome Man a very useful representation of how social attitudes in the USA were starting to change in the 1950s. The song is both a subtle challenge to prevailing racial attitudes and an expression of black pride. It captures the dramatic energy of rock and roll which horrified middle America and was a huge ‘crossover’ hit i.e. it appealed to young white as well as black Americans. An alternative or accompanying song would be Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti (1955), which also captures the raw power of rock and roll.

  1. Sam Cooke – A Change is Gonna Come (1964)

Another huge crossover hit, released in December 1964, two weeks before Cooke was fatally shot, A Change is Gonna Come became an anthem for the growing civil rights movement of the mid-1960s and perfectly captures the peaceful demand for social change and justice. The song is really useful for exploring change and continuity in the struggle for black equality. Sung by Betty LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi(!) at Obama’s 2009 Inauguration it also featured recently in a Channel 4 news profile of Chicago activist Jedidiah Brown underlining its continuing relevance. It has been covered many times of which the best is Otis Redding’s version.

  1. The Impressions – Keep on Pushing (1964)

Another group that can be used to explore the change and continuity in the struggle for black equality from the 1960s into the 1970s are Chicago based Impressions led by Curtis Mayfield.  The gospel influenced Keep on Pushing, along with other hits like People Get Ready (1965) and We’re a Winner (1967) reflect the lunch counter protests, freedom rides and demonstrations of the mid-60s period. Mayfield left the group in 1970 to pursue a solo career. His sound remained sweet and soulful, but his lyrics became tougher with songs such as We the People Who are Darker Than Blue (1970) and Mighty Mighty Spade and Whitey (1971).

  1. Aretha Franklin – Respect (1967)

First performed and released by Otis Redding in 1965, Aretha Franklin’s version is a really useful to highlight to pupils that the struggle for black equality coincided with a growing feminist movement. The song talks about personal respect within a relationship, but it is quite clear in way that Franklin sings it that she is demanding respect as a black woman. This is a great way in which to explore the vital role, often overlooked and ignored, that women played in the struggle for black equality. Laura Lee’s Wedlock is a Padlock (1972) and Women’s Love Rights (1971) are great accompanying songs that you can use to explore this further. Franklin also performed at Obama’s 2009 Inauguration.

  1. Staple Singers – When will we be Paid (1971)

Family group who switched from gospel to soul/RnB when they signed for Memphis label Stax in 1968, a number of Staple Singers songs are really useful to help pupils look at particular issues in the struggle for black equality. When will we be Paid (1971) is a demand for economic justice rather than civil rights reflecting that the struggle for black equality was political, social and economic. The 1963 March on Washington was focused on the demand for jobs and freedom which is echoed in another Staple Singers song Long Walk to D.C (1968). Similarly, Respect Yourself (1972) is concerned with self-empowerment closely linked with black pride. The Staple Singers were close associates of Martin Luther King Jr. and lead singer Mavis Staples continues to record and perform civil rights songs – most notably We’ll Never Turn Back (2007) and If All I Was Was Black (2017)

  1. Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam (1964)

Simone wrote this song in response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Powerful and angry it perfectly captures the brutal backlash racist backlash against the civil rights movement particularly in southern states. Simone was an early, strident advocate of black power and black pride, as illustrated in Backlash Blues (1967) and Young, Gifted and Black (1970), and was a critic of King’s non-violent approach to civil rights protest. This is useful in helping pupils appreciate different perspectives in the struggle for black equality and develop an understanding as the emergence of the black power movement.

  1. James Brown – Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud (1968)

An important song for two reasons. First it represents a change in sound from soul/RnB to a harder funk rhythm which Brown pioneered in the late 1960s. Second, it is a clear and obvious demand for black self-empowerment and self-reliance. A really useful starting point to examine black pride, black power and black nationalism of the period. A great companion song is I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open the Door I’ll Get It Myself) (1969) and both songs were huge crossover hits appealing to a wide audience.

  1. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1970)

This song (and same-titled album) I have used with pupils in a ‘little story, big picture’ approach. The song focuses on the continuing struggle for black equality, anti-Vietnam War protests, police repression and political uncertainty. The song title suggests that it is a question being asked, but it is actually a statement i.e. this is what’s going on, this is happening now. Marvin Gaye was one of the first stars for the Detroit based Tamla Motown label which had huge appeal with black and white audiences across the US as well as international success. It called itself the Voice of Young America and prided itself on producing commercially successful pop songs about love and relationships. What’s Going On (1970) represented a significant change in direction towards more troubled, socially aware songs by Gaye who increasingly sought greater artistic independence (the record company initially tried to block the release of the song).  A great song to accompany this is The Temptations Ball of Confusion (1970).

  1. Gil Scott Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970)

Gil Scott Heron fused soul, jazz, funk and poetry in his music and is widely regarded to be the originator of rap music which became increasingly dominant in the late 1970s and 1980s. His first two albums in particular were overtly political and full of social commentary. His music is a very useful introduction and insight for pupils into what was traditionally viewed as the end of the ‘civil rights era’ in the early 1970s (although this view is contested) in particular the assassination of King, suppression of the Black Panther Party and similar black radical movements, the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The song is packed full of cultural references and social commentary and is in stark contrast to the calm, peaceful plea of A Change is Gonna Come (1964) providing another great opportunity to explore with pupils’ historical significance as well as change and continuity. It is remarkable that only six years separate the two songs, but the feel, focus and sound are so strikingly different. Also listen to the even more powerful Whitey on the Moon (1970).


Simon Butler ‘What’s that stuff you’re listening to Sir?’ Rock and pop music as a rich source for historical enquiry TH111

Robert Philips Making history curious: using Initial Stimulus Material [ISM] to promote enquiry, thinking and literacy, TH105

Andrew Wrenn Equiano – voice of silent slaves? TH107

Further Reading

Stuart Cosgrove (2017). Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul. Birlinn Ltd.

Robert Gordon (2013). Respect yourself: Stax records and the soul explosion. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Pete Guralnick (2002). Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues And The Southern Dream Of Freedom: Canongate Books.

Recommended listening

Change is Gonna Come: the Voice of Black America 1963-1973 Kent Soul compilation (2007)

3 thoughts on “Using popular music for learning and teaching the struggle for black equality in the USA

  1. Totally agree with this! I have for years used music in my lessons, as a starter to hook students in to a new topic or illustrate some content, montages of music to help with revision. Really believe this helps the brain process information.


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