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Political Activism through Music: Civil War Era

Lesson Overview

Overview: Students view an image of song lyrics from a chosen Civil War era song in order to understand the impact the political climate of the times had on the music of the same period. Students will analyze one song as a large group and one as a small group. Extension would include student research and comparison.
Grade Range: 9-12
Objective: After the completing the activity, students will be able to:
  • Analyze a piece of music as a historical artifact.
  • Analyze opinions of the time period through its music.
  • Compare music written in the Civil War era to music written during other periods.
  • Write a comparative essay about Civil War and more modern music.
Time Required: One class period of 50 minutes.
Discipline/Subject: Music, Literature
Topic/Subject: Literature, Performing Arts, Music
Era: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877


Illinois Learning Standards: Fine Arts:
25.B-Understand the similarities, distinctions and connections in and among the arts.
27-Understand the role of the arts in civilizations, past and present.

Language Arts:
1-Read with understanding and fluency.
2-Read and understand literature representative of various societies, eras and ideas.
3-Write to communicate for a variety of purposes.
4.A-Listen effectively in formal and informal situations.
5-Use the language arts to acquire, access and communicate information. 


Handouts: Thinking about Songs as Historical Artifacts Worksheet.
Folders containing one primary source from LOC. 
Analysis Tool: Music Sheet Analysis
PowerPoint: Available on PDF.
Library of Congress Items: Title: John Brown's Entrance into Hell.
  Title: The Black Regiment
  Title: John Brown
  Title: Lines on the proclamation issued by the tyrant Lincoln, April first, 1863. By a Rebel.
  Title: Young Eph's Lament


1. Take student poll "is music affected by culture and/or politics?" Discuss results.
2. Discuss briefly the political climate during Civil War and what issues could have affected the music of the period, i.e. slavery, abolition, North vs. South.
3. Show PowerPoint of "John Borwn's Entrance into Hell." (Available on PDF)
4. Discuss song stanza by stanza looking for political issues.
5. Have students look up names and places they do not know.
6. Discuss the song as a whole focusing on what we know about the political climate of the time.
7. Students infer why this song was sung and who it would have been sung by.
8. Using what we have concluded, model completion of the Historical Artifacts worksheet with student input.
9. Students will be given folders containing one of four songs and the Historical Artifacts Worksheet.
10. In the group (based on what song they have), the student will analyze the song and put their conclusions on the Music Sheet Analysis worksheet.
11. Have each group present their song and conclusions to the class. Allow the class to provide additional input as needed.

Participation in discussion sessions. Participation in group sessions. Completion of both Historical Artifacts worksheet and Music Sheet Analysis. For extension, completion of worksheets and assessment of essay. 

Students will individually choose a song from the America Singing: Nineteenth Century Song Sheets Collection as well as contemporary songs they believe to have political significance. The student will analyze both songs using the Historical Artifact Worksheet. Using that information the student will compose a comparative essay discussing the similarities and differences between the songs and how the songs illustrate the political climate during which they were written.

Author Credits:

S. Mitchell
Flora High School