The Soundtrack of the U.S. Survey

This post was published at Teaching U.S. history blog on November 23, 2016, but has been updated here with some new entries.

Like many other professors do, I’ve integrated good deal of music into the U.S. survey. Often it comes at the beginning of class, serving to orient the students to the topic of the day. Sometimes I add more in the middle or at the end, part of my effort to reset attention after the blocs of lesson or lecture. It’s always popular with students (especially as the music gets more contemporary), but it’s far from frivolous. It add layers of emotion, connecting students to the structures of feeling that moved people to action in the past. It also does work in developing the skill of critically reading culture, including popular culture, and not just text.

With that short introduction, I thought it would be useful to share the list of music I’ve generated to match most of the topics I address in my post-1865 survey. In general, I’ve tried to choose music that was a) popular, b) innovative, and c) comments either through its lyrics or its performance on the issues of the day. In a few cases, the music is anachronistic, but refers back to the issues under discussion. Where the logic of the choice might not be clear I’ve added a few brief notes. I’d love for this list to get improved by hearing about the choices others have made. Finally: a tip of the hat to Kevin Kruse, who offered some very useful suggestions.


The Civil War:

  • Battle Cry of Freedom, (Battle Cry of Freedom has both Union and Confederate versions, so students can compare the different meanings of freedom that each gives to the cause.)




The Closing of the Frontier:


Capital and Labor:

  • Joe Hill (performed by Billy Bragg), “There is Power in a Union,”
  • Pete Seeger, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,”


Gilded Age Immigration:

  • The Weavers, “No Irish Need Apply,”


Women’s emancipation:


Jim Crow:

American Empire:


World War I:


Roaring 1920s:


The Great Depression:


The New Deal:


World War II


Post-war society / 1950s:


Civil rights:


The 1960s:

  • The Beatles, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,


Vietnam War:








Culture Wars of the 1980s:






New Gilded Age:



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