A Historian’s Guide to Summer: Back-to-School Mixtape

A Historian’s Guide to Summer: Back-to-School Mixtape

Here in the Pacific Northwest the days are long and hot and the blackberries are ripening, which means that a new school year is upon us. For teachers, it’s time to set aside the summer projects, chapters, and books, make a late-summer beverage, and think about teaching.

I find exploring history through music to be both fun and remarkably effective. Music provides a sensory link to the past that other historical sources can’t quite equal. Music also tells us a lot about the past. Exploring its instrumentation and lyrics, its production and consumption, and how it evolved over time gives us a window onto the social, cultural, and political world in which the music existed.

I’m a historian of the United States, so that’s my focus here. If you teach with these or other songs, please leave a note in the comments. And even if you don’t teach, share some jams of your own and tell us what they mean to you.

Please be aware, some of the following music contains historical language that includes curse words and sexual content; in addition, some is discriminatory and can be hurtful today. Please be conscious of this when using this material for teaching.


In the early 1800s, slavery expanded dramatically in the Deep South and westward, while anti-slavery and abolitionist societies began to grow in both numbers and influence. People debated the scientific basis of the racial difference that most people (antislavery and proslavery alike) agreed placed light-skinned Europeans well above dark-skinned Africans, with everyone else in between. This period also saw the development of minstrel shows. The songs and performances associated with minstrelsy emerged in the 1820s and highlight contemporary notions of race, class, and slavery.

Click for full view. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs
Click for full view. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs

This piece of sheet music illustrates what minstrel shows might have looked like. The performers have instruments common to minstrelsy. On the ends are “characters” of sorts: “Mr. Bones” on the left with the castanets, and “Mr. Tambo” on the right with the tambourine. In between are two men with banjos and one with an accordion (fiddles were also common instruments).

The banjo and the tambourine are both traditional African instruments. They point to the ways African culture developed in the Americas, mixing with European culture to form an amalgam.

All the players here appear to be African American, but they weren’t. They were all white performers in “blackface.” Minstrel shows imitated a farcical version of whites’ ideas of African American slave culture. The shows involved music interspersed with banter and puns as well as certain stock characters such as “Jim Crow” and “Zip Coon.”

These two characters reveal how minstrel shows caricatured both enslaved blacks in the south (“Jim Crow”) and free blacks in the north (“Zip Coon”). “Jim Crow” came from a white New York minstrel performer named Thomas “Daddy” Rice and a song called “Jump Jim Crow.”

Here’s an instrumental version of “Jump Jim Crow,” played a little slower than it probably would have been played at the time. You can follow along with the sheet music below.[1]

“Jump Jim Crow” actually had over 100 verses, and the lyrics changed a lot over time as people made up new words. This is something that makes 19th-century music so useful for teaching. Songs reflect the ideas, beliefs, and concerns of the people who wrote and improvised new versions.

At its core, minstrelsy presented a picture of southern slavery that endorsed a developing idea of plantation pastoralism. This mythology held that slaves were happy and content, living lives of leisure cared for by paternal, benevolent masters. George Fitzhugh’s “The Universal Law of Slavery” is a good example of this proslavery argument that slavery was actually good for African Americans, rather than a “necessary evil.” The “Jim Crow” character lampooned this idea of southern male slaves.

Minstrelsy did, however, include a critique of slavery, albeit a racially tinged one. The same songs that longed for the simplicity of the plantation also frequently included themes of loss and separation from loved ones sold away. The complexity of these songs reflects debates about slavery and the place of African Americans in the new nation.

While “Jim Crow” satirized enslaved men, “Zip Coon” parodied Northern black men. The character Zip Coon, probably created by actor George Washington Dixon in the 1830s, “put on airs” and dressed in fancy clothes outside his social class. A quintessential “dandy,” Zip Coon insulted free blacks and poked fun at the nascent black middle class in cities like Philadelphia.

The minstrel tradition lasted well into the 20th century, and minstrel tunes formed part of the basis of American music from jazz to rock-and-roll to hip-hop to country. For more about minstrelsy and teaching with music, see the presentation by Professors Adam Rothman (Georgetown University) Michael O’Malley (George Mason University) and the B-Sides (Michael O’Malley, Mark Hirsch, Charles McGovern, and William Bird, Jr.), “Sounds of History.”

Source: Library of Congress
Source: Library of Congress


Historians generally agree now that slavery caused the Civil War. But how did people at the time explain the war? How did the Union soldier from a small farm in Maine, for example, justify leaving his town for probably the first time to risk his life on the battlefields of Virginia? Two versions of a popular Union marching song called “John Brown’s Body” suggest how the answer to this question changed during the war.

Version 1:

Version 2:

You’ll notice the lyrics and the music don’t quite match up. This is because there were many versions of this song. Much like the minstrel songs, people made up new lyrics to popular tunes or added to old ones so it’s hard to find one definitive version. Nevertheless, we can get a sense of how the song changed as the war progressed.

The first version, written early in the war, wasn’t about John Brown the antislavery figure, but about a soldier in a Massachusetts regiment who had the name John Brown. His fellow soldiers came up with the lyrics to tease him. But the song caught on and passed to other regiments who probably assumed they were singing about the other, more well-known John Brown.

This first version focuses on the experience of marching and being in the army. It suggests soldiers perceived the war as one to punish the “Rebels” (“They will hang Jeff Davis to a tree”) and to preserve the Union — much as Lincoln explained it.

The second version, though, reflects changing attitudes about slavery and the purpose of the war. It’s clearly about John Brown the abolitionist and specifically ties his 1859 antislavery raid on Harper’s Ferry to the Civil War itself. This tells us not only how northern opinions of John Brown changed, but also that more people came to see the Civil War as a war to end slavery, and not just as a war to preserve the Union. The experience of being in the army and seeing slavery first hand, often for the first time, helped to change soldiers’ ideas about the war’s aims.

For more analysis by Georgetown University Professor Chandra Manning, see the “Scholar Analysis” section of the Foundations of U.S. History John Brown song module by the Center for History and New Media and Loudoun County Public Schools.


Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, “Prove It On Me Blues,” 1928.

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey performed blues music during the Harlem Renaissance, when places like Harlem in New York drew crowds of white and black Americans alike to listen to music and drink illegal booze. This is the standard image of blues in the Harlem Renaissance. But around the same time, groups of researchers like the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants in New York conducted extensive studies that aimed to figure out what characteristics distinguished gay and lesbian individuals with the hopes of “curing” or “preventing” homosexuality.

Ad for Ma Rainey's "Prove It On Me Blues" (notice the police officer).
Ad for Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues” (notice the police officer).

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, researchers developed a new explanation of “homosexuality” as a sexual phenomenon — as an identity separate from physical acts. This departed from previous notions of “sexual inversion,” which could refer to a broad range of behavior.[2]

The Harlem Renaissance and blues performance created a space where racial and sexual boundaries might be bent or ignored, at least on stage. Evidence suggests that Ma Rainey was bisexual, and she seems to embody the narrator of the “Prove It On Me Blues.” This song is a good entry into the complex world of early-20th-century urban life and a starting point for talking about sexuality during that period.

For more, see Jonathan Ned Katz’s OutHistory article about Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and the “Prove It On Me” blues.


Mahalia Jackson, “We Shall Overcome,” late 1960s.

Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddamn,” released 1963, this performance 1966.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message,” 1982.

This trio of songs traces how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s shifted toward Black Power movements in the 1970s and issues of inner-city poverty. Black Power is often misunderstood as a descent into chaos after the Civil Rights Movement, but it actually emerged out of larger domestic and international trends that sought to reorient black communities toward control, uplift, cultural nationalism, and radical “revolution.”

Black Power often critiqued the tactics and goals of the civil rights movement. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” voices lot of these critiques, including an impatience with gradualism and continued violence. The same sorts of social critique appeared in rap music, like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” in the late 1970s and 1980s. Rap developed outside the mainstream and featured biting social commentary about economic inequality, racial profiling, police brutality, and drug use.


Lauryn Hill, “To Zion,” 1998

Jean Grae, “My Story,” 2008

In these two songs we have two different experiences with reproductive choice. Both recount the artists’ actual life experiences. Jean Grae described hers best in an interview with DX:

I’ve never really told stories that weren’t actually true. So yeah, “My Story,” was called “My Story,” I couldn’t come up with a great name for it and Ninth was like, “Let’s just call it: ‘My Story’.” So yeah, totally true. It was a song I tried recording years ago and I think the first version of it was called, “Mommy Dearest.” Recorded it and I just didn’t feel like I got the emotions across enough, felt like I needed a little bit more distance from the situation and more experience to understand how to tell it. It definitely wasn’t planned that we were going to record it on the Jeanius album, the beat came on and I was like, “Look. I wanna write to it.” And he was like, “Alright.” Everybody went out of the room for about an hour and it was the one song we recorded with nobody else in the room.

The differences between Grae’s and Hill’s experiences provide a good starting point for discussions about what factors complicate reproductive choice, decision making, and freedom for women and couples today.

And with that we’ll close out the history mixtape. I’ve only scratched the surface of many of these songs, but I hope I’ve given you some ideas about how music can uncover the complexity of the past.


1.Jump Jim Crow,” Library of Congress American Memory collection.

2. George Chauncey, “From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: The Changing Medical Conceptualization of Female ‘Deviance’,” in Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, ed. Kathy Lee Peiss, Christina Simmons, and Robert A. Padgug, Critical Perspectives on the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 87–117.

“Mixed Tapes” feature image by Flickr user Leandroid.

Berry correction: Thanks to an astute comment on Facebook, I’ve changed raspberries to blackberries, since they’re more in season now than raspberries are.

Edit: Here are two more history-and-music resources recently brought to my attention by Rutgers University historian Janet Golden and Jeffrey Anderson on the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s The Public Health blog: From ‘TB Blues’ to ‘Bacteria’ and Bed Bugs, Hookworms and Mosquitoes: A Public Health Playlist for the Blues.

Adam Turner has a Master's degree in history from the University of Oregon and works as a web developer with a love of clean, standards-based markup and accessible, user-centered design.