Contributed by Andrew Kenen and Diane Seskes, Kenston High School, Bainbridge Township, OH.
The rise of American cities between 1865 and 1900 was spawned by the industrial revolution. Technological advancements in industry and transportation fathered the enormous growth of large cities across the United States. The patterns of urban growth then saw the rising middle-class moving further out from the cities creating the suburbs. Suburbs flourished as rural areas dwindled with farmers selling off their land for new housing developments and shopping malls. Today, we have a global and mobile society interconnected by computers, fax machines and the internet. These changes in the way Americans live and work have sparked new challenges for each generation. Understanding the causes and effects of these changes may enable students to better prepare for the world of the future. By studying contemporary song lyrics, students may be better able to recognize the effects of these changes upon others.
The students will be able to:
- Analyze the narrator’s point of view as well as the historical perspective of songs.
- Compare and contrast perspectives on changes in the American landscape identifying attitudes and reactions.
- Write a cause and effect essay focusing on changes that have occurred in the student’s own town, a city in which s/he has lived, or a city with which s/he is familiar.
- Discuss problems identified in essays and song/poems by classmates and project possible solutions.
Suggested for secondary English or social studies students. This would work well within an interdisciplinary course such as an American Studies program combining American literature and American history.
2-3 class periods listening to songs and discussing historical background. The cause and effect essay may require 3-5 class periods for the writing process and another 2-3 class periods for the sharing and discussing of the essays. If the creative component is included, another 2 class periods will be needed for the sharing of the creative process.
CD’s/tapes/records of selected songs, lyrics and sound system.
Before beginning this lesson, students should be provided with some historical background on the rise of American cities 1865 to 1900. Key concepts such as industrialization, automation, transportation, and immigration should be understood by the students. The patterns of urban growth should also be familiar to students. Another key concept to be introduced should be the mechanization of farming and its effect upon the farmer.
Note: Providing background for each of the songs and the artists is not necessary for this unit, but students will benefit from knowing historical setting, artist’s background and attitude. An enrichment activity might be to research the selected artists as a class. The instructor as well as the students will experience true research. Resources would include local radio stations, local music shops, the Internet, books, CD/album inserts, and magazines.
- Listen to the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell. Provide copies of the lyrics.
- Discuss the theme of “Big Yellow Taxi.” Discussion should include the following points:
- What is the main idea? ("Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Do we ever really appreciate what we have before we lose it? Students will be able to provide all types of examples from their daily life. The innocence of childhood, the freedom of summertime, and the nostalgic look at the past will be examples of this for them.)
- There are four stanzas in this song. What does each stanza add to the development of the song’s theme? (Stanza 1 shows an example of progress. Students will be able to rely upon their vacations to Florida, South Carolina, and California for a reference point. Stanza 2 shows another example of progress, a bit more cynical. Students will be able to provide examples of areas cleared for housing developments and shopping malls. Stanza 3 tells of the effects of technological advancements. Stanza 4 describes the leaving of a loved one.)
- Introduce the idea of change in the American landscape. This may be the appropriate time to provide historical background. If students are already familiar with the history of urban growth, the instructor need only remind them and review key concepts.
- Listen to “Allentown” by Billy Joel and “Youngstown” by Bruce Springsteen and provide copies of the lyrics for students.
- As a large group, discuss these songs focusing on the following key points:
- What is the overall mood in each song? (Both songs seem to indicate a hopeless, despairing tone. Things have changed in each of these towns. They do not offer what they did anymore. The fathers were successful in each town but the sons do not see any hope there.)
- What details provide a historical perspective? (In “Allentown” there are references to “closing all the factories down,” “Bethlehem,” and WWII, “Pennsylvania,” “iron and coke and chromium steel,” “They’ve taken all the coal from the ground.” Each of these adds to the history of the decline of the industrial cities in Pennsylvania. In “Youngstown” there are references to “northeast Ohio,” “ore that was linin’ yellow creek,” “blast furnace,” the Civil War and Vietnam and WWII, “taconite coke and limestone,” The use of specific names of people and places reiterates the history of the decline of industrial cities such as Youngstown, Ohio.)
- What does the last stanza in “Youngstown” mean? (Answers will vary. The last stanza seems to indicate a hopeless, negativistic attitude. In stanza 2 “a job that’d suit the devil as well” is mentioned. The work in the steel mills was horrible. Some men say that they sold their souls to the devil when they took a job in the mills. They slaved for money in horrid conditions, but the money was oh! so good.)
- What does the line “But something happened on the way to that place. They threw an American flag in our face” mean in “Allentown?” (Could this be a reference to a failed American Dream? Could the flag be representing the emptiness of the symbol?)
- Refer the class back to “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell. How are these two songs related to the theme of that song? (Life seemed good for the fathers when the industrial towns were booming. Now the present generation looks back at it and sees that it no longer exists. They have nothing of that old life left.)
- Listen to “Houses in the Fields” by John Gorka and “Rain on the Scarecrow” by John Cougar Mellencamp and provide copies of the lyrics for students. These songs will provide another perspective to the changing American landscape.
- As a large group, discuss these two songs focusing on the following key points:
- What is the overall mood and point of view of these two songs? ("Houses in the Fields” tells of the farmers selling their land to developers in order to pay their bills. The last few lines indicate the narrator’s feelings--"I guess no one should be afraid of change, but tell me why is there a fence for every open range, it’s a sign I’m getting on in years, when nothing new is welcome to these eyes and ears.” John Gorka’s note to the song states, “Written about a road between Easton and Bethlehem in eastern Pennsylvania where I’ve lived for nearly fifteen years. It was one of the last longer stretches of road with farm fields on either side.” This song then is based upon his personal experience with the changes. The narrator regrets these changes and sees them as negative. In “Rain on the Scarecrow” the narrator is personally involved in the song. He feels the pain, the loss of dignity, and realizes he has nothing but memories to leave to his own son. The family farm had to be auctioned off because of bankruptcy. The loss is portrayed as a death.)
- What details provide a historical perspective? (In both songs there are concrete details referring to the plight of the farmer--drought, developers, loans, foreclosures, auctions, and courthouses. While discussing the songs, students should recall what they have learned about the realities of mechanization of farms and growing suburbia.)
What visual images are used in each of these songs? What do they add to the overall effect? (Both songs have very visual choruses. “Rain on the scarecrow. Blood on the plow.” This visual brings forth a lonely, violent, desolate image. “There’s houses in the fields” provides a contrasting image of plowed fields sprouting modern day houses. It seems ironic.) Some students will be able to draw or paint or photograph excellent examples of these visual images.
- Divide the class into 6 small groups. Randomly assign each group one of the following songs: “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen; “My Little Town” by Paul Simon; “Trouble in the Fields” by Nanci Griffith and “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds. Distribute a cassette tape of each song along with its lyrics to each group. Allow students to listen to the songs in their small groups. The group must then discuss the following questions:
- What is the point of view of the narrator in the song?
- What details provide a historical perspective?
- What symbols or visual images are used to develop the main idea?
- The small groups will then present to the entire class. Play each song and distribute lyrics to the entire class. After each song is played, the two small groups present their responses to the three questions to the entire class.
- Brainstorm with the entire class topics for their cause and effect essay. They are to find changes that have occurred in either their own hometown, a city they are familiar with, or a place where they once lived. Some ideas to get them thinking include: the rebirth of Cleveland with Progressive Field and the Cleveland Indians, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the new Science Center, the new Browns stadium. In Bainbridge, Ohio, farmers are selling off their land to housing developers and I-480 opened and fostered increased development in Geauga County.
- Assign the structure and parameters for the cause and effect essay. Help students focus upon one topic. Provide a plan for the essay. Students will need several class periods for the writing process including planning, researching, drafting, revising and editing.
- On the day that the cause and effect essays are due, ask students to share their essays. As students identify problems have the class brainstorm possible solutions to the problems. This discussion may lead to a follow-up unit on problem solving or writing a problem-solution essay or a proposal.
The cause and effect essay will be a major component of the student evaluation. Focus areas may include cause and effect structure, the use of support and concrete details, and a clear focus for the essay. The creative piece described in the enrichment section is another possible vehicle for student evaluation. The focus areas may include clear details, originality, focus on the American landscape, and an oral presentation component.
“Houses in the Fields” written and recorded by John Gorka (Jack’s Crows, High Street Records/Windham Hill, 1991)
“Allentown” written and recorded by Billy Joel (Nylon Curtain, CBS Inc., 1982)
“Youngstown” written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen (The Ghost of Tom Joad, Columbia, 1995)
“Rain on the Scarecrow” written and recorded by John Cougar Mellencamp (Scarecrow, PolyGram Records, 1985)
“Big Yellow Taxi” written and recorded by Joni Mitchell (Ladies of the Canyon, Reprise, 1970)
“My Hometown” written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen (Born in the U.S.A., Columbia, 1984)
“My Little Town” written and recorded by Paul Simon (Paul Simon 1964/1993, Warner Bros., 1993)
“Trouble in the Fields” by Nanci Griffith/Rick West (Lone Star State of Mind)
“Little Boxes” recorded by Pete Seeger (Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits, Columbia Records), lyrics and music by Malvina Reynolds.
As an extension of this unit, a creative piece could be assigned asking each student to rely upon their strongest multiple intelligence. Students may write an original song or poem based upon their hometown or their topic in the cause and effect essay. Students may draw, paint or illustrate one of the songs used at the beginning of this unit or a song of their own choosing. Students may write a parody of one of the songs listened to. Students might design an ideal city using computer programs. Have students share their creative pieces with the entire class.
Another enrichment activity might include studying and responding to key artists in the United States in the early 1900’s. Three visual artists focused upon the teeming life in American cities--Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), photographer; George Bellows (1882-1925), painter and lithographer; and Joseph Stella (1877-1946), graphic artist and painter.
A class trip on the Goodtime III in Cleveland, OH would offer students additional insight into the changing landscape in Cleveland. The Goodtime III takes the passengers down the Cuyahoga River and on Lake Erie where students see the industrial side of Cleveland plus the latest improvements such as Progressive Field, Tower City Complex, the Science Center, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
American Studies Album, Literature, Historical Documents, and Visual Art. Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1995.
DiBacco, Thomas V., Lorna C. Mason & Christian G. Appy, ed. History of The United States Volume 2 Civil War to the Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.