Writing Contemporary Protest Songs
Subjects: American History
Grade level: 8th- Can easily be adapted to other grade levels
Rationale: Throughout American history, protest songs with value messages have been used to form and change public opinion on social and political issues. This lesson deals with the evolution of a 19th century song and describes the importance of music as social commentary.
Introduction: In this lesson, students will work in small groups to examine a folk song and a protest song that share the same melody but have different lyrics. Students will write their own protest song lyrics to the tune of these two songs, based on a current event they have researched. They will then perform and record their songs.
Lesson Duration: Two 45 minute class periods or one 90 minute block
Objectives: In this lesson students will research a current event of social or political importance and write protest song lyrics related to that event.
Activity: Day 1
Step1: Explain to students that American music has always included protest songs, written in reaction to situations or events that some musicians disapproved of and wanted to change. These songs were written to influence public opinion, and in the 1960s a great many protest songs became very popular. Explain that in this lesson students will identify and research an issue they feel strongly about and want to protest, and then write song lyrics to accompany their research information.
Step 2: Explain to students that in this lesson they will examine a song that has two different sets of lyrics but the same melody and they will use this same melody for their protest songs. Explain that before copyright laws existed, song melodies were often recycled with new lyrics. This process, known as contrafactum, occurs when the lyrics of a song are re-written as a different song (or vice-versa).
Step 3: Distribute the Old Dan Tucker lyricsand read them aloud with students. Explain that this folk song was probably written around 1820, became very popular, and was first published anonymously in 1843. Since then, hundreds of different verses have been recorded and are still being sung and recorded today. Discuss the lyrics to Old Dan Tucker by asking the following: Does this song have a social or political message? If so, what is it?
Step 4: Play the following Old Dan Tucker video clip, reminding students that their protest song will use this same melody. After playing the clip, ask students if Old Dan Tucker sounds like a protest song. Why or why not?
Bruce Springsteen on guitar (5 minutes, 17 seconds)
Step 5: Distribute the lyrics to Get Off The Track! Explain that in the 1840s, a political movement called abolitionism called for an end to slavery. New words for the song Old Dan Tucker were written by Jesse Hutchinson, who wanted to abolish slavery. This new song became known as Get Off The Track!, a protest song. Display the cover to the Get Off The Track! sheet music.
Step 6: Have students view an illustrated, online performance of Get Off The Track! (2.53 minutes long) at:
Step 7: Discuss the lyrics to Get Off The Track! by asking the following questions:
Step 8: Have students get into groups of 2 or 3. Distribute the Writing Contemporary Protest Songs Graphic Organizer (one per group) and read it aloud with students. Remind students that the song Get Off The Track! took a stand on the social and political issue of abolitionism. Instruct students that the new lyrics they write for this song must also take a stand on a current social or political issue, and their lyrics should try to persuade listeners to agree with their opinion.
Step 9: Ask students to brainstorm current issues they might want to protest in their songs. What issues make them angry or dissatisfied? Write their responses down for all to see. Some examples might be war, civil rights, environmentalism, economic injustice, hunger and poverty, etc.
Step 11: Provide newspapers, news magazines, and/or the Internet as resources with which students can choose an event and fill out the graphic organizer.
Step 12: Have students get in their groups and fill out items 1-3 on their graphic organizers. When all are done, collect graphic organizers and song lyrics for tomorrow’s use.
Activity: Day 2
Step 1: Have students get back into their groups. Redistribute graphic organizers and song lyrics.
Step 2: Review lesson objectives.
Step 3: Have students work with their group members to write the lyrics to their protest songs. Suggest they make at least one draft before they record their lyrics on their graphic organizer.
Step 4: Have students perform and record their songs. If possible, share them with the class by syncing them into a projector.
Step 5: Discuss the following with students:
Step 6: Ask students to give examples of current protest songs that deal with important social or political issues.
Modification for special learning needs:
• Help students highlight pertinent parts of their current event.
• Require fewer lines of verse and chorus.
Gifted and Talented
• Have students research the origins of contrafactum and give other historical examples of it.
Closure: Ask students what would happen today if they tried to publish a song using their own lyrics but someone else’s music.
The Music and History of our Times - Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Digital History - a database of copyright free historical music for educational use
National Writing Project
Songs for Teaching
Social Justice Song Index
Popular Songs in American History
Songs for Justice
Hutchinson Family Singers
By Carol Schlenk