LESSON

Understanding Past and Present Labor Injustice through Music

Period songs give students an understanding of early 19th century labor conditions
Grade Level

When studying the impacts of 19th century industrialization, I play several period songs from the American labor movement in which workers lament conditions of the textile mills. The students listen carefully to "Hard Times in the Mill," "Ten and Nine" and "Weave Room Blues" and then record the complaints evidenced in the lyrics. My students have been working with diaries and political documents all year, allowing them now to focus on the ways music reflects the economic shift during this era of industrialization. We go on to read broader secondary sources and discuss how the factory model impacted working conditions and changed the economic, political and social fabric of the United States in the mid- to late-19th century.

Next I sing a "worker's lament" that I composed: "The Old High School Just Ain't What it Used to Be" (lyrics below). It is sung to the tune of "The Old Gray Mare" and details my grievances as a high school teacher. The students love to hear their teacher caterwaul in front of the class, and they recognize the legitimacy of some of my gripes. But you might prefer to create your own song based on a familiar tune.

I then assign students the task of writing a song that protests unfair or dangerous working conditions. They may write about their own jobs or they can write about working conditions of the 19th century. At least four working conditions must be described in detail; for each complaint in the lyrics, a desired solution must be expressed; and rhythm and rhyme must be used effectively. Students can work in groups of three and must read their songs to the entire class, and they get extra credit if they sing the lyrics.

Almost all students write about their own jobs and most choose to sing rather than read their songs in front of the class. This lesson leads to a good discussion about the exploitation of young workers as well as any laws that protect them. It also helps the students understand the harsh conditions of past centuries and leads into our next theme — why and how labor unions were formed.

Judy Dodge Cummings
Mauston High School
Mauston, Wis.

 

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Lyrics for "The Old High School Just Ain't What It Used to Be"

(to the tune of "The Old Gray Mare")
By Judy Dodge Cummings

The old high school just ain't what it used to be,
Ain't what it used to be,
Ain't what it used to be.
The old high school just ain't what it used to be
Many long years ago.

Refrain
Many long years ago
Many long years ago.
The old high school just ain't what it used to be many long years ago.

Now teachers come to school wearing a bullet-proof vest
So they don't get shot in the chest.
It makes an awful mess.
Now teachers come to school wearing a bullet-proof vest, unlike
Many long years ago.

Refrain…

We have to teach a lot more subjects than we used to do,
Like how to make your bed,
And don't forget Sex Ed.
I'd rather just teach American history instead, like
Many long years ago.

Refrain…

But instead of making more money, our paychecks are capped.
Can you imagine that?
We're in a financial trap.
Inflation goes up, but our salaries go spat, unlike
Many long years ago.

Refrain…

What I'd like is for all teachers to get a raise today
Make money in overtime pay.
A vacation for the month of May.
What I'd really like for teachers is to get some respect today, like
Many long years ago.