A Soundtrack for The American Century
Using popular music in courses on WWII and the Cold War
While the subject matter is often depressing and challenging, there is one advantage to teaching courses about the 20th century: there’s a remarkable array of primary sources available. Not just the poems, physical objects, and propaganda films I use in my 200-level course on World War II, or the declassified documents, speeches, and TV news coverage I use in my 300-level course on the Cold War…
In both courses, I regularly try to integrate music.
Mostly, I’m just trying to change things up. Playing or performing music adds different kinds of voices and sounds to a mix that otherwise can start to sound too much like me. But I have more focused goals as well.
Sometimes, I’ll use a period song simply to usher us into class — a small way that I can move toward one of my overriding goals in all history courses: helping students start to forget when and where they are and imaginatively visit the past. Sometimes, a song fits well into class discussion, since it helps introduce some political, social, cultural, or religious aspect of whatever we’re covering that day.
Often, I’m trying to help 21st century American students recognize something they take for granted: the global prevalence of this nation’s culture in the wake of what Time and Life publisher Henry Luce called “The American Century.” Writing in the latter magazine in February 1941, Luce not only made the case for U.S. intervention in World War II, but argued that it was not too late for the 1900s to become “America’s first century as a dominant power in the world.” That would not only happen through economic or military might, or the spread of American values, Luce argued, but sending “out through the world [America’s] technical and artistic skills.” Not just soldiers, diplomats, and engineers, but “makers of entertainment” would “create the world of the 20th century.”1
But because I am teaching WWII and the Cold War as events in international history, I also try to include European, Asian, and other musical sources — only some of which took musical cues from the American vernacular.
I’ve curated course soundtracks for both World War II and The Cold War at Spotify. Feel free to listen if you’d like a new musical backdrop for your day. Or continue on to the other side of the paywall to read more about why I picked the songs I did.
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