Embracing HistoryDuring my middle and high school years, history seemed like an endless list of events with a specific date I was expected to recall.  It was something that lacked connection to my life. It did not excite me.

In my work with older adults I have embraced history as a lived experience. Suddenly, understanding the emotions people experienced on December 7. 1941 (attack at Pearl Harbor) grew in importance. Relearning history through the stories and lives of those I served became important.

There was a group which had as its mission  “to not only learn from our senior “historians”, but to foster new friendships.”  What a great mission!

As a music therapist, I find songs can be a wonderful way to start those conversations with individuals and with groups.  While the educational resources of Smithsonian Folkways and  Voices Across History  are targeted at school age, the music is generally age appropriate for adults. The Library of Congress also shares songs and recording.

Here are a few ideas for embracing history with songs to use with older adults.

Embracing History from the Dust Bowl (1930’s)

There is information and photos on many sites including Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.  Woody Guthrie captured these storms in song. Check out this Smithsonian resource for conversation topics. Be sure to include the following familiar songs:

  • This Land Is Your Land – Consider each verse. Discuss issues around trespassing.
  • So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You – Discuss “the end of times” belief around the Dust Bowl.

Discuss how people dealt  with the dust: wet raps on window seals, masking your face when out, etc. As dust storms still happen, see who has experienced one.

Embracing Depression Era (late 1930’s through mid 1940’s) History

While not all older adults lived through the depression, they heard tales from older family members. Times of economic hardship continue to occur.

  • Hard Times Come Again No More: This Stephen Foster song comes from the late 1800’s yet the lyrics still relate to hard times across the years. Where does the song note hard times? Where have they seen hard times?
  • Happy Days are Here Again: What makes days happy? What troubles would you like to get rid of?
  • Brother, Can You Spare a Dime: How does it feel to not have a dime to your name?
  • Allentown (Billy Joel): While not a depression era song, it can be a lead into discussion especially with boomers. What happens when factors close? How does that impact a community? What happens when you lose your job?

Embracing History Around Women’s Rights

Discuss how things have progressed through the years.

  • Sister Suffragettes  (From “Mary Poppins”): This song can be used to discuss women gaining the right to vote. Who were the notable leaders around the world?
  • Rosie the Riveter: The images in this YouTube video can add to the conversation:
    During WWII, women were the factory workers. When the men returned home after the war, women were “expected” to return to the home. What were the pros and cons of this?
  • Respect (Otis Redding): This song was used in the 1960’s by both minority and women’s rights groups. Discuss issues from this article.
  • I Am Woman: This Helen Reddy song is strongly identified with the 1970’s Women’s Liberation movement. Possible topics include: ERA, Ms Magazine and Roe vs Wade.
  • Working 9 to 5: This Dolly Parton hit can be a lead into discussing the need to woman to work “office hours” and housework hours. This 2014 Washington Post article could provide facts to discuss.

Other Songs for Embracing History

Think of inventions and related songs.Examples: automobiles, televisions.

Consider popular music from various decades: 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, 1980’s.


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