A History Teacher’s Playlist

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I have currently been struggling to post anything on this blog. in part this is due to a perfect storm of having three exam classes and two major administrative responsibilities coming to a head at once. Overall, I have not been dealing with having to spend my time chasing passport details and sending off event plans with very good grace, but one of the upsides is that I find admin work goes much more smoothly with a decent playlist in the background.

Music while working can be a vexed subject, I’ve known colleagues who regard their earphones as a necessary accessory while marking, whereas I require monastic silence otherwise the temptation to focus on anything but what is in front of me becomes too much. On the other hand, I’ve found that Cerys Williams’ show on 6 Music adds a lot to my enjoyment of any Sunday morning lesson planning I need to do. Finally, for any jobs that don’t require much mental engagement, such as form-filling, making displays or the Sisyphean task of getting my files in order, music is an absolute necessity.

So seeing as I don’t have much else of note to contribute at the moment and as it is currently Record Store Day (sorry if this is news, as I reckon most places will be closed now). I have put below my semi-organised, by no means comprehensive but guaranteed to make filing go faster ‘History Teacher’s Playlist’.

Queens, Witches, Cavaliers and Heretics:

The Elizabethan Session – The Shores of Hispaniola, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabeth Spells Death
The Tallest Man on Earth – King of Spain
Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament – Henrietta Maria
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – Three Witches
Sproatly Smith – The Mermaid of Marden
The Unthanks – Magpie
The Clash – English Civil War

Opening here with one of the albums I love the most, the product of eight folk musicians being locked in a house for seven days and given the brief of writing songs about the Elizabethan period. It remains one of my greatest regrets that I missed the premiere of the album at Hatfield House, but the album is good enough in any context . I found picking individual tracks difficult but I’d start with the searing opening indictment of the Elizabethan slave trade and then the spare and melancholy ballad of Christopher Marlowe, finishing with the fabulously dramatic evocation of the conviction of Mary Queen of Scots in ‘Elizabeth Spells Death’. The next two tracks on the playlist have much less historical pedigree as they relate to no particular kings of Spain or heretics that I can identify, but the beautiful guitar playing on ‘King of Spain’ more than makes up for a lack of historical specificity. ‘The Violence’ is another album I’d recommend in its entirety to all Civil War fans, but Henrietta Maria is the standout track in my opinion, even making this confirmed Parliamentarian a bit sympathetic towards its titular character. ‘Three Witches’ manages the trick of being a really affecting evocation of the feelings of accused witches as well as an excellent intro to the underlying economic causes of witchcraft accusations, which is quite an achievement. As to the final tracks, though ‘The Mermaid of Marden’ is a bit of a curio, dealing with a Herefordshire folk-tale about a bell made in honour of St Ethelbert and allegedly stolen by a mermaid, I like it too much not to include it here. As for bringing in The Clash’s ‘English Civil War’ to round this section off? I have absolutely no excuse beyond wanting to up the tempo a bit.

Sailors, Factory Workers and Scientists

Arbouretum – The Highwayman
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – Song for Caroline Herschel
Johnny Flynn – Barnacled Warship
The Transports – Us Poor Fellows, The Ballad of Norwich Gaol, I Once Lived in Service
Bellowhead – Rigs of the Time, Roll Alabama, New York Girls
Seth Lakeman – Race to be King, Solomon Browne
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – The Nailmaker’s Strike pt 2
The Unthanks – Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk
Lady Maisery – The Factory Girl, Palaces of Gold

I’ve grouped these songs together as they reflect more of an 18th-19th century world, though the opening track travels through time from highway robbery through to space travel in a way that only prog-folk can manage. Some of the standout tracks in this section come from an album called ‘The Transports’ which, with narrative interludes, effectively communicates the overview of early 19th century economic crisis and transportation to Australia through the depth of the story of a single family in a way that I can only envy. Bellowhead and Seth Lakeman are really good at describing the Atlantic world of the 19th century with songs about dissolute sailors, whalers and Liverpool merchants funding the Confederacy while also making you want to dance. As for the final three tracks, they brilliantly evoke the losers of the industrial revolution through songs about strike action, domestic violence and the widening gap between rich and poor (the purity of the singers’ voices on these tracks mean that they’re also really nice to listen to, for all their grim subject matter).

Protests, Revolution, War and Migration

The Young’Uns – Cable Street, Bob Cooney’s Miracle
The Destroyers – Rasputin’s Revenge
Gogol Bordello – 60 Revolutions per Minute
Seth Lakeman – Tiger
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – The Painter
The Young’Uns – These Hands, The Hartlepool Pedlar

The BBC Folk Awards and I were in complete sympathy in regarding ‘Strangers’ by the ‘Young’Uns’ as the best album of the year, the first two tracks I’ve taken from it are based on the individual stories of people who fought respectively at the Battle of Cable Street and in the Spanish Civil War. If I’m honest, the second two tracks have very little do with the Russian Revolution beyond a throwaway reference to overthrowing Tsars, but I can’t listen to them without drumming my fingers on the desk at the very least so they’re going in. Again, individual stories come to the fore in Seth Lakeman’s song about Exercise Tiger and the rehearsals for the D-Day landings (and there’s even an interview with the man who inspired the song on the album from which it comes) and Hannah Martin’s song inspired by her German grandfather’s experiences during WWII. This is carried on with two more tracks from the Young’Uns, the first of which is extremely topical considering recent headlines about the treatment of the Windrush Generation, while the latter manages to talk about Michael Marks in particular and migration in general all in one perfectly crafted song.

I said at the start of this post that I didn’t have much that was interesting to say, but through the process of writing this I have found that there is something more than a pleasant listen that can be taken from this. There is something in well-written songs, particularly those from the folk tradition, that manages that sharp focus on the narratives of individuals while also evoking the world in which they lived that we sometimes struggle with. So maybe next time I’m sitting down to plan with some music in the background, I might take some cues and see if I can’t craft a lesson that works like a song.

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