Real Historians Listen to Music!

Looking back to the middle of May, our class dove into the topic of music and its connections to history—specifically the Vietnam War and Marvin Gaye. We have since moved on from this topic, though I continually find myself considering the question, “can music be a historical source when researching?”

Marvin Gaye’s Iconic Album

During this whole quarter, there has been plenty of research. This research typically stemmed from an in-class lecture as I always want to find out further information on the topic. My initial response is always to google the topic and find either an article or a video that can explain the subject to me in an uncomplicated way. This is great and all but most of the time it is all just factual information and doesn’t provide first-hand experience or perspectives from a primary source. While a general understanding is helpful (knowing what, where, who), a sophisticated understanding requires more. “More” is discovering the overall feel of the time and knowing society’s response to the event during the time. This “more” is important to understanding history on a level past information fed to you.

The Vietnam War

Using our in-class example, the Vietnam War, we gained a new perspective on the war by listening to albums like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”. This album provided us with a unique lens that put our 2021 selves in the shoes of those who watched the Vietnam War go down in real-time. This lens through music is personal, honest, and historical; one that presents feelings no typed words can.

Billie Holiday, someone who comes to mind when looking at influential music

Our Marvin Gaye class inspired a train of thought I’ve carried with me since… Why is music made during the years of an event not more commonly used as a source to examine the emotions and society’s opinions of that time? I feel like everything, BUT music, is used when analyzing an event. Clothing, language, architecture, people, places, and the economics of the time are all things I’ve noticed are significantly picked at when looking back on history. I.e. “how what they wore during _______ represents _____,” “how their choice of language and expression shows historians this ______,” etc. I rarely see “how this album produced during ______ reflects societies feelings toward ______.” Music isn’t being used to its full potential! Music has so much to analyze; the lyrics, the tone, the culture surrounding it, the target audience, the popularity of the song, society’s response to the music, etc.

I researched this topic of music being used as a historical source and found an interesting article. Something that stood out to me is the following quote.

“The best historical work attends to the specificity of music even as it widens the field of analysis to include its social, political and ideological contexts.”

I agree with this, and I feel reading and watching videos feeds you info to understand what happened, while the music provides you with something less solid. It allows you to analyze it yourself, ultimately putting yourself in the artist’s shoes at the time. Music offers a deeper understanding of history. It is a valuable primary source that I think is not utilized enough.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon come to mind as well

I felt this was worthy of sharing here because it is a reminder to myself that from now on, I will use music the same way I do articles and videos. I feel my understanding will reach a new level, furthermore benefitting my education.

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