As a passionate history major (and nerd), when I study history, I seek to gain a sense of the historical experience: what kinds of lives, times, and places were experienced by people living in the past? The past is long gone, Paul Cohen argues in his History in Three Keys that it can never be completely or even theoretically reconstructed. Therefore, we can only approach a certain degree of understanding of how people experienced history in their own lives.
In taking history classes at William & Mary, I’ve come to learn that history, at its core, is about humans and people. It seems obvious, but I find that we more often than not do not think of historical actors as people. They are often thought of as characters in a novel, or as statistics, or even just as part of the backgrounds of “great men.” Sure, people endlessly discuss the exploits of larger-than-life figures ranging from Washington to Churchill, but what about the common Americans or Britons of their times, living their own lives and experiencing history on their own terms? History must focus on the small-scale as well as the large-scale.
My solution: Spotify playlists! What better way to connect to and immerse into history than through music? Music has been a crucial aspect of human culture for as long as we can remember and continues to be an essential part of our lives today. Take for example, the oldest piece of music we have been able to recreate: the Hurrian Hymn, a religious melody written in the Middle East over 3,500 years ago circa 1400 BC. Coincidentally, it can be found on Spotify, along with tons of other songs that can be connected to the past.
I was introduced to the concept in my Modern US South class this semester, in which my professor assembled a unique playlist, chock-full of songs chosen to represent the American South at different points in its history. The Civil Rights Era song “We Shall Overcome” accompanies “Love Shack” by the B-52s, alongside many other songs that highlight various times and aspects of the US South. My professor puts on a song or two before class, setting a sense of atmosphere for the lesson’s theme. I thought this was a fantastic idea. I began assembling my own playlists, listening to them before class and while doing homework. It’s a good way for me to expand on the music I already listen to and build up on my passion for history.
I currently have three Spotify playlists assembled for my listening pleasure, one for Modern Chinese History, another for the History of the Modern US South, and the last on the American Civil War (this one was commissioned for a friend!). Nothing quite gets me in the mindset for learning about the Chinese Civil War than “Without the Communist Party, There is No New China” or about Southern religion than hymns sung in separate white and black churches. Listening to music allows me to connect to my studies on a deeper level and develop my historical passion. I strongly recommend that a spicy Spotify playlist be made for any History class you may have the pleasure of taking. So, if I happen to pass you by without noticing you with my earphones in, I sincerely do not mean anything bad by it.
The world around me might just be being tuned out by the chants of a Southern Baptist spiritual.