music in the mix

Before there were ipods or CDs, before we played albums and 45s, even before the top 10 blared from pocket-sized transistor radios, people carried their music around with them. Picture a nineteenth century scholar, steeped in the curricula of Greek and Latin, sneaking peeks at a pocketbook of rhythmic poems by Byron behind his professor’s back. Think about that the next time you chastise a student for wearing those omnipresent earplugs to class!

Even before our carry-around music manifested itself in the beats and rhymes of printed poetry in a waistcoat pocket, we had oral narratives in poetic delivery to preserve memory of words, certainly, but also to mimic music where there were no instruments or players around. In every culture, we have always had music, we have always had poetry.

Three timeless themes of poetry as well as music are love, loss, and alienation, themes which are particularly favored by teens. Two Anglo-Saxon poems which exemplify these favored themes are “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament.”

Brain-based educational theory teaches us that new learning takes place when we connect to what the learner already knows, and our students definitely know music. Two somewhat recent songs which carry the themes of the poems mentioned above are Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and “Evanescence’s “My Immortal.” (These have worked successfully, but I’m on the lookout for more up-to-date songs.) Consider the lyrics of “Boulevard” and compare it to verses from “The Wanderer.”

[Boulevard of Broken Dreams ]
I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone

I walk this empty street
On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Where the city sleeps
and I’m the only one and I walk alone

I walk alone
I walk alone

My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
‘Til then I walk alone

[The Wanderer]
“Oft when the day broke, oft at the dawning,
Lonely and wretched I wailed my woe.
No man is living, no comrade left.
To whom I dare fully unlock my heart.
I have learned truly the mark of a man
Is keeping his counsel and locking his lips,
Let him think what he will!! . . . a failing spirit
Earneth no help. Men eager for honor
Bury their sorrow deep in the breast.

And, now, these two:

[My Immortal ]
You used to captivate me
By your resonating light
Now I’m bound by the life you left behind
Your face it haunts
My once pleasant dreams
Your voice it chased away
All the sanity in me

These wounds won’t seem to heal
This pain is just too real
There’s just too much that time cannot erase

I’ve tried so hard to tell myself that you’re gone
But though you’re still with me
I’ve been alone all along

[The Wife’s Lament]
The valleys are dark the hills high
the yard overgrown bitter with briars
a joyless dwelling. Full oft the lack of my lord
seizes me cruelly here. Friends there are on earth
living beloved lying in bed
while I at dawn am walking alone
under the oak tree through these earth halls.
There I may sit the summerlong day
there I can weep over my exile
my many hardships. Hence I may not rest
from this care of heart which belongs to me ever

I present the modern songs and discuss the themes of the lyrics, then seat the girls on one side of the class, guys on the other, and have them read the two Anglo-Saxon poems to each other. When we discuss the poems the themes are already very apparent.

You can provide the lyrics to the modern songs, but playing the music is ever more effective, emphasizing the emotional impact of poetry. It will cost you to download from iTunes, but the videos for most songs are available free from YouTube.

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