Why use parodies to teach history?

By Anne Landis, Upper School Humanities

I come from a musical family. My mother, a Juilliard-trained singer, and my father, blessed with a musical aptitude but no musical training, made certain that my sister and I had many opportunities to enjoy music. We sang in church choirs and a cappella groups in high school and college. My later singing career was limited to a few casual Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and singing to my children.

When I was at Chatham College in Pennsylvania, there was an event called “Song Contest.”  It was great fun for a women’s college—each class competed in three categories: a serious song, a lighter song, and an original song. I wrote an original song—a parody to mock the antiquated rules of the college to the tune of “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. As freshmen we came in second, and when I returned for my 25th reunion the choir sang it for the alumnae.

My parents wrote me a great parody for my 50th birthday, and my relatives, sister, and I wrote one for my mother’s 80th birthday. But, my recent career in writing parodies was rekindled when I joined a group called The Raging Grannies, an international group of women “of a certain age” who use parodies (for people to sing along) to protest war and injustice at demonstrations. We wrote songs about the Iraq War, health care, climate change, poverty, and my favorite was about the 2008 election (naming many Rhode Island towns in the process) to the tune of “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys. In 2012, I updated the song for one of my classes to emphasize the importance of voting and accompanied myself on poorly played ukulele.

The class asked for more songs, so I complied by composing songs for my 20th century class: Mussolini is presented to the tune of “I’m A Believer”: I’ve just met a man they call Il Duce… Stalin becomes the Man of Steel to the tune of “I’m Henry VIII, I am”… and the causes of World War II are listed to the tune of “Route 66.”  Last, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping are serenaded to the tune of Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

Next year, 9th grade history with more up to date songs…but definitely NOT anything from Frozen.

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