Culture, music, life.
Just an average pop musicologist, reveling in her nerdiness.
Learning through Music with Tiffany (or, how to be a bigger nerd 101)
Today we’re going to learn something…through song! No, really: this is a mixtape full of songs that teach you something. It’s history for the most part, though there is some science and linguistics thrown in. It’s arranged chronologically subject-wise for the most part, with the oddballs shoved in at the end.
1. The Elements - Tom Lehrer (1959). This is one of the granddaddies of knowledge songs. Learn this by heart and I guarantee you will find it useful someday [Trivial Pursuit, Jeopardy, extra credit in science class, pub trivia…].
2. Galaxy Song - Monty Python (from The Meaning of Life, 1983). This is also a good one to have memorized. The figures aren’t exact - let’s give them some artistic license considering that they make it rhyme; you can find exact corrections here - but they’re ballpark enough for everyday use.
3. James K Polk - They Might Be Giants (1996). I could have made a mixtape composed entirely of educational TMBG songs, but this one happens to be my favorite (there’s a saw solo!). Polk is one of my favorite presidents, because he did exactly what he said he would do: no more, no less. When was the last time that happened in politics?
4. John Wesley Harding - Bob Dylan (1968) (this is a cover, not the original, because there were weirdly no YouTube clips. Download the original here). It’s time to start our run of outlaws. American outlaws are a favorite subject for topical songs: they’re far enough in the past that you can sing about them without slander, but recent enough and local enough to be relatable. John Wesley Hardin (Dylan changed the spelling) was a favorite topic for all kinds of media, as was his nemesis Wild Bill Hickok.
5. Frank and Jesse James - Warren Zevon (1976). Oh hey look, it’s a song about my favorite outlaws sung by my favorite artist.
It’s my mixtape so I do what I want. The James brothers are fascinating - if you like good, historically accurate movies with fantastic soundtracks and beautiful cinematography, watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
6. A Complete History of the Soviet Union, Told Through the Eyes of a Humble Worker - Pig With the Face of a Boy (2009). Does what it says on the tin. (And will be stuck in your head, guaranteed.)
7. The Story of Bo Diddley - The Animals (1964). This is technically the story of Ellas McDaniel, aka Bo Diddley, one of the most influential sources in the creation of rock and roll…but it’s also a lot of straight music history.
8. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll - Bob Dylan (1964). I don’t like repeating artists, but Dylan is too important in topical songs not to include. This is a favorite Dylan song of mine - it’s so sad on both a personal level (the actual death of poor Hattie Carroll) as well as a human level (rich white privilege, and the political atmosphere of the 1960s).
9. We Didn’t Start the Fire - Billy Joel (1989). Oh, like you didn’t see this one coming.
10. Fuck tha Police - NWA (1988). Yes, I’m serious. This is wonderfully representative of the conflicts between teenagers and the police in the late 1980s and early 90s in urban setting - addressing in particular race and class issues. It was weirdly prophetic, as I consider it pretty much a musical representation of the 1992 LA riots four years later.
11. Without Reason or Rhyme (The Killing of Harry Stanley) - Chumbawamba (2002). Another song about conflict between civilians and police, this one about the 1999 death of Harry Stanley by UK police. Unlike the others in the list, this one has little about the incident in the lyrics. And for those of you who only know Chumbawamba from “Tubthumping”, you should correct that. They write awesome political and protest songs and are far more fascinating than they’re given credit for.
12. Schadenfreude - Avenue Q soundtrack (2003). You too can feel linguistically superior to your peers when you use “schadenfreude” in casual speech. There were a bunch of songs from musicals I thought of putting in (“And the Money Kept Rolling In” from Evita, “Heaven on Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar, “America” from West Side Story, things from Les Mis or Miss Saigon or what have you) but the artistic license was always too broad for my preferences.
13. A Whale Vacation - Lois Skiera-Zucek (1990). I grew up with this album, What’s in the Sea?, and it taught me things about ocean life that I’ve remembered for twenty years. This song is about various types of whales, and even features some of their songs.
14. Nations of the World - Animaniacs (1993). My entire final for my 10th grade World History class was to take a blank map and fill in the name of every single country. It was when studying for that test that I discovered this song misses around 30 countries, not including the ones that have split up or changed or what have you (and I’m not touching the Palestine issue). That being said, I memorized this to help check my work. Fun fact: this was from the second ever episode of Animaniacs. Way to be awesome right from the beginning, guys.
You can read the whole thing through the link.