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Teaching Literature With Music

Rachel Cordasco

Staff Writer

Rachel Cordasco has a Ph.D in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. When she's not at her day job or chasing three kids, she's writing reviews and translating Italian speculative fiction. She runs the website, and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was given the opportunity to lecture on American Literature. It was a daunting challenge: I was expected to stand on a stage, face hundreds of students, and talk about literature in a way that was both entertaining and informative. But as I had seen during my time as a TA, many college students didn’t get my brand of humor. My jokes would fall flat, my literary puns would dissolve into nothingness, and my guffaws over hilarious scenes would send my students scurrying under their desks.

So I thought about how to make my lecture fun for all of us without scaring everyone away and then it hit me: MUSIC! Almost everyone loves music. Why not pair the texts I’m assigning with appropriate musical selections?* I’d play the music as the students filed into the lecture hall, and then again when they left. It would serve as a kind of soundtrack to the class, and perhaps introduce students to music that they never knew they liked.

Here, then, are my text-and-music pairings. Go out and find these albums, especially the more obscure ones, cause they’re pretty fun. I mean, those songs from the 1890s? They just kill me.

America (1956) by Allen Ginsberg


“Star Spangled Banner” from Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix (MCA, 1997)



Excerpts from the letters of Christopher Columbus and Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, & Anne Bradstreet’s poetry


Symphony #9: ‘From the New World’ by Antonín Dvořák



The Autobiography (1771-90) by Benjamin Franklin


America Sings: Volume I, the Founding Years (1620-1800)


Poems (1773) by Phillis Wheatley, stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne


Music of the American Revolution: the Birth of Liberty



“The American Scholar” (1837) by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Hail to the Chief! American Political Marches, Songs, & Dirges of the 1800s (Sony Classical, 1996)


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)


Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads (Rounder Records, 1998)


“Bartelby the Scrivener” (1853) by Herman Melville


Angels’ Visits and Other Vocal Gems of Victorian America (New World Records, 1993) angelsvisits

Selections from Leaves of Grass (1855) by Walt Whitman


Songs of the Civil War (New World Records, 1997)


“The Blue Hotel” (1898) by Stephen Crane, “In the Land of the Free” (1912) by Sui Sin Far 


The 1890s (Vol. 1 & 2)



The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) by Abraham Cahan


Out of the Ghetto: Songs of the Jews in America (Vanguard Classics, 1997)


Various short pieces (from the Norton Anthology of American Literature 7th ed.) by Sherman Alexie


In the Sky I am Walking : Songs of the Native Americans (Mode, 1998)


Bone (1993) by Fae Myenne Ng

Popular Chinese Folk Melodies for Violin and Pipa (Hong Kong Records Co.,1989)

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* For certain texts, I used clips from documentaries and films, or audiobook readings of poetry, instead of music. You can find my full course calendar here: