Popular Songs, Then and Now

Popular Songs, Then and Now
Elizabeth Monroe: Sports and Popular Culture

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: Two to three class periods


Popular music has always been a source of interest and fun, and the 18th century was no exception. Indeed, some of the songs from the 17th and 18th centuries are still sung today, sometimes by folk singers, but often by the population at large. Songs in this lesson would have been popular as Elizabeth Monroe was growing up and, no doubt, teaching them to her children.


Students who participate in this lesson will hear (and sing) some 17th and 18th century popular songs, and, thinking about the lyrics, determine what the songs have to say about life in that period.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; printed music, if available; piano or guitar.


1. Introduce this lesson by asking students to talk about their favorite popular songs…Where do they come from? Who sings them? Where are they heard? If possible, have students bring in CDs that have their favorite songs on them, and play them for the class. What do the lyrics have to say about the times we live in? 2. Note that people in past times also had popular songs that they knew, sang, and loved. Tell the students that they are going to listen to (and, hopefully, learn to sing) some of the same songs that were sung by Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and other people who lived in the 1700s. 3. Prepare in advance a “book” of the lyrics for the songs listed below. Beginning with the song, Barbara Allen, either play the songs below by clicking on them, or—if print music is available—play them for students on the piano or guitar, encouraging them to sing along. Ask students to raise their hands if the tunes are familiar to them, and ask them to talk about how and why they are familiar. 4. After singing all the songs, divide students into seven groups, and assign each group two songs to research on the Internet by typing in the name of the song. Have each group take notes on the history of the song, and any commentary about it that they find. 5. Provide an opportunity for each group to share its findings. 6. Conclude the lesson with a discussion about the similarities and differences between 18th century popular songs and the popular songs of today.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by asking the school music teacher to help with the lesson, and/or by having students write a short paper about their favorite of these songs. Students can also take a contemporary popular song and write new words to it that describe some event or idea that is important to them, or that reflects current events.

Sources & Resources:


   Barbara Allen 
   The Bold Soldier
   Lavender's Blue
   Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me?
   Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes
   The Foggy, Foggy Dew
   The Lass of Richmond Hill
   Oh, No, John, No!
   Battle of the Kegs
   Free America
   The Liberty Song
   The Rich Lady Over the Sea
   Yankee Doodle

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.