Music From The Depression Era: Featuring the music of Woody Guthrie and Aaron Copland


Credits: Dorothea Lange; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Time for something a little different.  

This Land Is Your Land and God Bless America are pretty typical songs in most music classrooms.  Fanfare for The Common Man is likely to make an appearance, too.  But this unit puts them (and a few more songs) into the context of the 1930’s, Great Depression, and Dust Bowl.

Admittedly, this is probably the result of my latent dream of also teaching history – but it’s a great way to do an interdisciplinary unit with your Social Studies teachers AND hits that hard-to-incorporate standard of creating ties to other arts.

I do this unit with 8th grade.  Because of some of the higher-level thinking involved, I probably wouldn’t do it with a much lower grade level, but it would certainly work with a higher one.  You could however, use the outline of music and create your own supplementary materials for lower grades.

Just like my Blues Unit, this set of lessons has a rich historical background with many opportunities for creating the music the students hear.

The unit outline and accompanying materials are at the end of this post for download.  Be sure to share your experiences!

Music & Art of the Depression Era Unit

Student Objectives:

  1. I can perform different genres of music with expression and technical accuracy. 8.1PR
  2. I can conduct a two beat pattern. 8.4 PR
  3. I can write, read, and perform specific rhythms. 8.5 PR
  4. I can compare and contrast and describe how the elements create meaning and expression. 8.2 RE, 8.3 RE
  5. I can describe the similarities in elements across different art forms. 8.6 RE

Ohio Music Standards

Day 1

Depression Era Background

  • Journal – What type of music do you listen to when you’re depressed? When times are bad? Does it match your mood? Does it uplift you?
  • Now listen to Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi – Complete question C while listening, then question D
    • Perform this using ukuleles  – DO RE MI Chords (Start today, continue on a uke playing day. I try to build in 15 minutes or so from day to day to give practice time as a class and individually. This also gets the students making music and away from paper/pencil.)

Day 2

History of the Dustbowl – “Surviving The Dust Bowl” (Optional to supplement social studies background)

Day 3


Day 4


  • Journal: God Bless America, Kate Smith
    • Journal question: Does this song and performance seem to express the same despair of the Dust Bowl? Why or why not?
      • (The Dust Bowl video from day 2 explains that God Bless America was especially popular among those on the east coast who were not directly effected by the Dust Bowl.   While they were sympathetic, they did not feel the despair and hopelessness felt by those in the middle of the country.)
    • Compare/Contrast God Bless America and This Land Is Your Land (Worksheet)
      • Be sure to address issues of:
        • Audience
        • Style of music
        • Performance setting
        • Topic
        • Message
      • Play on Ukes (or tonechimes, other) – notes

Day 5


  • Aaron Copland
    • Journal: Play Fanfare for the common man, Aaron Copland
      • What do you think this music would be used for?
    • Fanfare examples for discussion questions
        • Discussion questions/Questions to answer while listening
          • Who/what are fanfares usually written for?
          • What characteristics do they usually have? (Brass/trumpets, loud, attention-getting, announce the arrival/start of someone/thing important)
        • The Common Man (Powerpoint)
          • What characteristics of a fanfare does this music have?
          • What’s a “common man”?
            • Would he be someone who traditionally has a fanfare?
            • Who was a common man in the 1930’s? View pictures of workers and buildings they built
          • Why would Aaron Copland write a fanfare for a common man?
        • Notate Intro for cymbal and drums
          • Fanfare for the Common Man Intro Dictation worksheet provided represents one measure per box.
          • Below is the rhythm I have students dictate. It’s not the exact rhythm of the intro, but it works well for students to notate and play. Feel free to do the exact notation with your students.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 2.20.59 PM

  • After notating, have students take turns performing (if not gong and bass drum, a suspended cymbal and lowest sounding drum)
  • Conduct – 2 beat pattern with cues (Practice first as class, then take turns leading student performers)

Day 6

Review (Based on Assessment)

Uke Practice on Do Re Mi

Day 7

Depression Era Assessment

Unit Materials for Download

Depression Era Unit Outline

Depression Era Introduction

Video Questions

DO RE MI Chords



Dust Bowl Blues/This Land Compare

The Common Man

Fanfare for the Common Man Intro Dictation

Depression Era Assessment

One response »

  1. Pingback: Not Just Another Ensemble – IMEA 2015 Presentation | Room 143

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