The Cold War through Music

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I love using popular music to explore history.  I have found quite a few gems in my grandparents’ record collections and in a trip to the Smithsonian Archives.  Here are three songs I have used during a unit on the Cold War.  I used them each on a separate day to show the changes in attitudes about the war.  I am including the lyrics, but you would probably want to get a recording (iTunes and Amazon are great for that) to play for your class as well.

The songs I use:

“Atom and Evil”  by the Golden Gate Quartet

“Talking Atom Blues” by Pete Seeger

“99 Luftballons” by Nena (I use the German version and have translated the lyrics to English because they’re deeper than the English lyrics)

Positives: It feels like a break, although the students are still doing work.  It’s also fun to look at popular culture and ordinary people’s lives instead of just “important” people in history.

Negatives: The musical styles can be off-putting to some students.

The lyrics and question worksheets can be found below.

Name:

World History

Ms. Nielsen

Cold War Music – 1940s – 1950s (10 points)

Music has always been a way for people to express themselves, and the Cold War was no exception.  We will look at several notable examples of popular songs with Cold War themes and analyze them as a class.  Listen to the song first, then fill out the worksheet with your partner.

“Atom and Evil” – Golden Gate Quarter (1947)

This is the story of Atom and Evil
Their courtship is causin’ a great upheaval
Now Atom was a sweet young innocent thing
Until the night that Miss Evil took him under her wing

Now Atom was an honest, hard workin’ man
He wanted to help out the human clan
But Evil got him drunk on prejudice and hate
And she taught him how to gamble with Humanity’s fate
(So true!)

I’m talkin’ ‘bout Atom, and Evil
Atom and Evil
If you don’t break up that romance soon
We’ll all fall down and go boom, boom, boom!

Now if Evil gets Atom, ‘twill be such a shame
Because a-plenty of big shots are playin’ that dame
Now his sleep will be troubled, and his life will be cursed
Lord, if Atom plays with evil, Jack, he won’t be the first!
(So true!)

I’m talkin’ ‘bout Atom, and Evil
Atom and Evil
If you don’t break up that romance soon
We’ll all fall down and go boom, boom, (boom), boom!

Now Atom is a youngster and pretty hard to handle
But we better step in and stop that scandal
Because if Atom and Evil should ever be wed
Lord, then darn near all of us are goin’ to be dead!
(So True)

I’m talkin’ ‘bout Atom, and Evil
Atom and Evil
If you don’t break up that romance soon
We’ll all fall down and go boom, boom, (boom), boom!

Atom and Evil
Atom and Evil
If you don’t break up that romance soon
We’ll all fall down and go boom, boom, (boom), boom!
We’re sitting on the edge of doom (doom) (doom) (doom) doom!

Questions:

1. What is the mood/tone of this song?  (Don’t just write 1 word—think of as many words as you can)

2. Who is “atom”?

3. How is this song related to the Cold War?  What clues did you find in the song to help you figure it out?  (write lyrics/examples from the song)

4. In this song, what is their attitude toward nuclear weapons?

Song 2:

“Talking Atom Blues” – Pete Seeger (1950)

I’m gonna preach you all a sermon ‘bout Old Man Atom

Now I don’t mean the Adam in the Bible datum

I don’t mean the Adam that Mother Eve mated

I mean the thing that science liberated

Now Einstein said he was scared.

Now if he’s scared, boy, I’m scared.

Now, life used to be such a simple joy

My cyclotron was just a super toy

And folks got born, they’d work and marry

And ‘Atom’ was a word in the dictionary

And then it happened.

The science guys from every clime

They all pitched in with overtime

And before they knew it, the thing was done

And they’d hitched up the power of the dog-gone sun

And put a harness on Old Sol

Splittin’ atoms right and left, while the diplomats was splittin’ hairs

‘course the cartel crowd will put on a show

They’re gonna turn back the clock on the UNO

Grab a corner on atoms and maybe extinguish

Every darned atom that can’t speak English

Down with foreign-born atoms!

America for American atoms!

Step right up folks: let’s atomize world peace

But the Atom’s international in spite of hysteria

Flourishes in Utah, also Siberia

I don’t give a hoot about any politics

Or who got what into whatever fix

All I wanna to do is sit around

And have my nucleus bombarded by neutrons

Yes, it’s up to the people, ’cause atoms don’t care

You can’t fence me in, I’m just like air

And whether you’re black, white, red or brown

The question is this when you boil it down

To be or not to be, that’s the question

The answer to it all ain’t military datum

Like who gets there firstest with the mostest atoms

No, the people of the World must decide their fate

They gotta get together or disintegrate

I hold this truth to be self-evident

That all men may be cremated equal

Questions:

1. What is the mood/tone of this song?  (Don’t just write 1 word—think of as many words as you can)

2. In this song, what changed life forever?

3.  What is this singer’s attitude toward nuclear warfare?  What clues did you find in the song to help you figure it out?  (write lyrics/examples from the song)

4. What s this singer’s attitude toward the Cold War?  What clues did you find in the song to help you figure it out?  (write lyrics/examples from the song)

Song 3:

Name:

World History

Cold War Music – 1980s (10 points)

Music has always been a way for people to express themselves, and the Cold War was no exception.  We will look at several notable examples of popular songs with Cold War themes and analyze them as a class.  Listen to the song first, then fill out the worksheet with your partner.

“99 Luftballons” – Nena (1983)  (English version: “99 Red Balloons”)

Original German

Line-by-line English translation

Hast Du etwas Zeit für mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied fuer Dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Denkst Du vielleicht grad’ an mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied fuer Dich
Von 99 Luftballons
Und dass sowas von sowas kommt

99 Luftballons
Auf ihrem Weg zum Horizont
Hielt man fuer UFOs aus dem All
Darum schickte ein General
Eine Fliegerstaffel hinterher
Alarm zu geben, wenn es so war
Dabei war da am Horizont
Nur 99 Luftballons

99 Duesenjaeger
Jeder war ein grosser Krieger
Hielten sich fuer Captain Kirk
Das gab ein grosses Feuerwerk
Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft
Und fuehlten sich gleich angemacht
Dabei schoss man am Horizont
Auf 99 Luftballons

99 Kriegsminister
Streichholz und Benzinkanister
Hielten sich fuer schlaue Leute
Witterten schon fette Beute
Riefen: Krieg und wollten Macht
Mann, wer haette das gedacht
Dass es einmal soweit kommt
Wegen 99 Luftballons

99 Jahre Krieg
Liessen keinen Platz fuer Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt es nicht mehr
Und auch keine Duesenflieger
Heute zieh ich meine Runden
Seh die Welt in Truemmern liegen
Hab’ nen Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen

Do you have any time for me?

Then I’ll sing a song for you

About 99 Balloons

On their way to the horizon.

Just think about me

Then I’ll sing a song for you

About 99 Balloons

And that such a thing can come from this

99 Balloons

On their way to the horizon

They thought they were UFOs

That’s why a General sent

A flying squadron out

To sound the alarm if it is so

But on the horizon it was

Just 99 balloons

99 jet fighters

Each one a warrior

Thought he was a Captain Kirk

There were big pyrotechnics

The neighbors didn’t get it

And so they did the same thing

That’s what happened on the horizon

Because of 99 balloons

99 Defense Ministers

A match and a can of gas

They thought they were clever people

Already smelled the spoils of war

They cried: War! They wanted power.

Man, who would have thought

That all this would happen

Because of 99 balloons

99 years of war

There was no room for a winner

There aren’t Defense Ministers anymore

Also no more jet fighters

Today I make my rounds

See the world lying in ruins

I found a balloon

I think of you, and let it go

Questions:

1. What is the mood/tone of this song?  (Don’t just write 1 word—think of as many words as you can)

2. What did the government think the balloons were?  How did they react?

3. What s this singer’s attitude toward the Cold War?  What clues did you find in the song to help you figure it out?  (write lyrics/examples from the song)

4. Do you think this song’s message was popular?  Why or why not?

I’m gonna preach you all a sermon ‘bout Old Man Atom

Now I don’t mean the Adam in the Bible datum

I don’t mean the Adam that Mother Eve mated

I mean the thing that science liberated

Now Einstein said he was scared.

Now if he’s scared, boy, I’m scared.

Now, life used to be such a simple joy

My cyclotron was just a super toy

And folks got born, they’d work and marry

And ‘Atom’ was a word in the dictionary

And then it happened.

The science guys from every clime

They all pitched in with overtime

And before they knew it, the thing was done

And they’d hitched up the power of the dog-gone sun

And put a harness on Old Sol

Splittin’ atoms right and left, while the diplomats was splittin’ hairs

‘course the cartel crowd will put on a show

They’re gonna turn back the clock on the UNO

Grab a corner on atoms and maybe extinguish

Every darned atom that can’t speak English

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2 Responses to “The Cold War through Music”

  1. Justine Says:

    Whitney, this is a really cool lesson plan! I just picked up “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and it’s all about exploring history through music of all sorts: art, popular, etc. (though I don’t believe in those kinds of distinctions, they still persist). Was this popular with the students?

  2. Whitney Nielsen Says:

    Justine: it was popular with most students, particularly “99 Luftballon.” Pete Seeger… not so much. Mostly I get that the impression that listening to music, watching a movie, etc. are not perceived as “work” the way that other types of assignments are. I used music for my World War II, Vietnam War, Civil Rights and 1990s units and they were well-received as well.

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