On using Wilco and Billy Bragg's Mermaid Avenue to teach Of Mice and Men

Categories: Music Class
Billy Bragg, Jeff Tweedy, Woody Guthrie, and John Steinbeck all in one lesson plan.
Tyler Flory is a teacher at Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins. His Music Class column ties together his job and his music fandom in a neat little package.

I use music in my classroom to lower the stress level and to change the mood. During the previous two weeks, my students had quite a bit of work for English class. They were reading, annotating, completing quizzes, writing journal entries, and taking notes on commas. They needed a short-ish break.

So I called upon Woody Guthrie, and then Wilco and Billy Bragg's interpretations of Guthrie. We had just finished John Steinbeck's classic Of Mice and Men. As we read, we focused on George and Lennie, their American Dream, Steinbeck's play-like structure, and his use of imagery. My class was ready to think of the book as a whole instead of the sum of its parts, and contrast the novel with Guthrie's lyrics.

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I dug through my list of Guthrie songs and I settled on "Dusty Old Dust (So Long, It's Been Good to Know You)." I tell my class that Guthrie and Steinbeck were writing during the same time period, and then play the song and ask them to listen for connections.

"This is like George and Lennie's story," says one student. "They keep traveling around."

Another student notes that it was similar to The Grapes of Wrath in that the dust is taking over everything and the Joads had to keep moving.

"It's also like when [spoiler alert] George kills Lennie at the end of the book. He doesn't have a choice but to do it. It's been good, but he has to 'move along.'"

"Excellent," I say. "What's going on in the actual song?"

"His voice sounds calm," notes a student.

"What else?"

"It's only acoustic guitar and his voice," remarks another.

"And why is that important? What was going on at this time?" I ask.

"Everyone was traveling. It would be easy for him to travel with only an acoustic guitar."

"Exactly. He was doing the same thing that George and Lennie did. He traveled around. singing about the times he was living in."

Unfortunately, Guthrie is now just a blip in a history textbook. Our current musical culture is so inundated with genres and subgenres that Guthrie is pushed to the sidelines. I could play five of his songs in a row, my students could have made the same general connections to Of Mice and Men for all of them, and I would have had a nice lesson, but I would have surely bored a good portion of my class.

Fifteen years ago, Billy Bragg was asked to make an album using lyrics from Guthrie's old notebooks. It was said that Guthrie left over a thousand sets of complete lyrics that lacked any specific musical instruction. Bragg called Wilco and now we have three albums of Guthrie lyrics set to modern arrangements.

I like using music from these albums, Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, for this unit because I think that Bragg and Wilco are doing something similar to what I am trying to do with my classes as we read Of Mice and Men; we are trying to read the book using two contexts. At the beginning of the class I hand my students a packet with a few choices of songs, knowing that we wouldn't get to all of them.

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