Period Music

Connecting with History
Ongoing Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History, Music
Small Group, Entire Class, Research, Oral Presentation, Writing


  • When teachers play music from the 1930s (including lyric sheets), students will gain a greater understanding of how that music (especially the folk music) reflected the troubled times.
  • Students will also understand how non-folk music of the period (Big Bands) helped people take their minds off their troubles during the Great Depression.


Music is important to any generation; in the 1930s, people listened to not only big band music, but folk music, including Woody Guthrie. John Steinbeck was a fan of Woody Guthrie, and vice versa. Understanding the rich connection between period music (again, using lyric sheets as well as listening) of the 1930s and The Grapes of Wrath is an important complement.

Materials Needed/Preparation

Estimated Time

1-2 Class Periods


Warm up

  • Read “A Book of Sound: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of ‘Grapes of Wrath’” by Capital Public Radio and “The History of American Folk Music”
  • ~Discuss: Popular music vs. folk music
  • ~~What do we learn from each?
  • ~~Who was listening to each type of music? How?
  • ~~Who owned radios and phonographs?
  • ~~Who was playing music by the campfire or fireplace?


  • Consider assigning students a partner or creating small groups
  • Distribute the Period Music Recommendations handout.
  • Have students search for songs from the Period Music Recommendations handout, listen to selections of songs from the 1930s from each of the below categories:
  • ~Popular
  • ~Folk
  • ~Protest
  • ~Modern music inspired by The Grapes of Wrath
  • Have students access the following Library of Congress collections to hear recordings from the 1930s, including from Arvin camp (“Weedpatch” in The Grapes of Wrath)
  • ~California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell on the Library of Congress website.
  • ~Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941 on the Library of Congress website.
  • Using the Music Organizer or notes:
  • ~What is the name of the song?
  • ~What genre of music is it?
  • ~Who is the performer?
  • ~When was the song written and/or performed?
  • ~What do you learn from this song about the 1930s and the people of the ‘30s?
  • Pair-share your findings
  • Class discussion
  • ~Share findings with the class, this can include playing song clips
  • ~Discussion or journal topic: How are these different types of music similar? How are they different?
  • ~What, overall, did you learn about this period and the people?

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up


  • Students should come away from this activity with a stronger cultural understanding of the 1930s, particularly the role of music.

Post Activity

  • Students, in small groups, can also create their own period-appropriate songs and perform.


  • What connections do students make between music and the time period?

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 3 (optional)
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5 (optional)
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2
  • ~Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 5
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4, 5, 6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5 (optional)
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7

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