Context and Perspective through war poetry – songs and music videos in Stage 5

This suite of lessons was taught over a number of weeks in July as part of a study into the use of popular culture in the English classroom. While there are some obvious poets for this unit, such as Wilfred Owen’s revelations on World War 1, I find students respond favourably to songs and music videos that reflect different perspectives on war. Last year, I taught Dire Strait’s Brothers in Arms – many students had no knowledge of the Falklands War. This year, I decided to contrast two songs about the American Civil War, and look at the Irish Troubles.

To introduce the unit, students created title pages noting popular culture references to war – movies, cartoons, novels, sitcoms, songs. We collated these on the board and discussed typical narratives, characters, and plot lines. Students then drew up two columns to record their thoughts: list the positives and negatives of ‘war’.

We began with When Johnny Comes Marching Home that Wikipedia  identifies as a popular song during the American Civil War. The lyrics were written by Patrick Gilmore in 1863, who acknowledged he had ‘previously heard the melody’. There are many versions of this song that expresses a hopeful celebration for the return of a loved soldier.

We read through the lyrics, and some brave souls sang once they realised it was a very familiar tune. We discussed sampling, and how artists sometimes borrow or appropriate elements of another musician’s work – either in homage, to parody or to extend and build on accepted meanings and understandings.

What makes this song memorable? We spent time discussing and annotating different techniques, agreeing that When Johnny Comes Marching Home is quite simplistic which suits the purpose of soldier’s marching, or crowds singing together. We rounded out that lesson by writing our own lyrics:

  • re-write this song – minimum 1 verse – to reflect a different context
  • maintain the structured repetition of ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’

When the band is playing on the stage

We cheer! We Cheer!

The main man on guitar he shreds

We cheer! We cheer!

The whole crowd claps with the beat

Whilst everyone’s upon their feet

When the band goes home then everyone gets some zeds.


When we as dancers come on stage

On point! On point!

We will all be in time

On point! On point!

The girls will jump and friends will shout

And then the troupe will all roll out

And we’ll all cheer when the dancers come leaping out.


When the boys are playing on the field

We score! We score!

We stay onside, not offside

At all! At all!

We run an x and then a y

We stop them from scoring a try

And we’ll all play together when we are out on the field.

This was such a fun and engaging end to the lesson – several students were humming and sharing their work as they left the room – that is is easy for teachers to be swept up in the need to skill students for an assessment task. I must remember to infuse the learning with more fun.

Next lesson, before introducing The Band’s The Night They Drove ‘Ol Dixie Down, we noted down ’10 Facts: Everyone Should Know About the Civil War’. Some students could mention vague ideas about ‘slavery’ or had heard of Abraham Lincoln, but many had no geographical sense of the USA so this information from the Civil War Trust was very engaging. We discussed the technological advances that often occur during wartime, which connected us back to our previously listed ‘positives and negative’ of war.

This time, I played the song as students read through the lyrics. After each listening, I asked students about their initial response – what does this song mean? – and then to share any connections they felt, or could make with When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Immediately, students noticed the different tone and timing of this song: a slow ballad that evokes sympathy through the first person narrative of loss and devastating destruction from the victorious Union Army.

We annotated different language features and identified those that are particularly relevant in expressing a different perspective to When Jonny Comes Marching Home. These ideas were then collated into the following comparative table:

From this information, we collaboratively tackled this question

How do these two songs reveal different perspectives about war?

to write analytical paragraphs in our Triple TEEEL format.

Before beginning a draft, it’s important to understand what the question requires. One way to do this is to identify key words, develop a word bank of synonyms and write a thesis statement. A thesis is important in providing the frame for an argument that will be sustained throughout an extended response.

Students nominated these key words and synonyms:

  • perspectives: attitude, behaviour, insight, opinion, views, viewpoint
  • war: brutality, conflict, battle, battlefield, fighting, soldier, veteran, army

Our final thesis was

Songs can provide different ideas about significant events in our culture.

Next, we introduced each text to be discussed

In When Johnny Comes Marching Home, we learn about the positive attitude towards conflict during the American Civil War. The Night They Drove ‘Ol Dixie Down, in contrast, provides a more negative tone because it was written during the civil rights movement and the time of the Vietnam War.

Students then completed the rest of the paragraph by choosing the most relevant evidence for each perspective.


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