If you grew up in the 70s and 80s in the United States, I guarantee that there are certain things you know about this country and its government like…
- How the Pilgrims set sail from England and “finally knocked on Plymouth Rock”
- How the “shot heard round the world was the start of the Revolution”
- The entire Preamble to the U.S. Constitution (e.g., We the People, in order to form a more perfect union…”
- How a bill becomes a law
And chances are that all of those phrases conjured up animated images and songs that you learned when you were a child. If so, congratulations. You’re part of the Schoolhouse Rock generation. It’s how many of us learned about grammar, history, science, and math. Call it the original Common Core.
But, alas, Saturday morning cartoons really are a thing of the past and getting children to become a captive audience outside of school is definitely a challenge (unless you’re an Xbox).
The World’s Gonna Know His Name
That all changed when I downloaded the soundtrack to the Broadway musical, Hamilton.
If you’re living under a rock, Hamilton is a musical about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Brilliant music and lyrics, I might add.
Surprisingly, this hip-hop inspired adaptation of the biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is fairly accurate in its abridged depiction of the life of this renegade immigrant who came to serve as the first Secretary of Treasury.
Admittedly, before Hamilton came along, I knew that the guy was never President but somehow ended up on our ten dollar bill (“the ten dollar Founding Father without a father”). And the rest of my Revolutionary-era knowledge was pretty sketchy at best.
The Music Heard Round the World
Then I took a trip to Oregon and went on a driving trip with a friend of mine. She usually selects the music and offered to play the soundtrack to Hamilton. She had also previously introduced me to such classics as “Trap Queen” so needless to say, I was hesitant to listen to any music she endorsed.
The only song that stuck out to me was when she played “You’ll Be Back,” an amusing rendition of King George’s response to the colonists cry for independence.
You’ll be back, soon you’ll see
You’ll remember you belong to me
You’ll be back, time will tell
You’ll remember that I served you well
Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!
And that’s when I heard a familiar refrain from Schoolhouse Rock in my head:
They knew that now they’d run their own land,
But George the Third still vowed
He’d rule them till the end.
Anything I say, do it my way now.
Anything I say, do it my way.
Don’t you get to feeling independent
‘Cause I’m gonna force you to obey.
So I was intrigued and downloaded the entire soundtrack. And I started listening to it: while I was working out, while I was in the car. It was like listening to a musical book. And the more I listened to it, the more my son did. (You’ll Be Back is now actually one of my son’s favorite songs from the entire score.)
The Man that Inspired the Musical
Soon, we both became not just obsessed with the music but with the story. Who was this Alexander Hamilton and why is his story so interesting?
It’s a classic underdog story. Hamilton is a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” immigrant from St. Kitts and Nevis. His dad left, his mom died, and for all intents and purposes, he should have given up. But he didn’t. He sought to become something by “working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” He made his way to America and the rest is history.
Parental Discretion Advised
Not ready to teach your kids the more colorful language of Hamilton? There are some explicit lyrics on the album and 8 out of the 23 songs are listed as such. We’re a little liberal with language in our house so it’s nothing that my son (at 9 years old) hasn’t heard. And the language is used in context. (For the record, we’ve talked about what “bastard” means but I didn’t go near the word “whore”!)
Once you’re over some of the more explicit language (and some sexual innuendo), you might find what I’m finding. A child who is suddenly interested in history. Together, we’re googling and learning more about King George and the Revolutionary War and the French Revolution and all of the major players in Hamilton (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, Marquis de Lafayette) as well as the lesser known ones (John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, the Schuyler sisters).
I already know he’ll have a leg up when he reaches a grade where they really start to focus on U.S. History. Not only will he have the knowledge but he’ll have the passion for it.
Inspiration Works in Mysterious Ways
But the bigger lesson learned from Hamilton is not the history. It’s the inspiration. It’s feeling, in language and music that we can relate to, the direness of the American origin story. It’s being proud of our heritage, no matter how flawed, and it’s learning about how drive and determination play a role in success.
Many mornings on our short drive to school, my son asks if I can play the title track, “Alexander Hamilton.” He says it makes him feel pumped up for school.
Even better was the morning where he paused the song and said to me, “I don’t get it. How did he come from where he did and end up accomplishing so much?” But he knew the answer and I think that’s why he listens to that song every morning.
While I may still be able to recite most of the Preamble, my son is learning more than the facts. This soundtrack is definitely not appropriate for all ages but for tweens and above (with parental discretion), it’s a revolution in learning American history.