Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

The Music of Hamilton and its Historical, Cultural, Social, and Political Contexts

Timothy A. Johnson, Ithaca College

Teaching Hamilton: An American Musical from a musically rich perspective in an interdisciplinary context provides an extraordinary opportunity for students to develop creative approaches to talking about music outside of the Western canon and to relate their musical ideas to a range of important topics that too often reside beyond the traditional music classroom. The immense popularity of this musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda can enliven class discussions through its familiarity and its broad reach into American consciousness. It has captured the musical interest of both young and old, people of different races and social classes, and people who love musicals and people who hate them. Studying Hamilton in musical depth in connection with a broader context provides space for thoughtful discussions of how the music portrays American history, how the styles of music expand cultural conceptions of the Broadway musical, how its libretto illuminates important perspectives on contemporary (and eighteenth-century) American society, and how its characters and casting epitomize divergent political views both historically and in the present.

My choice of this repertoire to use as a case study in a senior seminar has brought substantial new interest to my teaching from a wide variety of sources. My students relayed an excitement with my choice of topic starting from well before the class began. My niece, a professional graphic designer and non-musician (who normally does not engage with me about my classes), told me that she wished she could take my class. And the press at my college immediately pounced on this story, publishing no less than three articles within six weeks—an interview in the official college online magazine, a more extensive interview in the student newspaper, and a feature in the inaugural issue of an online student magazine. I have never experienced such attention paid to my classes; if you want to interest people in your teaching, teach Hamilton.

My approach to teaching Hamilton, in accordance with the purpose of the course, was to help students interweave specific observations about the music, based on the musical expertise they had been developing as music majors, with broader connections to fields outside of music. Although the teaching strategies pertain specifically to this course—Senior Seminar in Music, Liberal Arts, and Outside Fields—the discussion topics and assignments that I will outline may be used at multiple curricular levels and in a variety of courses that make room for exploration of music in broader contexts.

A range of readings and other resources are available to inform discussion, including perceptive reviews, podcasts, a PBS documentary, a feature magazine story, and a probing academic article, and all of these source types surely will continue to proliferate. Primarily, Ron Chernow’s biography is indispensable—not as a required text for the class, but as excerpts to be used for reserve readings, as well as a source of information for the teacher. Miranda based his musical on this hefty (700-page) biography that he bought to read on vacation, and Chernow’s account provides an authoritative source of the historical record as represented in the musical. Miranda and McCarter’s book about the musical provides the complete libretto, with Miranda’s annotations, as well as illuminating essays by McCarter associated with each song. Genius is an invaluable online resource, with both the libretto in an online format and the audio tracks from the cast album. (The audio tracks can be played by clicking the button in the upper right.) In addition the libretto includes even more extensive line-by-line annotations than Miranda and McCarter’s book from a variety of sources, including the composer.

As an entry point into the musical from an interdisciplinary approach, the opening lines serve as an effective foundation. Aaron Burr refers to Alexander Hamilton using three insulting names: “bastard, orphan, son of a whore,” and he alludes to his immigrant status “a Scotsman” from “the Caribbean,” an especially important point to which Burr returns throughout the musical. After playing a recording of just that opening line, a few initial questions help students to frame the issues:

  • Why does Burr call Hamilton all three of these insulting names?
  • What do you think are the implications of these insulting names for the time period?
  • What does Hamilton’s status as an immigrant mean in the period?

The richness of the historical record can lead to a deep exploration of these initial questions. The complicated circumstances of Hamilton’s birth require further historical investigation in order to understand Burr’s initial denunciations. Hamilton’s mother had left her abusive husband and was unable to get a divorce or even a legal separation (Chernow). Since she subsequently was unable to legalize her 15-year relationship with Alexander’s father, James Hamilton, Alexander gained his first moniker of Burr’s invective, bastard, as he certainly was born out of wedlock. Furthermore, because his mother died when Hamilton was a child and his father already had abandoned the family, he was treated as an orphan, passed from family to family. But Burr, too, was an orphan, as the second song, “Aaron Burr, Sir,” makes clear. On the other hand, Chernow acknowledged that claims that Alexander’s mother was a prostitute “are absurd.” However, in addition to summarizing the historical details of his lineage in the classroom, reading to the class (or having students read) the last two paragraphs of Chernow’s first chapter provides much enticing material for speculation about Burr’s third insult, and helps students form their own opinions of the robust historical context of this opening line of the musical.

Hamilton’s rivals repeatedly mention his status as an immigrant (for example in the songs, “What’d I Miss,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “Washington on Your Side,” “We Know,” and “Your Obedient Servant”); he was born in Nevis, a tiny island in the British West Indies. However, Hamilton came to New York as a teenager, well before the United States was founded, and in some sense was no more an immigrant than his political rivals. Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, his most prominent adversaries, all descended from European heritage, as did Hamilton, whose father was born in Scotland. Yet, the happenstance that Hamilton’s father landed in the Caribbean, while other families came directly to what would become the United States, dissociated him as an immigrant in the minds of many of his peers, who were just a generation or so away from their own families’ immigration. To carve a distinction between these founding fathers based on their place of birth, especially when “America” was just an another set of British colonies to the north of those in the Caribbean, seems arbitrary if not preposterous.

An additional question brings the conversation ahead more than two centuries and helps student contemplate these ideas in contemporary cultural, social, and political contexts:

  • What are the implications of Burr’s insults in present-day society?

The ensuing discussion, especially of how immigrants are treated in contemporary society and political discourse, helps lead the students to a deeper understand of how the musical represents much more than an historical narrative set to rap. It is a work of art reflective of its time of creation, providing disparate ideas of what it means to be an American, illustrating the persistence of cultural and social assumptions, and exploring meanings associated with the founding of the country in a new context.

Following this wide-ranging examination, turning to the music of the opening number leads to richer insights, specifically based on musical analysis:

  • What is the form of this example?
  • What does Miranda achieve by using this form, musically, historically, and from a narrative perspective?

These questions may prompt students to recognize the song as related to, or a modern adaptation of, continuous variations form, with a ground bass (or perhaps a groove, in the language of popular music), based on their prior studies of this form. (Thanks to my colleague, Elizabeth Medina-Gray, who first called my attention to the form of this song.) Reflecting on the nature of the form, students might propose ideas such as the solid underpinning over which Miranda introduces each character, the nearly contemporaneous historical usage of the ground bass with the time period of the narrative, and the slow build in texture and dynamics as the song progresses over the unwavering (though often varied) support of the bass line.

The opening discussion that I have outlined above provides an opportunity to consider the first song in terms of formal analysis, as well as from a broader context. It sets the tone for further discussion of the musical that likewise enriches the classroom experience for students and provides a strong foundation for further investigation. A series of periodic (perhaps weekly) assignments, to be discussed in ensuing classes and outlined below, provide a structure for a continuing examination of Hamilton from a rich interdisciplinary perspective with musical depth:

  1. What is the significance of the “naming” songs from Hamilton (the first three songs: “Alexander Hamilton,” the title song; “Aaron Burr, Sir,” which spells the name “Hamilton”; and “My Shot,” the song where each revolutionary introduces himself)? Listen to these songs and study the lyrics. Prepare for a detailed class discussion as follows: Find at least two examples of hip hop songs in which the artists announce themselves as part of the lyrics (other than the songs from which Miranda borrows directly). Be prepared to play the examples for the class. What is Miranda saying about these characters by using this style and this text in the musical? What are the hip hop artists saying about themselves by using their names (in the context of your chosen hip hop songs)? What is the social/cultural significance of announcing oneself in a hip hop song? How do the social/cultural conventions compare between the naming songs in Hamilton and your hip hop examples? What musical contexts does Miranda create for these naming songs in Hamilton, and what musical contexts do the composers of your chosen songs create?
  2. Read pp. 54-61 in Chernow. How does “Farmer Refuted” exemplify, but also exceed, the account in Chernow? Describe the similarities and differences between the accounts. Listen to the song in Hamilton. Specifically how does the musical structure aid Miranda in making this point more vivid than in Chernow? Make notes to prepare for class discussion.
  3. Read Chernow, pp. 314-331. Choose one individual or idea (Jefferson, Madison, or assumption of debts and location of the capital) from this reading. How does the musical depict the historical record of your choice of one individual, event, or detail in this chapter? Include substantive and specific points about the music, the lyrics, and the reading. Prepare to present your ideas to the class in a presentation of about 5 minutes.
  4. Write a 500-1000 word essay responding to the following prompts. Do not include the questions in your essay, but be sure you address all of the questions over the course of your essay. Be creative and specific, especially when referring to the music:

    a. Read pp. 161-166 in Chernow, which includes a discussion of the British ballad at Yorktown played as defeated troops marched. Listen to the original ballad (start at about 1:35).

    b. Listen to “Yorktown” in Hamilton. How does Miranda incorporate any aspects of the original ballad into this song in the musical? How does Miranda incorporate the basic idea of the revolution as representing the idea of “The World Turned Upside Down” into this song in the musical, both musically and in the lyrics? What historical elements does he preserve, if any? Why do you think Miranda incorporated this material in this way? What does Miranda’s version signify historically and about today’s society/culture?

  5. How does Miranda display a command of understanding of the relationships between music and other fields in Hamilton. Choose one song (not already discussed in this course) to illustrate your claim. What does Miranda achieve musically in this song? How does Miranda use music to illustrate historical, social, cultural, and political ideas (choose at least two of these ideas) in your selected song? Be specific in your references to the music. Prepare a 5-minute presentation for the class.

These assignments increase the level of expectation for individual responsibility and breadth of interdisciplinarity. The inclusion of hip hop examples presented by students in the first assignment diversifies the repertoire of the classroom significantly; these “naming” songs are ubiquitous in the literature, and students generally have no trouble finding examples, even those who are unfamiliar with this style of music. Here are a couple of examples that may serve as introductory resources for instructors related to this assignment: Miranda borrows directly from “Going Back to Cali,” by the Notorious B.I.G., and from 1980s hip hop, such as Run-D.M.C.’s “Sucker M.C.’s,” in which each rapper introduces himself.

It is possible to pursue the activities in this essay without any background in hip hop research; however, instructors looking for further information will find a wealth of scholarly resources that include analytical approaches to this music. Adams Krims provides a well-formulated analytical entry point into rap music, and introduces multiple terms and approaches that may be employed effectively with the music of Hamilton (such as speech-effusive and percussion-effusive styles, 50-2). Kyle Adams explores music/text relationships and aspects of meter and flow in rap music, and both of these topics also apply well to this musical. Justin Williams’s Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop contains a variety of approaches by multiple authors, including analytical perspectives. Those seeking a thorough, historically-based approach may lean toward Fernando Orejuela’s textbook, whereas instructors more experienced with hip hop will appreciate the multidisciplinary approach from the diverse range of contributors to That’s the Joint! Apart from these and numerous other sources, just doing some listening would be an excellent way to get oriented at first.

The two formal presentations allow students to develop and improve in this essential skill, and the separation between them allows time for meaningful instructor feedback and student reflection. The short paper provides a clear framework for a more detailed and extensive exploration than the presentations provide. All of these assignments analyze Hamilton in musically rich and compelling ways, while relating aspects of the music directly to historical, cultural, social, and political contexts. The extensive popularity of the music engages students in a series of musical and interdisciplinary explorations with literature outside of the standard Western canon, and literature that, in most cases, already is very important to them. Through this series of assignments, students study music in broader contexts, connect disciplines, and recognize that analyzing music can be an activity that leads them to develop their own questions.

I would like to thank the students in my class in Spring 2017 for their insightful presentations, thoughtful essays, and enlightening discussion sessions. Their enthusiastic reception of this unit helped lead me to seek publication in this collection. I also would like to thank my reviewers, Philip Gentry and Michael McClimon, for their insightful suggestions, watchful corrections, and cooperative approach to the process.

This work is copyright ⓒ2017 Timothy A. Johnson and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.