Song Lyrics as Texts to Develop Critical Literacy

Carol V. Lloyd

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Lyrics and music of popular songs can represent alternative perspectives to the dominant ideologies of a particular time or place. As such, they can be used effectively in classrooms to provide the voices rarely heard in textbooks. In this article I discuss how song lyrics can be used as texts to develop students’ critical literacy. I begin with a vignette from my own experience as a science teacher, describing how my students explored environmental issues through song. I relate this to research on critical literacy in classrooms, and argue that critical literacy is essential in democratic societies. Finally, I describe several songs and offer some teaching suggestions for implementing this approach.

  Related Postings from the Archives

Introduction | Critical Literacy in Classrooms | Developing Critical Literacy | Lyrics | Further Thoughts | Table Summarizing Songs and Topics | References | Music Sources Cited

Critical theorists describe schools as places in which students should come to understand how and why knowledge and power are constructed (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1993). Critical literacy, one application of critical theory, involves “reading the world”: understanding how we encode power structures, and our role in these processes (Freire & Macedo, 1987). Within this framework, reading has the potential to transform and to assist in preparing students for participation in a democratic society (Apple, 1993; Shannon, 1995).

A number of years ago, I taught young adolescents enrolled in a junior high science elective, “Ecology and Botany.” There was no textbook for this class, so I based my teaching on my knowledge of ecology and my personal commitment to protecting the natural environment. I had been greatly affected by the political activism of the 1960s (especially the civil rights movement in the United States), the gasoline crisis of the early 1970s, and Garrett Hardin’s classes in human ecology I had taken as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I wanted my students to consider how the things we do often affect our environment. I believed that if they understood that relationship they might begin to understand the concept of active citizenship (Lankshear & Knobel, 1997); they might understand that part of the responsibility of citizens is informed, active participation in democratic society.

I opened our consideration of the broad concept of ecology through a song by Cat Stevens (now known as Yusaf Islam), a well-known folk singer at the time. In “Where Do the Children Play?” Stevens tells the listener, “We’ve come a long way, we’re changing day to day” through advances in technology and engineering, but in doing so, we have destroyed much of our environment. He rhetorically asks, “But tell me, where do the children play?” to encourage the listener to consider some of the human and environmental costs of progress.

I played the song while students read a copy of the lyrics. These 12- and 13-year-olds, who represented various levels of academic achievement, participated in a thoughtful and analytic discussion based on these verses. I asked them to think about the things they saw around them, to consider if there were things that related to the song that they noticed on their way to school or as they drove around with their parents. They began to talk about events in their community from the new perspective of human impact on the environment. Picking up on Stevens’ lyrics about roads that “just go on and on” and unchecked construction, they focused on the new housing developments and accompanying roads running through what had been farmland in their semi-rural community. Their discussions moved quickly from casual observations of tractors and building materials to ways in which these developments altered their environment and affected plants and animals. They were in the beginning stages of becoming informed citizens (Singh & Moran, 1997).

From a reading methods perspective, the use of these song lyrics was a “prereading strategy”: It served to activate or build on students’ prior knowledge of content to be learned. This song and the ensuing discussion prepared students to read content text about ecological issues. Yet its purpose went beyond the typical prereading strategy in that it created a context in which students reconsidered and reconfigured their background knowledge from the perspective of ecology. They were no longer mere observers of their local, national, or global community, but were subjects who could observe, recognize, critically evaluate, and possibly participate in occurrences that affected their daily lives. My students’ interactions with these lyrics are examples of critical literacy.

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Critical Literacy in Classrooms

According to Luke and Freebody (1997), “although critical literacy does not stand for a unitary approach, it marks out a coalition of educational interests committed to engaging with the possibilities that the technologies of writing and other modes of inscription offer for social change, cultural diversity, economic equity, and political enfranchisement” (p. 1). In recent years, critical literacy has gained momentum (albeit at a very modest pace) in traditional classroom settings across grade levels. Literacy researchers and teachers, often working together, are examining and reporting findings about classrooms in which students are encouraged, for example, to deconstruct gender roles, racist practices, and government policies. Willis and Johnson (2000, online document) show how high school students’ responses to African American literature become focused on issues of social justice when teachers provide sociohistorical information related to the text; they also demonstrate that responses that incorporate the arts are more expansive than written or oral responses. Harste et al. (2000, online document) and Leland et al. (1999) promote children’s critical conversations that develop from reading or listening to books that build awareness “of how systems of meaning and power affect people and the lives they lead” (Harste et al.).

Focusing on larger teaching contexts, journals and special publications from the Rethinking Schools initiative address issues of social justice and educational equity, especially in urban schools. Allen’s (1999) teacher colleagues describe multiple ways in which they bring issues of social justice into their elementary and middle school classrooms. Alvermann, Moon, and Hagood (1999, online sample) provide examples of using popular culture texts to encourage critical media literacy in elementary and middle school classrooms. Critical pedagogists (see, e.g., Giroux & Simon, 1989; McLaren, Hammer, Sholle, & Reilly, 1995) write about the necessity of understanding the roles of popular culture in students’ lives, bringing this culture into classrooms to establish “conditions of learning that enable them to locate themselves in history and to interrogate the adequacy of that location as both a pedagogical and political question” (Giroux & Simon, p. 3).

“Popular culture is always a culture of conflict, it always involves the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interests of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology” (Fiske, 1989, p. 2). Some contemporary music is certainly a part of popular culture. As Mahiri (2001) tells us, it provides “central texts in the pop culture canon” (p. 383).

David Crosby, of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young fame, explains that musicians, though primarily entertainers, also have “another, older part of our job that comes from the tradition of the troubadours”:

We’re sort of the town criers, the “twelve o’clock and all is well” kind of guys. Or maybe it’s 11:30 and things aren’t so damn good.... We’ve been carrying those messages for hundreds of years.... You can focus people’s attention on issues and ideas, and we’ve learned that you can use music to gather people together for a cause. (Crosby & Bender, 2000, p. ix)

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Developing Critical Literacy: Why Bother?

Hammer (1995), building on the work of semiotician Gregory Bateson, tells educators that the traditional, hegemonic pedagogy of decontextualized teaching should be replaced with a pedagogy that streses “the relationship of one subject to another, and the relationship of subjects to everyday life” (p. 35). Learning must be situated “within its socio-political economic context” (p. 34).

Macedo (1994) argues that literacy in the United States is constructed to anesthetize the mind. When teaching focuses on methods, it serves to “negate students’ life experiences” (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. 125). Education that lacks a critical component perpetuates a population that finds it difficult to recognize injustice and the facets of society that disenfranchise large groups.

Along with literacy educators and researchers, social studies and science educators argue for instruction that is based on critical literacy. They explain that by disrupting typical ways of doing and writing about science, for example, science will become embedded in the lives of students (Hildebrand, 1998). Using popular culture in social studies gives children the opportunity to identify and critique power relationships, an essential process in a democracy (Alter, 1994).

Though much of the work on critical media literacy centers on using current media, we can expand this perspective to media created in or about the past. For example, when my children were 10 or 11 years old, they each studied Central and South America. They learned the traditional encyclopedia sort of information -- climate, major exports, geography -- with no context of relationships. What if, as part of such units, students worked in groups to study various countries in depth? What if each group examined the economics of these countries, especially the distribution of wealth and power, and the history of each country’s government? What if the group studying Chile, for example, investigated the years of Pinochet’s dictatorship? This group could listen to and share “They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo),” a song by Sting. The lyrics describe the women of Chile who danced alone in front of government buildings with pictures of their missing husbands or sons, some of the 3,000 “disappeared” of the Pinochet era. I wonder what types of relationships my son and daughter and their classmates would have understood. How might they have come to see the world differently?

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Lyrics to Develop Critical Literacy: Some Examples

The lyrics I use as examples are drawn from songs of various types, including folk, alternative rock, rock, rhythm and blues, soul, and hip-hop. Their common thread is their portrayal of events or circumstances that promote critical literacy though their storytelling or poetic presentation of social injustice, government action, or disenfranchisment of various groups of people. The musicians discussed use their music as “conscientization” (Freire, 1970/1993), as a means of critical analysis of social, political, and economic realities.

I have not attempted to provide an exhaustive review of song lyrics that can be used to promote critical literacy. Rather, I provide some examples to encourage educators to incorporate these into relevant lessons and to find other songs that provide students with a politically contextualized understanding of important issues. I have organized my examples into six topics: the environment, United States history, economics, government policies and practices, racism and racial issues, and international events and situations. Many songs overlap categories, but for each, I selected the one category that seemed to be the major emphasis. Table 1 lists the songs by artist and shows possible topics into which each song may fit.

The Environment

There are multiple perspectives involved in debates over environmental issues. In schools, we need to expose students to those perspectives within the framework of scientific inquiry (National Research Council, 2000, online document). Tracy Chapman’s song “The Rape of the World” confronts us with our abuse of our environment. The use of the word rape, described in the song as “the most heinous of crimes,” is powerful, and Chapman’s message is much harsher than Cat Stevens’ in “Where Do the Children Play?” or Joni Mitchell’s in “Big Yellow Taxi” (“They paved paradise, And put up a parking lot...”).

Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” could be included as another text in discussion about the environment. He describes a world changed by pollution as poison blows in the wind, oil is mixed with the ocean, and animals die on the land.

Exploration of these songs, the issues they address, and the tone each takes could promote critical conversations about the environment. Each asks the listener to consider various ways in which people have altered the environment and the consequences of those actions. The songs can be examined from political, economic, and scientific perspectives, and therefore could be used in a variety of middle or high school courses, in thematic units in upper elementary classes, or in multidisciplinary units in secondary schools. In addition to studying the song lyrics, students can read textbooks, magazines, and trade books that provide more information as they explore the underlying political, economic, or science topics.

U.S. History

History is usually taught to students through textbooks. Much debate has occurred, especially in the last decade, over whether those sources always contain appropriate content. These debates often reflect contrasting beliefs: On one side, many believe that the histories and stories of oppressed and marginalized people, such as women and people of color, must be included in curriculum; others, however, assert that we must not revise the standard depiction of history (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995).

Many popular songs tell stories rarely included in textbooks. “Buffalo Soldier,” written by Bob Marley, tells about the black soldiers of the 19th century -- a group few of us learned about in school -- who were named “buffalo soldiers” by the Indians against whom they fought after the Civil War. Marley’s lyrics intersect these freed slaves’ histories with their patriotism. He tells listeners that they have to know their personal histories to “know where you coming from.”

Woody Guthrie’s lyrics often describe the plight of marginalized people. His 1940 album, Dust Bowl Ballads, tells stories of Dust Bowl migrants. As a poor man traveling from Oklahoma to California during this time, he shared their difficulties. In “I Ain’t Got No Home,” Guthrie appropriates the melody of an uplifting Baptist hymn that encourages the migrants to accept their destitution and to wait passively for their reward in the next life. His lyrics are a stark contrast to that message: They vividly portray the desperate situations of these families. Guthrie describes hard-working farmers who loose their farms to the banks: “Rich man took my home and drove me from my door.” Students could examine these lyrics and then follow up with nonfiction readings about this time, as well as historical fiction such as Karen Hesse’s (1999) Out of the Dust.

Woody Guthrie described other injustices as well. “Ludlow Massacre” vividly illustrates the 1914 massacre of poor miners in Colorado by militia hired by the mining company they worked for. The miners dug a cave deep into the ground to protect themselves -- to no avail. As the miners slept, the militia set fire to their tents, “pulled the triggers of [their] gattling guns,” and killed men, women, and at least 13 children.


Several songs describe how the underclass -- whether the homeless or poorly paid immigrant laborers -- is often treated. The economic perspectives in these songs could be examined in economics or U.S. government courses, or in more general social studies classes.

Tracy Chapman describes the homeless in “Subcity.” She tells us how the poor see the relationships between government, big business, and their unrewarded efforts. She questions the assumption that poor people are after handouts, telling us that they really want “a way to make an honest living.” These people have been our workers, but now find themselves out of a job with nowhere to go.

Phil Collins’ haunting song about the homeless, “Another Day in Paradise,” can be compared to Chapman’s “Subcity,” leading to in-depth critical conversations. Collins’ song asks us whether we have any responsibility for the homeless. It describes a female (we can’t determine if she is a girl or a woman) asking a man if he knows somewhere she can sleep and get out of the cold. “He pretends he can’t hear her,” and continues walking. Compared to her life, we live “in paradise.” This song also shows how many people ignore the marginalized, acting as if they do not exist. Schools in or near communities with homeless populations can connect these two songs to situations and issues in their own areas.

Growing up in the farmland of Indiana, John Mellencamp saw firsthand the plight of the American farmer. In “Rain on the Scarecrow,” Mellencamp tells what happened to the family farm. His lyrics create vivid images of hardworking families who cannot keep up with the loans needed to run their farms. This song creates an environment in which to ask critical questions about economics and business, as the number of family farms decreases and the number of corporate farms increases in the United States.

“Trouble in the Fields” also describes the difficulties faced by the family farmer. Written by Nanci Griffith at the end of the 1980s, the song compares farmers during dustbowl times with their more contemporary counterparts. Like Mellencamp, Griffith puts the bankers at the center of the problem, saying that you know there is “trouble in the fields when the bankers swarm like locust.” The song remains current as small farmers continue to struggle in the United States, having recently faced the worst period of drought since the 1930s (Allen, 2002). Teachers may also want to consider this song in light of the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill that some say benefits mainly large, corporate farms rather than small, family farms (Environmental Working Group, 2003, online document).

It continues to be true that new immigrants to the United States often fill the lowest-paying jobs. Woody Guthrie combined his storytelling with his music in “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” In this song, Guthrie tells the story of 28 Mexicans who were killed in a 1948 plane crash as they returned to Mexico after working as seasonal laborers in the California fields. By identifying these workers merely as “deportees,” we learn that they were essentially invisible nonpersons. Guthrie asks if the people who help us tend our orchards and grow our fruit should be treated this way: “To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil,” known “just as deportees.”

“Without a Face,” sung by Rage Against the Machine, brings Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” into the present. The lyrics describe the desperate plight of illegal immigrants sneaking across the border to look for work. Without any official status in the United States, they “got no soul” and are “born without a face” -- making them easy for us to ignore.

Today, many illegal and legal immigrants continue in the tradition of their ancestors as they look for jobs as farm workers. In California, these workers recently protested their poor working conditions (Sanchez, 2002). University students across the United States have been boycotting Taco Bell, contending that the fast-food restaurant chain could pay one cent more per pound for tomatoes and thereby double the wages of the farm workers in Immokalee, Florida, where most of the tomatoes for fast food restaurants are grown (Nichols, 2002, online document).

In the United States, the median income for farm workers is below $7,500 (United States Department of Labor, 2000, online document). Federal laws do not protect farm workers, who do not have the right to organize and bargain collectively (Nichols, 2002), nor the children who work as farm labor. According to Human Rights Watch (2003, online document), somewhere between 300,000 and 800,000 children labor in U.S. fields in dangerous conditions, legally working from age 12 for unlimited hours. Discussing these issues with students creates a problem-posing classroom where issues of inequities in power relationships can be explored. The Circuit (Jimenez, 1997) could also be read to investigate these issues. It is an autobiographical series of stories of the author and his family as they became part of the illegal migrant farm worker community.

U.S. Government Policies and Practices

This category includes songs that question government policies and practices. They can be used to provide alternative perspectives of times and events portrayed in most social studies textbooks.

The United States has participated in several wars. As is the case with many issues of history, there are multiple perspectives on these wars. The Vietnam War is a relatively current example of a war that was vociferously contested in the United States. Many songs from the 1960s and 1970s portray the anti-establishment perspective.

What became an anti-Vietnam War anthem was written by a former Navy man, Joe McDonald, and performed by his band, Country Joe and the Fish. McDonald said that he wrote “Fixin’ to Die Rag” “to put blame for the war upon the politicians and leaders of the US military and upon the industry that makes its money from war but not upon those who had to fight the war...the soldiers” (McDonald, 2000, online document). The lyrics confront the battle commanders whose “big chance has come at last,” and large corporations who profit from the war. The chorus and the upbeat, rousing music create a mood of adventure, saying that it does not matter why the men are going to war. The repeated phrase in the chorus, “next stop is Vietnam,” is an ironic commentary on war in general.

Marvin Gaye wrote “What’s Going On?” in response to his brother’s experience in the Vietnam War. He personalizes his despair by talking to families, to mothers who are crying, and to brothers who are dying. He implores fathers not to escalate the war, “for only love can conquer hate.” The rhythm and the music contribute to the sadness expressed in this anti-war song. Many songs on Gaye’s album of the same name address issues of social justice, easily lending themselves as texts that can contribute to development of critical literacy.

The policies and practices of the U.S. government sometimes had crushing effects on people of color, marginalizing them economically and politically. I present songs that portray these mechanisms of disenfranchisement as well as the resiliency of these groups in the next section.

Racism and Racial Issues

Confronting racism is often uncomfortable. A song that can begin the conversation in classrooms is “Your Racist Friend,” by They Might Be Giants. The song describes a party. However, between each verse about the party is a chorus in which the singer wonders how his host “can stand by [his] racist friend.”

Continue the conversation about racism with Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.” The lyrics intersect racism (especially toward African Americans), welfare, jobs, and ineffective laws. The song refers to the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Though this law gave legal rights to people of color, the lyrics remind us that “the law don’t change another’s mind” when it comes to prejudice. Discussion of this song would easily fit in a unit about Black History Month as a way to help students understand why it is necessary to single out a group of people for yearly recognition. The lyrics would also add to a discussion of the Civil Rights Act and its time period in a high school American history course.

Tracy Chapman contextualizes racism and racist practices when she questions just how far African Americans have progressed in the United States in “Nothin’ Yet.”. Even though the slaves have long been freed, Chapman sees African Americans walking with “the same shuffle once again” since “we ain’t seen nothing yet.” The song questions the policies and practices that have contributed to the subjugation of a race of people.

The theme song of Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” tells black America that it cannot buy into the hegemonic ideology of Elvis and John Wayne, or the complacent message of “don’t worry, be happy.” (Words near the end of this song may not be acceptable in your school. If you must omit them, be sure to tell your students why.) This song is a call to fight the powers that subjugate blacks, but to fight through awareness.

The indigenous peoples of North America also have a history of subjugation in white-dominated U.S. and Canada. Native American singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie writes many songs that tell true stories of this oppression. In “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” she provides a brief yet stark history lesson that tells how the American native peoples have been treated. Her lyrics are powerful, angry, and full of contrasts between the official knowledge of classrooms and textbooks (Apple, 1993) and the rarely heard perspective of North American indigenous people. Sainte-Marie takes the listener on an alternative tour through American history, speaking of the forced education of native children that taught them “to despise their traditions,” to the genocide of the native peoples and the blankets they received from the government that were “collected from smallpox disease dying soldiers,” to the profits reaped at the expense of the Indian nations. She offers a narrative that disputes “school propaganda” and asks where our history books tell the story she knows to be true.

Robbie Robertson, a member of The Band, also sings about the oppression of the Native Americans. The lyrics of “Ghost Dance” tell the listener that the oppressors cannot wipe out the tenacity of the native peoples. Though others may oppress them through killings and religious repression, Robertson repeats, “we shall live again.”

International Events and Conditions

Displaying a similar attitude toward religion’s “just turn the other cheek” stance as Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” and Tracy Chapman’s “Subcity,” Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” rails against the injustices toward the blacks in his native Jamaica. He tells people who are marginalized not to wait for God, but to expect the best here on earth and to “stand up for your right.”

On their album War, Irish rock band U2 performs a song written by band member Bono. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” refers to events in Derry, Ireland, on January 30, 1972, when members of the British army fired on unarmed Catholics, killing 13 people and injuring many others. The song asks, “There’s many lost, but tell me who has won?”

Economic exploitation of developing countries by industrial nations is described in “Do You Want My Job?” written and sung by Little Village. The music implies the setting of a Caribbean island that is used as a dumping ground for spent Japanese plutonium, rendering the fish inedible. Now the inhabitants “buy Spam from the grocery store.”

These songs can be used in similar ways as suggested in my earlier discussion of Sting’s “They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo).”

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Some Further Thoughts

According to a report from Human Rights Watch (2002, online document), in the weeks following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, about 1200 noncitizens were arrested, jailed, and treated as guilty by the United States Department of Justice. In subsequent months, the U.S. Congress authorized a war with Iraq, the United Nations passed a resolution requiring Iraq to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction, and the U.S. led a war to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” a song that reflects on some of the wars fought by the United States both in this country and abroad, chillingly ends with “If God’s on our side, He’ll stop the next war.” This did not happen.

Consider the contrast between Dylan’s lyrics and those of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song that has been described as the “Anthem of 2001” (Fricke, 2001-2002, online document). Lennon asks us to imagine a world without countries or religion, in which the causes of war would be eliminated: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” This imagining did not become reality, either.

Research shows us that students across grades can participate in critical conversations (Allen, 1999; Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Leland et al., 1999). Freire and Macedo (1987) and other critical pedagogists remind us that reading must include a reading of the world, of the socio-political-economic contexts in which men and women live, and that we must imagine a more just future. Educators must decide whether to give students the texts, tools, and spaces in classrooms to develop critical literacy. The song lyrics described here, along with many others, are examples of texts that students and teachers can use to accomplish this goal.

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Allen, J. (Ed.). (1999). Class actions: Teaching for social justice in elementary and middle schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Allen, M. (2002, August 16). Bush breaks news to S.D.: No drought aid. The Washington Post, p. A02.

Alter, G.T. (1994). Popular culture and elementary social studies transformation. MultiCultural Review, 3(4), 36-41.

Alvermann, D.E., Moon, J.S., & Hagood, M.C. (1999). Popular culture in the classroom: Teaching and researching critical media literacy. Newark, DE, and Chicago, IL: International Reading Association and National Reading Conference. Chapter available:

Apple, M.W. (1993). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age. New York: Routledge.

Aronowitz, S., & Giroux, H.A. (1993). Education still under siege. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Cornbleth, C., & Waugh, D. (1995). The great speckled bird: Multicultural politics and education policymaking. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Crosby, D., & Bender, D. (2000). Stand and be counted: Making music, making history -- The dramatic story of the artists and events that changed America. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.

Environmental Working Group. (2003). About the 2002 Farm Bill: A missed opportunity. Available (retrieved June 1, 2003):

Fiske, J. (1989). Reading the popular. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Freire, P. (1970/1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

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Giroux, H.A., & Simon, R.I. (Eds.). (1989a). Popular culture, schooling, and everyday life. Grandy, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Hammer, R. (1995). Rethinking the dialectic: A critical semiotic meta-theoretical approach for the pedagogy of media literacy. In P. McLaren, R. Hammer, D. Sholle, & S. Reilly (Eds.), Rethinking media literacy (pp. 33-85). New York: Peter Lang.

Harste, J.C., Vasquez, V., Lewison, M., Breau, A., Leland, C., & Oceipka, A. (2000). Supporting critical conversations in classrooms. In K.M. Pierce, C. Beck, D. Koblitz, S. Nelson-Faulkner, A. O’Conner, S. Wolf, & the Committee to Revise the Elementary School Booklist (Eds.), Adventuring with books: A booklist for pre-k-grade 6 (12th Edition). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. Available (retrieved June 1, 2003):

Hesse, K. (1999). Out of the dust. New York: Scholastic.

Hildebrand, G.M. (1998). Disrupting hegemonic writing practices in school science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35, 345-362.

Human Rights Watch. (2002, August). Presumption of guilt: Human rights abuses of post-September 11 detainees. New York: Author. Available (retrieved June 1, 2003):

Human Rights Watch. (2003). Failure to protect child farmworkers: Facts. Available (retrieved June 1, 2003):


Jimenez, F. (1997). The circuit: Stories from the life of a migrant child. Albuquerque, NM: New Mexico University Press.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (1997). Critical literacy and active citizenship. In S. Muspratt, A. Luke, & P. Freebody (Eds.), Constructing critical literacies: Teaching and learning textual practice (pp. 95 - 124). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Lee, S. (Producer/Writer/Director). (1989). Do the right thing [Motion picture]. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures.

Leland, C., Harste, J., Ociepka, A., Lewison, M., & Vasquez, V. (1999). Exploring critical literacy: You can hear a pin drop. Language Arts, 77(1), 70-77.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1997). Critical literacy and the question of normativity: An introduction. In S. Muspratt, A. Luke, & P. Freebody (Eds.), Constructing critical literacies: Teaching and learning textual practice (pp. 1-18). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Macedo, D. (1994). Literacies of power: What Americans are not allowed to know. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Mahiri, J. (2001). Pop culture pedagogy and the end(s) of school. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44, 382-385.

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Nichols, J. (2002, May 10). Migrant farm workers take their case to the court of public opinion. Market to market: The weekly journal of rural America [Television broadcast]. Johnston, IA: Iowa Public Television. Available (retrieved June 1, 2003):

Sanchez, R. (2002, September 23). Farm worker pacts stir California conflict. The Washington Post, p. A03.

Shannon, P. (1995). Text, lies, & videotape: Stories about life, literacy and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Singh, M.G., & Moran, P. (1997). Critical literacies for informed citizenship: Further thoughts on possible actions. In S. Muspratt, A. Luke, & P. Freebody (Eds.), Constructing critical literacies: Teaching and learning textual practice (pp. 125-136). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

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Willis, A.I., & Johnson, J.L. (2000, September). “A horizon of possibilities”: A critical framework for transforming multiethnic literature instruction. Reading Online, 4(3). Available:

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Music Sources Cited

Chapman, T. (1989). Subcity. On Crossroads [CD]. New York: Elektra.

Chapman, T. (1995). Rape of the world. On New beginning [CD]. New York: Elektra.

Chapman, T. (2000). Nothing yet. On Telling stories [CD]. New York: Elektra.

Collins, P. (1989). Another day in paradise. On But seriously [CD]. New York: Atlantic.

Cooder, R., Hiatt, J., Keltner, J., & Lowe, N. Do you want my job? [Recorded by Little Village]. On Little Village [CD]. Burbank CA: Time/Warner.

de la Rocha, Z. (1996). Without a face [Recorded by Rage Against the Machine]. On Evil empire [CD]. New York: Sony/Columbia.

Dylan, B. (1963/1991). With God on our side. On The times they are a-changin’ [CD]. Coxsackie, NY: Sundazed Music.

Flansburgh, J., & Linnell, J. (1990). Your racist friend [Recorded by They Might Be Giants]. On Flood [CD]. New York: Elektra.

Gaye, M. (1971). Mercy, mercy me (The ecology). On What’s going on? [CD]. Detroit: UNI/Motown.

Gaye, M. (1971). What’s going on? On What’s going on? [CD]. Detroit: UNI/Motown.

Griffith, N., & West, R. (1987). Trouble in the fields [Recorded by Nanci Griffith]. On Lone star state of mind. Santa Monica, CA: MCA.

Guthrie, W. (1938/2000). I ain’t got no home. On Dust bowl ballads [CD]. New York: Buddha. (1940)

Guthrie, W. (2000). Dust bowl ballads [CD]. New York: Buddha. (Originally recorded 1940)

Guthrie, W. (1944/1991). Ludlow massacre. On The greatest songs of Woody Guthrie [CD]. North Hollywood, CA: Vanguard.

Guthrie, W. (1948/1991). Deportee (Plane wreck at Los Gatos). On The greatest songs of Woody Guthrie [CD]. North Hollywood, CA: Vanguard.

Guthrie, W. (1948). Deportee (Plane wreck as Los Gatos) [Recorded by Joan Baez]. On Blessed are... [CD]. North Hollywood, CA: Vanguard. (1971)

Hewson, P. (1983). Sunday, bloody Sunday [Recorded by U2]. On War [CD]. New York: Island.

Hornsby, B. (1986). The way it is [Recorded by Bruce Hornsby and the Range]. On The way it is [CD]. New York: RCA.

Lennon, J. (1971). Imagine. On Imagine [CD]. Hollywood, CA: Capitol.

Marley, B., & Tosh, P. (1973/2002). Get up, stand up. On Best of Bob Marley [CD]. New York: Tuff Gong.

Marley, B., & Williams, N. G. (1983/2002). Buffalo soldier [Recorded by Bob Marley & the Wailers]. On Best of Bob Marley [CD]. New York: Tuff Gong.

McDonald, J. (1965). Fixin’ to die rag [Recorded by Country Joe and the Fish]. On I feel like I’m fixin’ to die [CD]. North Hollywood, CA: Vanguard.

Mellencamp, J., & Green, G. (1985). Rain on the scarecrow [Recorded by John Mellencamp]. On Scarecrow [CD]. New York: Mercury.

Mitchell, J. (1970). Big yellow taxi. On Ladies of the canyon [CD]. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers.

Robertson, J.R., & Wilson, J. (1994). Ghost dance [Recorded by Robbie Robertson & the Red Road Ensemble]. On Music for the Native Americans [CD]. Hollywood, CA: Cema/Capitol.

Saint-Marie, B. (1966/1992). My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying. On Native North-American child: An odyssey [CD]. North Hollywood, CA: Vanguard.

Shocklee, K., Sadler, E., & Ridenhour, C. (1990). Fight the power [Recorded by Public Enemy]. On Fear of a black planet [CD]. New York: Def Jam.

Stevens, C. (1970). Where do the children play? On Tea for the tillerman [CD]. San Francisco, CA: A&M.

Sting (1987). They dance alone (Cueca solo). On Nothing like the sun [CD] San Francisco, CA: A&M.

About the Author

author portrait   Carol Lloyd is a professor of literacy education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, USA. She has taught middle and high school science and reading, and university education courses. Her current teaching and research integrate literacy learning, critical pedagogy, and urban education. Contact her by e-mail at

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Citation: Lloyd, C.V. (2003, June). Song lyrics as texts to develop critical literacy. Reading Online, 6(10). Available:

Reading Online,
Posted June 2003
© 2003 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232