How Elvis Appears to Unschoolers

Sandra Dodd

Once long ago, in 1993, on Prodigy's Homeschooling bulletin board, I wrote this, and it conjured Elvis:
Some time back there was a request for songs to be sung which would be educational. As music itself is a discipline, I think any music can be used as an educational tool. It can tie in with physical activity, mathematics, physics, history, geography, art, language, and it can be used to get kids excited and awake, or calm and asleep, or anything in between. I don't mean singing about math or history, either, but discussing the form of the music, the rhythm, the moods, the origins, the instruments on which it is traditionally played, the length and pattern of the verses (or phrases, or whatever), what its purpose is (a march, background music for a movie or for an 18th century fireworks show, a lullaby, a love song), etc.

Don't miss this fun and easy opportunity to tie different "subjects" together by using a song as a jumping off place to many different discussions. If you need ideas, name a song here and see how many suggestions you can get for it!

So that sat out in public for nearly two hours before someone wrote. "Ok, I'll try that. 'Blue Suede Shoes'."

I had never been an Elvis fan. Still, it was rich with potential. The next ten paragraphs here were the response:

Look up pictures of the 50's. What was happening in those days? Where did Elvis Presley come from?

What was the deal with Black music in those days? What was new that benefited Elvis's career? (Television! Cheap color movies!) How was his induction into the army (combined with his popularity) used by the government? Find some old magazines with articles showing him in uniform, in his barracks, etc.

What is suede, anyway? How is it made? How far back in history was there suede? How is leather tanned? How would suede be made blue? How does dye work? (Visit Tandy leather, or a shoe repair place. Tie-dye something.)

Talk about slang. Much of what was slang in the 50's is mainstream English now. What is slang that hasn't yet died out or been accepted by a larger group?

"One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and [go, cat] go": With "four to go," what is that used for outside this song? Is it fair to just steal words from just anywhere for song lyrics? Sure it is! Look for some other examples. (It might take months of casual listening to find another example, but there are lots.)

What is "slander"? (Check "libel".)

If the children are trained in music, you can talk about syncopation. If they're up on music technology, discuss the simple mixing that went on at recording studios in the 50's and early 60's, before stereo was common (and before mono was no more). Listen to the quality of the bass line and compare it to a modern recording with a broader spectrum and newer technology on storage and playback. Find something that explains how magnetic tape works for sound recording and CD's and phonograph records. (Usborne's music and science books have some stuff about this, and encyclopedias have too.)

What instrument did Elvis Presley play? Do you have a guitar at your house, and could the kids learn a few chords? (Blue Suede Shoes can be played with four, I think, in a simplified form.) What other instruments are on the recording? What time signature is the song in? What key? How could you find out? (pitch pipe, keyboard)

What's the difference between rock'n'roll and jazz? Blues? (This might be easier by identifying samples-i.e. multiple choice-than by definition.)

These are just the things I'm thinking of as fast as I can type. Some would be too hard for some kids, some might not interest the parents or kids, but every one could lead to something else, which could lead to something else again. Looking through old Life or Look magazines would reveal lots of civil rights activity, the Korean War, the first days of Camp David, advertisements for modern gas appliances, discussions of the new suburban homes (40-yr-old houses, shown as brand new cutting-edge technology), and advertisements for automobiles (with the prices, even in those days), and Elvis might be just a tiny thought on the side of learning about the 50's. How did I do? Others should add more!

So, back to the present now, I was amazed at how much had poured out. That led to my "Everything is Educational" belief which has turned into folders and workshops. Elvis had finally really captured my attention.

A few years later my kids asked about Hawaii and were amazed that I was already alive when Hawaii became a state and remembered reading about it in Weekly Reader at school. "Tell us more." I thought of Elvis again, and went and rented "Blue Hawaii." We ate pineapple. I found an umbrella I had bought at a thrift shop that was manufactured in Hawaii before statehood. That started our "unit" on Hawaii, but as I explained things to them ideas were coming together and being taken apart in my own mind.

When "Blue Hawaii" was new, Americans were seeing some of their first BIG, color photos of Hawaii, and some of their first moving footage. TV was still in black and white, and newspapers were too. Even most magazines were full of black and white photographs.

We talked about Germany, the Berlin Wall, prejudice, colonization, plantations, volcanos, latitude, oceanography, music, fashion, realities in wealthy families that don't apply to poorer familes, cultural traditions, the changing culture after WWII... We talked about commercial airlines, engineering and economics. We got more out of a movie that was never intended (except for the tolerance and anti-prejudice messages) than I expected we would. And still I left things out. The actress wasn't really half Hawaiian (I'm guessing), but I left that for my kids to figure out later on their own.

Part of what this sort of exploration takes is the willingness to let go of an "outline" or of a hope that you will find something, and an ability to go with what you do find. It's the big airplane hangar door to unschooling, through which, if you can leave the schoolish building your own mind has built, that has "academics" sorted and stacked against old walls with bad memories, you can see the light of the real world outside. Just move out toward those cliffs and flowers and see what kind of birds are out there.

So take up a glass of pineapple juice while "Blue Suede Shoes" blares in the background. Here's hoping you see Elvis soon!

1999, Sandra Dodd
Published in Home Education Magazine - January-February 1999

In the years since this was written, Elvis has come to appear more clearly to unschoolers or anyone with the internet:

And that reminds me of German music boxes and the tie-in with Swiss watches, Bavarian cuckoo clocks, and that reminds me of the great mechanical doll and marionette scene in Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang ...

That movie has a tie-in with James Bond (because the original book written by Ian Fleming, who named the female character "Truly Scrumptious") and the movie script was written by Roald Dahl.

This page is old, and the original writing is from 1993. But in 2016, I'm adding another video that invokes mechanical music. It's from "The Book of Mormon," which is not recommended for families with young children, but this one song won't hurt anyone. Very nice use of doorbells, especially in the last verse.

Connect the Dots!—how learning works, with other fun explorations, or more Elvis