Josh Ritter is the greatest songwriter in the universe. Some people might argue that choosing such a person is a subjective process, but trust me: this is just a fact. His style varies and the music does not fit neatly into any category, but it is all good. Ritter’s songs are poetic. His lyrics are clever and rich. Even on his early albums, he was dropping lines like, “All the other girls here are stars, you are the northern lights.” Had I been a Josh Ritter fan when I met my wife, I would have used that. (And she would have rolled her eyes, but it is still a great line.)
His songs are a perfect fit for an ELA class. The depth of the characters, the strength of the writing, the creativity, and the use of figurative language are all things I want my students to notice as readers and emulate as writers. There are three songs in particular that have worked their way to the top of my playlist.
“The Angels Laid Him Away”
“Folk Bloodbath” is appropriately named. In the song, Ritter takes characters from American folklore and traditional folk songs, and he kills them all off. The characters are variations on real-life stories that made their way into old folk music and then into Josh Ritter’s song. I use the song to introduce allusions and created a Google doc with the lyrics, as well as links within the lyrics that lead to Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos. It is a good way to show how characters from older work can be an influence for characters in newer work.
“The Crew Gathered Closer at First”
Josh Ritter frequently writes epic narratives, and “Another New World” definitely fits that description. The protagonist is a famous explorer whose only relationship is with his ship, the Annabelle Lee. He convinces investors to fund a trip to the North Pole to break through the ice and discover, what he hopes, will be a new world. I hate to spoil it, but the trip does not end well. The ship ends up being more like The Giving Tree than the Nina (or Pinta or Santa Maria).
I go through this song with my students to practice close reading. We go line-by-line and discuss what is happening as the plot develops. Because Ritter does such a good job of painting a picture without being overt in his description, the students have to make inferences and pay attention to details.
“What Beautiful Lines and How Full of Life”
Ritter’s songs have universal themes, but he uses unconventional characters in interesting situations. In “The Curse,” a mummy wakes up after thousands of years and falls in love with the archaeologist who discovers him.
Like most of his songs, his words paint a clear picture in the listener’s (or reader’s) mind. I have my students read the lyrics without me giving them any kind of preface. After they read it, they write a paragraph about what they think the song was about. Once they are finished, I show them the video that Ritter’s drummer, Liam Hurley, made for the song.
As the video is playing, I love watching the reactions of the students who got it right. When it is over, we take a closer look at the song. There are clues everywhere. There are obvious things, but I also like to point out the use of figurative language. He describes a flurry of activity when the mummy walks out of a museum as a “sandstorm of flashbulbs and rowdy reporters.” As the archeologist ages, and the mummy is gaining strength, she is referred to as “just one more rag he’s dragging behind him.”
This year, another 7th grade ELA teacher and I are going to debate whether or not the mummy in the song is a good guy or just selfish. We want to model using text evidence to support our interpretations. We plan to video our arguments and play it in class.
Listen Along on Spotify
There are other Josh Ritter songs I use in my class, and I am pretty sure I could write an entire class curriculum just using his lyrics. If I were going to try it, this is the Spotify playlist that would make up the first semester: Josh Ritter 101.
Nathan Garvin teaches 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts and Reading at Walnut Grove Middle School in Midlothian, Texas. For more great ELA lesson plan ideas, check out his EdmodoCon 2014 presentation “Leveling Up Student Writing With Badges” and follow Nathan on Twitter.