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KS3/4 English: Songs of the Coalfields (1957)

Compare and contrast two industrial folksongs to develop literacy skills

Main image of KS3/4 English: Songs of the Coalfields (1957)
AuthorGemma Starkey
TopicIndustrial Folksongs - developing speaking, listening and reading skills
Key Words Mining, folk, ballad, music, industry, heritage, coal, Ewan MacColl, class, work, protest, tradition
Show full lesson spec

This lesson places the forms of ballads/folk music into their historical context and asks students to use their literacy skills to unpick their meaning through textual analysis.

The lively and engaging Songs of the Coalfields (1957) offers an entry point into looking at industrial folk music - its language and form as well as its associated traditions. These songs provide a unique window on to the mining community of the time; opening up discussions on Britain's industrial heritage, the significance of its regions and localities, as well as issues around class, politics and protest.

This lesson idea requires students to listen, read and respond to an unexpected form of early music video on a topic intrinsic to Britain's industrial past. It offers students the chance to use their knowledge and experience of music videos, then asks them to question and reframe it.

This lesson could also be adapted for use in the Music classroom.

Lesson Objective

  • Students will compare and contrast two industrial folksongs and contribute to a class discussion exploring the similarities and differences between them as well as the significance of context in influencing literary form.


Begin the lesson by asking the students to listen carefully to the song 16 Tons from Mining Review 10/10. Don't show them any visuals.

What do they think the song could be about? Play it again and ask them to focus on its tone, imagery and language. Encourage them to think about the song's rhymes and repetition. Do they think it's an upbeat song? Can they comment on the style of music?

It might be useful to capture the students' ideas on the board.


Main Attraction

Now show them the film with sound and follow this with Mining Review 10/11: The Plodder Seam (entry point 3:33 in the 9 min extract above). It might be useful to hand out the lyrics to the songs at this point (see downloadable Teacher's Notes).

Also, offer students the table (see downloadable 16 Tons Lyrics pdf) to help them capture their ideas about the songs and the films made to accompany them.

Once they have collected together their ideas, encourage them to discuss, in pairs or small groups, the similarities and differences between the two extracts.

The aim here is to develop students understanding of the cultural context in which these types of songs were written and to encourage them to think about how this impacted on the 'form' of the industrial folk song. Some questions:

  • Who do they think might have written these songs?
  • Where do they think they came from?
  • Where might these songs have been sung? And by who?
  • What impact and significance do they think these songs had on the communities that produced them?

One interesting point, that you might want to spend some time discussing, is the difference between the written lyrics and those sung in the extracts (astute students might have noticed this). This is the result of the ways in which such songs were not learned verbatim, but passed on orally.

It is also worth remembering that Songs of the Coalfields were produced and exhibited as part of the newsreel Mining Review and that these were shown primarily in cinemas to mining audiences. Why do students think the songs were included by the newsreel producers - where typically the main focus was on information-giving? Do they think this is successful? It might be useful to draw parallels with 'magazine' type programmes on television today, such as 'The One Show'.


End Credits

Ask the students to think about current trends in music or film that continue, or relate to, the traditions of these folksongs. Some thoughts:

  • Do they think there is any continuity in terms of films and music today? If not, why not?
  • What do contemporary protest songs focus on?
  • Where might you go to hear them?

Finish by showing them the short animation Signature (1990) - an oppressive, yet evocative film about the monotony of an office worker's life in a hostile London. How does this compare to 16 Tons and The Plodder Seam? Again they could think about atmosphere, sound, imagery, tone, etc.


External Links
English Folk Dance and Song Society

Video Clips
Complete film (9:14)
Complete item (2:07)
Downloadable Teaching Resources

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Mining Review 10/10: 16 Tons (1957)Mining Review 10/10: 16 Tons (1957)

Read more about this film

Thumbnail image of Mining Review 10/11: The Plodder Seam (1957)Mining Review 10/11: The Plodder Seam (1957)

Read more about this film

Thumbnail image of Signature (1990)Signature (1990)

Read more about this film

See also

Thumbnail image of Songs of the CoalfieldsSongs of the Coalfields

Six mining folksongs given a prototype pop video treatment