Tar and Cement

“Nail house” in Shanghai: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Film, music and photography-based ESL/EFL lesson about urbanization and nostalgia

My last post featuring Frank Sinatra’s It Was A Very Good Year reminded me of a grammatical structure I have seldom had cause to teach. Twice in the song we see the modal “would” used not in the conditional context that most students will encounter first, but rather to express habits in the past (“We’d hide from the lights / On the village green”, “We’d ride in limousines / Their chauffeurs would drive”). To build on this, as well as the structure “used to + verb”, to talk about our past routines, there is fantastic song which is also a rich basis for discussion about our relationship to the past, particularly as concerns urbanization and the irrevocable transformation of the natural environment into the built one. The song is Tar & Cement, a one-hit country-soul wonder by Verdelle Smith, written by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance.

Most students seem to identify with and appreciate the song, which was originally recorded in Italian with similar but different lyrics (Il ragazzo della via Gluck by Adriano Celentano) and versions of which also enjoyed releases in other countries and languages, including France (La Maison où j’ai grandi by Françoise Hardy).

I like to start a lesson based around Tar & Cement with some extreme images of urbanization. The most interesting ones as concerns the song, in my view, are those of “Nail Houses” in China, where lone buildings stand as testament to those resisting the tide of urban development, the rest of the surrounding district or countryside having been demolished to make way for high-speed motorways or gargantuan housing complexes.

The most evocative for me, seen above, is particularly curious as the little house and tree behind it seem somehow supplanted into the present, or even future, from some more rustic past. Some students even read it that way and are surprised to learn that the house has not been somehow dropped into a modern urban landscape, but that the concrete, tar and cement came later. In any case, the way the photo evokes some form of disjointedness between past and present chimes perfectly with the song’s nostalgia.

Level A2+

Warm up – photo analysis

Have students look at the picture above and ask them to describe what they see and how it makes them feel. You could also show them further images to elicit more vocab, see below for example.

You could follow this up with a brainstorming about the advantages and disadvantages of city life.

Warm up 2 (optional) – clip analysis

To continue brainstorming about urbanization, you could show this extract from Bladerunner, which evokes many of the problems of city life, though obviously pushed to extremes: overcrowding, pollution, dirt, crime, traffic, noise, anonymity etc. You might want to stop the clip before Deckard “retires” replicant Zhora, though, as it is not strictly relevant and possibly inappropriate for some groups, even if it is an incredible piece of filmmaking and unsettling in its moral ambiguity.


Song analysis

Tell the students they are going to listen to a song which tells a story. The song is called Tar & Cement. Can they predict what it is about?

Let the students listen to the song at least once without any challenging tasks to do. You could just ask some gist questions like: What do you think the song is about? How would you describe the mood? Make a note of any lyrics you understand.

Before doing a gap-fill activity on the lyrics, you might want to introduce some of the more difficult vocabulary. Rather than “pre-teaching” it, which is rightly out of fashion, you could do this as a matching exercise (words to definition). For example:

a) an acre
b) a meadow
c) tar
d) a lilac

i) a field of wild flowers and grass
ii) asphalt
iii) about 40% of a hectare
iv) a tree or bush with pink-violet coloured flowers

Depending on the level of the group, you could add a couple more.

Here is the song and a gap-fill suggestion below.

The town I came from was quiet and …………………
We played in the meadows where the grass grew so …………………
In summer the lilacs would grow …………………
The laughter of children would float in the …………………

As I grew older I had to …………………
Far from my family, far from my …………………
Into the city, where lives can be …………………
Lost in the shadows of tar and cement.

And every night I’d sit alone and …………………
What loneliness meant
Up in my rented room above the …………………
Of tar and cement.

Each day I’d wake up and look at the …………………
Think of the meadows where I used to …………………
Then I’d remember all of that’s …………………
You’re in the city, you better push on
Get what you came for, before it’s too …………………
Get what you came for, the meadows can ………………….

So every night I’d sit alone and …………………
What loneliness meant
Up in my rented room above the …………………
Of tar and cement.

Many years later, tired at …………………
I headed for home to look for my …………………
I looked for the meadows, there wasn’t a …………………
Six lanes of highway had taken their …………………
Where were the lilacs and all that they meant?
Nothing but acres of tar and cement.

Yet I can see it there so clearly …………………
Where has it …………………?
Yes I can see it there so clearly …………………
Where has it …………………?

Where are the meadows? (tar and cement)
Where are the lilacs? (tar and cement)
And where is the tall grass? (tar and cement)
The laughter of children? (tar and cement)
Nothing but acres (tar and cement)
Acres and acres

After the gap-fill, you will certainly want the students to discuss the story and their feelings towards the song, providing questions if necessary. You might also focus on the shift in modes of address in the fourth verse, which seems to suggest a conflict in her consciousness as she tries to remind herself of why she left her home in the countryside in the first place (“You’re in the city, you better push on / Get what you came for, before it’s too late” etc.).

The blanks I have chosen here are mostly rhyming words, but you could focus on irregular verbs (spent, meant, gone, taken, grew, came). As mentioned earlier, it would also be interesting to elicit the structure for expressing habits in the past (used to, would).

Creative/productive activities for students

  • To get the students practicing the past tense (especially irregular verbs) and used to/would for expressing past habits, they could write a description of their childhood routines.
  • You could also have students research and present a story about urbanization. They could look into some of the stories about Nail Houses in China, for example, and explain what happened.
    Have the students prepare and present a personal experience of urbanization.
  • A debate/discussion about urbanization
  • Creative writing (the narrator of the song writes a letter or diary entry about her experience, or about the city environment she lives in now)
  • You could also have students compare and contrast the song with Frank Sinatra’s It Was A Very Good Year. Which did they prefer and why? How are they similar, how are they different? etc.
  • Students could prepare and present a video to accompany to the song, explaining what imagery they would use to accompany each verse and why.

2 thoughts on “Tar and Cement

  1. Fantastic read James! You sound like you’re doing fabulous work. A great site for doing this also (although not ESL specific) is the literacy shed. Let me know what you think! Shonah 🙂

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