Today I go back to teaching after six weeks off. Six weeks!!!! It's the longest winter break EVER, me thinks. I gave my last final on Tuesday, December 16, and tonight I begin a new section of "Popular Music in America." I love this course. Our music history, in all its swirly mayhem, fascinates me.
I've taught this class in previous semesters, and it always draws a mix of performance majors, music business majors (I think it's a requirement for them) and random seniors who need an upper-division humanities elective credit. I first took a class like this while in school in Denver. I went back to music school as an undergraduate (with a Bachelor's already in hand....) so that I could beef up my music theory and history skills so THEN I could go into a Master's program in musicology. Although I played the piano all of my life, I needed some refresher courses on music history in order to successfully jump ship from teaching high school English to, well, doing whatever the hell I do now. All that money, time and delirium so I could blog from my home on a frozen January day, huh? (ha ha.....I'd do it again in a heartbeat). But, I loved this course and it set me on the path to being an "Americanist" in musicology. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses waiting in long lines for concert tickets, and I will gleefully join the pack.
Anyway, I safely conclude that the students who enroll in my course because they see "Popular Music" in the coursebook and figure it will be a breeze ("dude, I know ALL ABOUT popular music, dude") are always shocked. And, the worker bees and students who are generally interested in our nation's history (or who have enrolled in other classes of mine) excel and make the class interesting. Here's why:
The historian in me sees the term "popular music" from a philosophical/ideological point of view. The word changes meaning like a chameleon, filing neatly in line with whatever musical product fulfills its parameters for that moment/era/trend. And, the Popular recognizes and rejoices in its rebellion.....it clearly delineates "the masses" from "the cultivated" or "the elite," the latter two terms being messy ones for what I'm trying to say, but are thrown around enough in musicology circles to be adequate inadequacies for now, I suppose. From 1776, those seeking to make America look and behave like lovely ol' England were shocked (even dismayed?) by the rugrats running through this new territory: drinking, dancing, partying it up with just a fiddle, a "drum," some racy lyrics, and no singing skills. Good stuff!!! And still going strong after 200 years, in my opinion.... :)
So, we start at 1800. We start with Buffalo (so I can at least use my dissertation research for SOMETHING...ha ha) and life in the "frontier." We move forward through the 19th-century and outward into our growing nation as the rich become richer and the poor keep working for them....wow, why does that scenario sound so familiar?????
ANYWAY, the notion of popular comes 'round and 'round...tons of topics and people from minstrel shows to Tin Pan Alley to ragtime to jazz (yes, jazz was once popular music!), to blues to early country and then.....Elvis. This takes about two-thirds of the semester to reach music that my students sort of recognize. Then we plow through rock, hippies, rap, alternative, blahblabhblah and I am always stunned by students who don't recognize "Stairway to Heaven" or can't name a song by The Who.......*sigh*. This crop may have been born in 1988. Holy canoli, batman.
I always enjoy this class but worry how little they (for the most part....I have had some crazysmart students along the way) know about our nation's history when it seems the perfect time to use that knowledge to, um, keep it going? And musically, in their recall of music from another era, they defer to "oldies" from their parents, which,......is often music of the 1980s!!!! I am the age of some of their parents!!!!! HOLY SHIT, batman! Really!?!?!?
So, tonight we will start by creating a consensus definition of "popular," discussing ideals and parameters of American "pioneers" and "citizens" (a polarization of stereotypes that I created to at least prep them for "idealists" and "egalitarians"), and discuss the three "streams" of influences romping through our country early on (a concept used in their textbook---European, Latin American, African American). And I'll play a bunch of snippets of tunes and they'll leave, hopefully to come back next week ready to rock and roll (in 1820, that is....)
The class still has a few open seats if you'd like to join....now where is that hat?!?!