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B+ bop-a-lula: Rock history courses in America

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Question No. 3: What sonic and stylistic elements distinguish the Chicago blues sound?

Question No. 17: What was the first film to use a rock 'n' roll soundtrack?

Essay No. 2: Elvis Presley and the Beatles made successive impacts on American rock 'n' roll. Discuss their historic and musical development. Then declare and defend your choice for which of the two was most significant to rock as a whole.

These are the kinds of questions students across the country (if they're lucky) strained to answer during recent final exams.

Yes, parents, your tuition might be funding a study of psychedelic rock, quizzes about the names of Brill Building songwriters or term papers about Michael Jackson.

The history of pop music is fast becoming an enviable elective course on university campuses across the country. UCLA's music history program offers a wide variety of pop music courses, from a Beatles overview to "History of Electronic Dance Music." Northwestern University offers a basic course called "The Cultural History of Rock Music" (though thus far it's been quarantined in the School of Continuing Studies). We even found one at the associate-degree level deep in the wilds of New Jersey: Raritan Valley Community College's "Rock 'n' Roll History and Culture."

Roll over, Beethoven, indeed.

Rock 'n' roll is, after all, 63 years old (if you go by a debatable birthday in 1947), nearly eligible for retirement. That's an entire lifetime of growth and development, not to mention the genealogy of blues, jazz and folk music that preceded it. It's all ripe for classroom study now -- particularly for newly enrolled college students born after Kurt Cobain and wondering why that new MGMT album sounds the way it does.

"Students now, they get to be teens and discover music, usually what's current, and then some of them have this epiphany -- 'Wow, there's half a century of stuff before this!'" says Glenn Gass, a music professor who teaches rock history at the Univ. of Indiana. "But catching up with that history is so much easier than it used to be. Some of them have virtually the entire history of pop music right there on their iPod. When I started out, students had to listen to reel-to-reel tapes on a reserve list in the library. If you wanted to hear a Fats Domino collection, good luck; it's out of print. We'd go to hotel ballrooms for conventions and sift through stacks of 45s. CDs changed everything, and video -- if you had two minutes of Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano, it was 'Oh my God!' Now people with amazing footage have posted it on YouTube. The technology has made all of that history available to students.

"But, as with any segment of history, it can be a lot to get your head around, you know? These new courses hopefully are helping put it all into some kind of perspective."

6-4-10 Hein rock history 3.jpg

Michael Kramer teaches a course in rock music history at Northwestern Univ. (Rich Hein/Sun-Times)

Fought the power
Gass teaches his two-semester course, "A History of Rock Music" (as well as "The Music of the Beatles"), in IU's Jacobs School of Music and has since 1982. He's written a textbook of the same title. Even after all these years, he says he still can't get used to the reconciling of generations that's occurred within the realm of rock music.

"In old days, rock tore the generations apart. If your dad liked it, that was the kiss of death," he says. "Now, time and time again, I play some classic rock, and the kids know it, and I ask how they know it. 'Oh, my dad and I listen to Hendrix together.' I can't imagine that in a hundred years. One student in my class told me, 'I'm glad we're finally onto rockabilly. My dad and I drive around listening to that.' That's soooo strange! There's no embarrassment anymore about growing up listening to the same music your parents did. It proves it's timeless. You didn't have to walk the streets of Vienna to appreciate Beethoven. The same is true of the Beatles. Which means it's ripe for study and a little guidance."

On this point, fellow rock academics point to the work of Lawrence Grossberg, a renowned cultural studies scholar who did doctoral research at the University of Illinois. Michael Kramer, who teaches Northwestern's "Cultural History of Rock" class, can speak at length on Grossberg's studies of rock music as communication, on his "high-falutin' language" ("Someone had to take it there," he concedes) used to describe rock 'n' roll and his attempt to determine if its was really the breeding ground of a leftist revolution it often claimed to be. By the end of the 1970s, Kramer says, Grossberg realized that the oppositional force of rock 'n' roll -- kids vs. parents, youth vs. establishment -- had evaporated. Once rock stopped defining difference, Grossberg moved on.

"And there are older folks who cling to music as opposition and don't want it to be absorbed into the academy," Kramer says. "Rock doesn't have its edge anymore. but that's exactly what's allowing it to slip into academia."

It happened with jazz. Once considered a cheap music and a dangerous influence, jazz preceded rock into the ivy-covered halls of learning and is now commonly studied alongside classical music, often with the same terminology and serious approach. (I took a History of Jazz course when I was in college, even writing a term paper comparing Steely Dan to Duke Ellington.)

Popular music studies have been on the British curriculum since 1980. Carey Fleiner at the Univ. of Delaware points out, in a 2008 paper titled "Teaching Rock and Roll History," that British "students also attend particular schools and conservatories explicitly to focus on rock music and to earn a degree on the subject." In the Midwest, Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University gets close to being a pop music studies conservatory; rock history courses have been taught there since 2001, and the school has enjoyed a decade-long collaborative research relationship with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame across town.

Rock is dead, long live rock
Until about 10 or 15 years ago, rock music studies began in history departments, communication departments, sometimes even English departments. Rock was used in its context to discuss social and political changes. After all, what serious study of the Civil Rights era or the Vietnam War would be complete without looking into how the people expressed themselves in music or rallied around certain folk songs and rock artists?

Today, rock history courses are migrating to music departments. The discussion is less about context and history and more about style, performance and lyrics. Gass, for instance, teaches rock history as a low-level music appreciation course.

"All that history and post-Marx theory applied to rock bores me out of my mind," he says. "I teach music appreciation, not cultural studies."

John Covach teaches rock history at the Univ. of Rochester (N.Y.), in the Eastman School of Music. He received all three of his university degrees from the Univ. of Michigan, studying classical music (while playing nights -- secretly -- in a progressive rock band). Echoing the experience of all rock history professors I spoke with, Covach said he encountered slight resistance to the suggestion of such a course -- until the school saw first-hand how popular it would be.

"I started this course at [the Univ. of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill. They have a very conservative group of musicologists, but they said, OK, give it a try. They cautiously embraced it," Covach says. "Initially they wondered whether students would sign up for it. I told them the big problem would be keeping the numbers manageable. I cap the class at 125, and I always fill up. At North Carolina I had 320 students, and the fire code on the room was 318. If they'd ever all shown up there wouldn't have been enough seats. ... Once a department sees that, they see the course as a cash cow. More students in one of your courses means more resources for the department."

Gass faced challenges in launching a rock history course, too. He was undaunted; one of his first jobs was in a 1977 government program teaching jazz and rock history in Wisconsin prisons. "I had a fellow in the musicology department one day in the Xerox room, and the guy said, 'How can you spend one hour on that garbage?' He wasn't even trying to be insulting; he just couldn't understand why anyone would pursue it, the music was so obviously moronic garbage. That's cool. If it was too easy it would have felt strange. I liked that there were still adults who hated rock at that point. Now you have oboe teachers who also love Led Zeppelin."

But how you approach the subject -- and from which discipline -- matters, according to NU's Kramer. The most important question, he says, is are you teaching rock history or pop music history?

"I begin my class by asking: Is rock dead?" Kramer says, citing the theme of Kevin Dettmar's book, Is Rock Dead?. He then brings up "The Death of Rock and Roll," a 1956 record by Maddox Brothers and Rose, a country-rockabilly group, that was imitating Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman." "Rock 'n' roll has, from its very beginning, this notion of its own death. Maybe that's because it's the music of young people, and you have to grow up, your youth has to die. ... But there's a tension between rock music and pop music. It's something that's exploded at the EMP Pop Conference lately. Rock has had such an influence on pop music, but there are two totally different classes there, and they could come from any department, really. I would not open a class by asking: Is pop music dead?"

The death of rock may not have been greatly exaggerated -- and may be the only reason academics now allow students to conduct the autopsy.

For his part, Gass prefers to get down to basics and just help students make sense of the smorgasbord available to them on iTunes and Amazon. "There are professors out there who treat a popular music conference like going to a physics conference. There is some real high-level inquiry out there. I teach non-majors -- sophomores from the frat house. I'm just looking for a way to connect them to [Bob Dylan's] 'Blonde on Blonde.' ... If I can make that light bulb come on, then rock can live a little bit longer."

(Answers to those first questions -- No. 3: Rooted in Mississippi Delta blues, with frequent use of slides, bent notes and double-stopped strings, as well as intricate rhythm patterns. No. 17: "The Blackboard Jungle" Essay No. 2: Answers vary. Widely.)

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on June 14, 2010 7:00 AM.

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