Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One, Two, Three O'clock, Four O'clock Rock Course

Randall Stephens

I'm teaching a course this semester on rock history. That's a topic I naturally enjoy and it fits in well with other classes I've offered--America in the 1960s, History of the Civil Rights Movement, the South since 1865.

But I've found my inner cynic asking, is this worth a semester of study, time, and attention? Does the subject lend itself to an academic, historical treatment. (Maybe I imagine a medievalist indignantly saying, "You teach what?!")

In the end, I think rock history does, in fact, deserve critical, serious treatment. Since the 1970s historians have studied and taught topics once considered to involve, as E. H. Carr might have put it, "facts" of no historical significance. We now have courses in our profession on sports history, the history of leisure, and more. So why not this? And, of course, it's not like this is the first time a rock history class has been offered.

Still, I like to challenge students now and then with questions about rock's relevance and larger cultural impact. The class is organized around a series of questions--some large, some small. On the small side, yesterday we asked why it is that over fifty years later most of the students in the class know at least 10 different Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller songs. Could the average college student come up with even three
songs from the 1920s? So . . . what accounts for the longevity of rock? Why has it lasted when other styles lay in the dustbin of history? Will twenty-year-olds still remember 1950s rock in another fifty years?

We can also talk about change over time and ask questions about how we get from point A to point B. The class reading from the other day covered the rise of Sun
Records, the critical response to rock in the media, and the appeal and star power of Elvis Presley. We looked at two versions of the same song to talk about how early rockers reworked what they sang. The orginal, Bill Monroe's 1947 "Blue Moon of Kentucky," is embedded above. Elvis's rock-a-billy retooling is obvious in the cover version from less than a decade later. But what accounts for the difference between the two? What musical developments were underway in the years between the two?

In addition we also have some overarching questions, like the following:

How did rock become the dominant genre of popular music?
What factors led to the popularity of certain bands and performers?
How was rock based on earlier styles of music?
In what ways did rock change society?
How can we best understand the relationship between fans and musicians?
Is “rock” still a viable form?

We'll see how well those questions work as the semester progresses. Perhaps I'll settle on other ones if these prove useless!

No comments: