One of the neat things about the mix tape and mix tape essay assignment for my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music” course is being introduced to music I’d hadn’t heard or paid much attention to before (loved “music is all we got” sentiment expressed in “All We Got” by Chance the Rapper featuring Kanye West & Chicago Children’s Choir. Loved, too, The Orb remix of “A Wonderful World,” which was a nice start to a mix created by Cecilia, one of the students in this course).
I also like being reintroduced to music that has been with us for quite a while (loved hearing jazz drummer-composer-producer Norman Connors’ Invitation.” Thank you, Turner. Mos Def sampled this for the 2002 tune “Brown Sugar,” which is featured in a movie about hip hop also released that year).
As I listened to the many mixes that arrived largely via actual cassette tapes – bravo to the class for taking me up on this challenge – or via links to websites like Soundcloud.com or Spotify or even via CD, I found myself bopping my head. When I rushed to hand a student’s mix on cassette over to my husband to turn into a digital file so I could have a personal souvenir of their efforts to listen to after we put this semester in our rearview, I knew that we’d done something special.
When I even found my mind drifting off to other tasks only to return to the present moment because a student had done something unexpected with his or her mix (like layer two different songs in interesting ways), I smiled. I smiled because that particular student had captured one of the magical things about mix tapes: the power to surprise. In this way, they made listening pleasurable.
By now, they all know that a mix tape can be historicized. As I state in the syllabus, this musical tool that is the mix tape (in these digital days, simply called “playlist”) arrived in the late 1960s through the 1970s. People, among them, deejays, placed songs together for others to enjoy, generally speaking. Earlier this semester, Michael Tunaitis, one student, shared the mix tapes his father and mother gave each other.
No matter the overall effort given, almost all of the students in addition to creating mixes also completed the reading. That, or they did enough to capture the assigned book’s main points.
Getting students to read in this technological age is a real chore. I deliberately picked Lynda Barry’s The Good Times Are Killing Me, a book published in 1988 that also became a play two years later, because it is set after the Second World War – the period under musical review in this course – but it permits us to see changes in this era. Most of the changes involve race via the eyes of two preteen girls, one of them black and the other white. Through them, we witness not only a neighborhood racially changing, but the way in which music helps young people cope with societal pressures, among them, accepting or not accepting someone on the basis of race.
The book, which the students had to narrate via a short essay and a mix tape, is appealing because it’s a quick read. Also, Barry, the author, does a lovely job of keeping the reader’s interest because the “chapters” are mere vignettes, some not even two paragraphs long. In fact, the stream of conscious-like storytelling almost mimics the lyrics in the songs she mentions.
Some of the students included some of the songs Barry offers in her narrative in their playlists, among them Archie Bells and the Drells’ 1968 hit “Tighten Up” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” The latter was a favorite of Edna Arkins, the lead character, a white girl whose parents had a rule that no blacks could enter their home. That did not permit Edna from letting her black friend Bonna from entering (albeit through the basement). She even made Bonna her best friend of sorts. I say of sorts because as the students discovered, Bonna, in response to societal pressure she, too, received, abandoned the friendship.
Jacob Birdsong, another student in the class, used Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” to narrate the moment when Edna attends Bonna’s church and is amazed to see the black worshippers’ exuberance. As Jacob offers Kanye’s lyric, “What’s a god to a non-believer? Who don’t believe in anything?” to offer his thoughts on this part of the book. Jacob noted how the church “was a strong part of the community in the 60’s to both white and black families.” In Jacob’s mind, Edna’s reaction to Bonna’s church, “illustrates the uncertainty of the postwar era that was felt by a large majority of Americans. Where church is supposed to be a safe haven, it is not to Edna because of new ideologies …that accompanied the 60’s like the Civil Rights Movement.” Jacob understood how many Americans feared the adjustments being made in society as people of African descent expressed their pain in and outside of the church.
Jacob also addressed how postwar racial tensions were partly a result of the GI Bill, which “granted pay to both white and black solders, but did not grant equal wealth.” To get at the consumerist culture evident in the period, he mentioned the flashiness of pimps, a topic that is introduced in the book when Edna becomes aware of the “pimp walk.”
As Jacob wrote, “all she knew about pimps was they had expensive possessions.” He used this idea to announce that she, too, desired to have “nice things.” He essentially situatesd this white girl from a working class family into a messy postwar narrative. He did as much while also acknowledging how “the post war era saw a large amount of systematic racism” that seemed to create more hurdles for black Americans. While he does not address head on the response of pimps to such hurdles, his effort is impressive. He offered “Pimp Juice,” by Kanye West, an artist often appearing on many students’ mixes, to illustrate this part of Edna’s life.
Rita McWilliams, yet another student, impressed me owing to her ability to see how the postwar period helped us to see the arrival of such things as the “teenager,” or a generation of people whose interests and tastes manifested as being somewhat, although not entirely, from their parents. Because of seeming postwar wealth, particularly in suburban communities, young people were a targeted audience for mass marketing. Speaking to both phenomena, Rita wrote, “Edna and her sister, Lucy, create[d] a night club with the new record player … in the basement … where Edna would [eventually] hang out with Bonna. Edna, Bonna, and Lucy essentially created their own private ‘hop.'”
Rita offered the song “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors in her mix “because it has a carefree, simplicity about it” that seemed to define their lives no matter the social pressures around them to conform to the intolerant attitudes of many adults.
Also, she selected to this song because “going to ‘the hop’ …meant to go out to dance hall where teenagers would usually socialize.” She noted that teenagers had “a seemingly less war torn life than their parents.” She even added “the postwar story of class comes into play here.” Noting how such young people lived in actual houses in the suburbs, Rita states, “[As] Barry writes, “We could”open up the door to the garage and have American Bandstand.”
I’ve emailed other students about sharing their work and may update this post, or create a place online for them to upload their playlists and/or audio mixes, in the coming days. On other fronts…glad to see Alabama beat Texas A & M yesterday. No sad faces on campus as we head into the Fall Break on Thursday. Roll Tide!