bebop · hip hop · teaching

one of those days when..


Today was one of those days when you realize that things are really working out no matter what. As I ended my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Music and Young America” course, a student who was completing her in-class reflection on the topic at hand said she’d never had a class where she was invited to offer her opinion. Moreover, she really liked how there was no real right or wrong answer. “Everything is open-end,” she said.

“Not entirely,” I replied. But I was proud to tell her how historians try to use evidence to find meaning in the past and present and how in this case, music could be used as a text.

“That’s what I mean. No one ever told me music could be something I could read!”

And I smiled. Exhausted, I smiled.

Today, we finished our look at the messiness of the postwar period as it related to the movement of some people from cities to suburban communities. One of the “texts” before them was excerpts from the 1979 Peter Sellers’ film “Being There.”

In this film, a simple-minded gardener emerges as a hero of sorts in the 1970s when people are pretty down owing to the economy and so much else unnamed including poverty-stricken cities, memory of a fallen president, an energy crisis and the Vietnam War. Everything Chance the Gardner learns seems to come from television. The movie serves as a challenge to pay attention to how we passively take in information. We must look at the world around us, even the music to which we listen, with critical eyes. Music, to be clear, helps narrate so many issues before us.

We pivoted from that movie and Tuesday’s lecture on the rise of cities to an exploration of the tensions between certain musical genres particularly ones with an orchestral feel. That found us listening to everything from Bach to Patsy Cline to Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra to Parliament-Funkadelic and even the Beatles’ via “A Day in the Life.” Two critical issues were 1) being mindful of the advancements in technology occurring alongside the growth of the city in the 20th century and 2) trying to see how much has changed and stayed the same. Even Nina Simone was in view as she was initially a classical pianist who loved Bach.

The day was also a good one because I returned their in-class reflection from our last meeting and of the 19 students present, 16 of the 19 clearly had a high B to an A. They were finally understanding how to see the messy postwar period in particular documents, or the way in which we see progress alongside things clearly still needing to change. Progress might include Barry White who just doesn’t look like the average person conducting an 41-piece orchestra. But that’s exactly what he was doing with the 1973 hit “Love’s Theme,” a song he composed just eight years after African Americans finally had legal protection as they attempted to vote. All this as women were still hoping for more equitable wages.

I look forward to the weekend and all that lies ahead. What gets me through the more difficult moments is knowing that the students are often the easiest part of the journey. Who knew?

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