search articles: 

   from the issue of February 26, 2004

  ‘The music was often leading the charge’

Rock music class offers lesson in culture, history


It probably comes as no surprise that a college class on rock music that fulfills both essential studies and integrative studies requirements would be a popular class at UNL.

Associate Professor Scott Anderson turns up the volume on a Beatles DVD during the History of Rock Music class Feb...
 Associate Professor Scott Anderson turns up the volume on a Beatles DVD during the History of Rock Music class Feb. 12 in the Westbrook Music Building. The high demand for the class caused the School of Music to add a section of the class this semester. Photo by Brett Hampton.

But the School of Music’s class the History of Rock Music, which has been offered since 1996 to non-music majors, is much more than a class about rock music.

“It’s a music class, in that we analyze music,” said Professor of Music Randall Snyder, who originated the class and continues to teach it. “But it’s also a history class of the second half of the 20th century with popular music being an important element of that.”

The School of Music this spring increased the number of sections offered of the popular course from two to three, increasing the number of students taking the class from 478 last fall to 640 this spring. Since the class began in 1996, more than 4,600 students have taken the History of Rock Music.

School of Music Director John Richmond said the School of Music “had to turn so many students away,” so administrators decided to add the third section this spring.

“It’s a response to the general education mission of the institution,” Richmond said. “It brings students into our facilities who wouldn’t otherwise have contact with the School of Music, plus we have faculty who have expertise in this area that use innovative teaching methods. Finally, it features a music area our students already love. They spend a lot of money on this genre.”

Teaching the course this spring are Snyder, who also teaches courses in composition, ethnomusicology and jazz; Scott Anderson, associate professor of trombone; and lecturer Tom Larson, who also teaches the History of American Jazz and jazz piano.

“The course is about teaching the parallels rock ‘n’ roll has to offer with social movements of the time,” Anderson said. “For example, how civil rights evolved and what role music played, or in the 1960s, how the Vietnam War was perceived, how the women’s movement was perceived. The music was often leading the charge.”

For example, Anderson said, when the class studies the civil rights movement, the students study James Meredith, the African-American man who applied to the all-white University of Mississippi, leading to violence.

“I play the song ‘Oxford Town,’ and they can see how the topical movement came about. Bob Dylan could see what was going on and wrote about it,” he said. “The bottom line is, I don’t care how students learn about Brown vs. Board or any of the other important civil and social movements, whether it’s through textbooks or whether it’s through Dylan or Presley, as long as they learn about it.”

Nathan Custard, a junior advertising major in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications who took the History of Rock Music last semester, agrees.

“It is a great way to learn about American history from a different perspective,” he said. “It offers students a chance to learn about American history in a much different light than simply politics and wars.”

Teaching history through rock music makes it accessible to college students.

“Rock is music that is very important to people coming of age,” Larson said. “They make identifications with bands and artists. It’s a part of creating an identity for yourself. I think that’s a large part of why the course is popular.”

Each professor puts his own mark on the course. Anderson takes his classes from the 1920s (the forebears of rock music) and ends in 1971 following the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State University in 1970. Both Larson and Snyder begin with the early influences that created rock music in the first half of the 20th century (jazz, blues, gospel, Tin Pan Alley and honky-tonk) and continue to the present.

“Rock ‘n’ roll really began in the 1950s when the climate of segregation changed,” Snyder said. “There was a widespread fusion of previously separate music, rhythm and blues and country. The cross-over of those styles is when rock ‘n’ roll gets started with artists like Elvis Presley and others.”

All three professors incorporate both audio and visual clips into the lectures to help students get context for the artists they are learning about. Both Larson and Snyder use a Web site that has audio clips on it for students to listen to outside of class.

“We spend time looking at archival video. It’s important to see rock ‘n’ roll in its context,” Anderson said. “Watching Elvis perform in 1956 and seeing the societal reaction to him then is quite a different experience than seeing him from our perspective in 2004.”

One point all three professors like to get across to students is that the music they listen to today has its roots in these early artists.

“Most of the music of today is a derivative of some sort of other music that has taken place,” Larson said. “Students may not realize that.”

Anderson said that as he discusses issues of controversy in the 1950s and 1960s, he often asks students if it sounds familiar to issues happening today.

“Take what happened at the Super Bowl [and the incident involving Janet Jackson exposing a breast],” Anderson said. “The same thing happened in 1969 in Miami when the Doors’ Jim Morrison intentionally exposed himself during a concert. The only thing that changes is the line drawn in the sand [on standards] is pushed back.”

Snyder hopes students who take the History of Rock Music learn three basic principles.

“I hope they gain an appreciation of the legacy of African-American culture,” he said. “I hope they get a better sense of who they are listening to and where contemporary music comes from. And I hope they learn to listen to music in a different way and gain an intellectual sense of what is going on with the music.”

Choosing the artists

It sounds cliche, but there are so many rock artists and so little time in a semester. How do the School of Music professors who teach the History of Rock Music class choose which artists to cover?

The answer depends on which professor is teaching the course; however, three names play an important role in all three sections of the course.

“If I had to choose just three artists to cover, they would be Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Beatles,” Associate Professor Scott Anderson said.

Lecturer Tom Larson said he spends two classes on Elvis, but even that “is not giving him his due.”

Professor Randall Snyder lists a variety of names that he emphasizes, from Elvis and Buddy Holly in the early days, to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, The Who, the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa.

Snyder says influence and significance is more important than quality when they choose whom to cover in class.

“A lot of the music we cover isn’t necessarily great music,” he said. “But it’s influential.”

Snyder puts emphasis on the music of the 1960s, which he says “I know about and what [the students] don’t know as much about.”

“Teeny-bopper music comes of age in the 1960s,” he said. “The music becomes more serious with the revival of folk music and artists like Bob Dylan. The lyrics are more serious and complex. The music interacts with other arts - literature, visual arts and film. Most of the artists in the 1960s read Jack Kerouac.”

Snyder said many of the artists of the 1960s made a profound change to the culture.

“It was a deep spiritual movement that made a change in society,” he said. “They didn’t just make music to make a buck.”

Instead of using traditional rock music history textbooks, Anderson uses two rock literature books for texts in his class: Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (which profiles Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, The Band, Randy Newman and Sly Stone) and Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. His choices are guided by the artists covered in those two books.

“Some decisions have to do with personal aesthetics,” he said. “For example, I think The Band is one of the best rock ‘n’ roll groups ever. Then, there are others who are chosen just for their flat-out significance. How can you ignore them? Like Led Zeppelin.”

Some of the early artists Anderson covers include Robert Johnson, the Carter Family, Elvis and Chuck Berry.

Anderson said he, Larson and Snyder will compare artists from time to time.

“Sometimes they match up, and sometimes they don’t,” he said.



Rock music class offers lesson in culture, history
NCard may gain financial features
Survey gives department a clearer mission
NU, Weitz to negotiate on North Stadium project
Panel to discuss ‘Passion of the Christ’ March 1
UNL Women’s Center Celebrates Women’s Week, March 1–6
Year-end health plan report shows increase in costs