This is a piece of writing that I never shared publicly. Though I wrote it soon after the event, I needed time before sharing it widely. I wanted to be very careful not to center my experience when the attention needed to be on the immediacy of grief for those nearest to the situation. I also want to be mindful of the privacy of my students, so I deliberately omitted or blurred some details in this piece. Soon after writing it, I sent it to colleagues for feedback; one reminded me that I needed to clarify the specifics of the event; my thought at the time was, “Will people ever forget this terrible day?” And yet, for many, it fades into the distance behind what feels like a never-ending litany of mass shootings.
Looking at the writing from a distance, I realized that it sits somewhere between pedagogical writing and memoir. The songs used in the lesson that day--and I've provided links to the lyrics throughout--are still good stepping stones for conversations about race, injustice, protest, and American history. Unfortunately, teachers will continue to need to address mass tragedies even as they teach their course materials, and perhaps this could provide a helpful model. On the personal side, students have shared how this class changed them. And this class changed many things for me; I educated myself and surrounded myself with advocates. As a family, we joined a multiracial church plant that is committed to bridging divides. More recently, I had the opportunity to co-lead a seminar under the leadership of an African-American sister where I was able to use some of what I learned through this and similar teaching experiences to talk to local church communities about structural racism, as well as the power of music to bring us together.
June 24, 2015 (updated for context and clarity)
Even before I found out about the tragic shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston (6/17/2015), I knew that the class I had on the following afternoon would be challenging. It was the day I was scheduled to teach about Civil Rights and protest songs in my “Bob Dylan and the History of American Popular Music” course to a lively and racially, culturally, and generationally diverse group of students. After reading the news, I spent the morning in sadness and prayer, with a head throbbing from the struggle to find ways to frame the topic in the midst of such a difficult day. The pressure system of the incoming thunderstorm tangibly echoed the weight I felt.
It’s always hard to put words around the sadness, the tragedy of racism in the U.S. as reflected in song, whether discussing the mockery of blackface minstrelsy, or exploring songs protesting racism. To wrap students’ heads around the power of music in a classroom when they come from vastly different backgrounds. All of this was amplified in the immediacy of the event. It’s not the first time. I’ve taught in classrooms where my students looked like Trayvon Martin, wearing hoodies, incidentally or in conscious memorial. Knowing that Michael Brown was headed to a technical college haunted me—he could have been a student in my classroom. And any one of the mid-career black women in my class this summer could have passed away in South Carolina. When I look out, I can’t see these issues in the abstract anymore, I see my students’ faces.
Before my lecture, students gave group presentations. The group presenting on protest songs discussed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” on the death of Medgar Evers. As we watched footage of Dylan singing at the 1963 March on Washington, the students noted that when the crowd heard Medgar Evers’ name, they all stood up and took off their hats “as if it were the national anthem.” We continued talking about “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and the way the song contrasts personal responsibility with systemic injustice. If we keep calling out one person’s name for a racially motivated crime without an awareness of the culture that’s nurtured the response, we haven’t reached the root of the problem.
The presenters discussed what held white people back from being advocates in the 1960s and they dug into difficult questions. Then the two women in the group—one black, one white—told me that the project had encouraged them to talk about the differences between their childhoods. Being the same age, they had completely different experiences—one grew up in the shadows of racism, and one grew up in a family of racists. A gentle man spoke up from the back of the room. He said that he also was raised in a family and culture of racism. But what saved him from falling into that attitude himself were his public-school teachers. His teachers told him a different story than what he heard around him, a story of equality, and their narratives showed him a different way.
Then I asked them all to brainstorm about how music functioned as protest. They created a list that included uniting community, physically coordinating people, expressing emotion, drawing attention to important topics, and expressing spirituality.
After the presentations, we analyzed individual songs. I started with a triad of “No More Auction Block” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all three based around the same melodic gesture. “No More Auction Block” is a 19th-century spiritual, with visceral lyrics. I think that reading those lyrics brings a fresh power to “We Shall Overcome,” showing the pain and realities behind it, then “Blowin’ in the Wind”—framed as a series of potentially unanswerable questions—challenges us to consider the questions we’ve still left unanswered, whether intentionally or from indifference.
While preparing for the class earlier in the week, I considered doing a song demonstration in class, but in my preparation earlier in the day, I decided not to do it because it was such a hard day. However, at that moment of the classroom, it felt right—my gut or spirit or teacher’s intuition pulled me forward. I’m an expressive teacher, but I’m also a little reserved. But this felt right. I knew we had built up trust from the very first day of class. And I asked them if they would be willing to trust me again, and to participate in an optional activity.
I queried the students on whether they knew how “We Shall Overcome” was traditionally performed, and someone answered, “People held hands.” I had them hold hands across the classroom. I showed them the two ways of holding hands—the ordinary way, or with arms crossed in front. Holding hands across the body is a position of strength, both symbolically and for the purpose of peaceful resistance. The students also responded that it felt like a hug.
Ted Polumbaum Collection/Newseum, 1964
I told them honestly that I had decided not to do this activity because of the sadness of the day but had changed my mind as the class progressed. And with their hands still fastened together, I pulled out the ukulele, and we sang. It was a moment of profound unity. Even if it were only symbolic or momentary, it had weight, and I wasn’t the only one whose voiced cracked while singing. The visual image of the hands linked across the class seared into my memory.
The response of the students varied. One had never heard the song before and felt like there was a chunk of history that he should have known and was never taught, while another said that she had just sung it in their church on the past Sunday.
From there, we moved into a more general discussion of Dylan’s protest songs, from universal protest songs to particularized “topical” songs, as well as the emotional spectrum of these songs ranging from hope to sadness to anger. The universal songs, like “I Shall Be Released” have frequently been revived for later protests, like the Amnesty International concerts protesting Apartheid in South Africa and other injustices in the 1980s.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,” though on the universal side of the spectrum, references Civil Rights concerns, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” and “How many years must some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” acts as memorial and memory in its role as a topical song, but also expresses the general challenges of discrimination, in the culture and in the judicial system. I couldn’t bear to play “Death of Emmett Till,” but we talked about the history behind it.
I postponed the discussion of some of the angry, incisive songs--“Masters of War” and “With God on Our Side” until our next class. Nearly 2.5 hours in, we were all exhausted, though the students continued to bring up their own experiences throughout the class. They also tackled important and difficult issues like what it means to be an advocate, how we address issues of appropriation (especially when artists like Elvis popularize songs of black musicians), and how we understand Dylan in the light of the spectrum between advocacy and appropriation.
We finished up with the universal “When the Ship Comes In.” The song holds out the call to pursue justice even when it’s a long time coming, embodying a joyful anger in overthrowing injustice, and articulates the hope that justice will roll in like the tide.
As an epilogue, I created an open-ended discussion board for students to reflect on whatever issues they wanted to from the classroom. It became a place of more sharing, one student opening up about vulnerable moments from her own past, another expressing longing for global justice, and another pleading for us to keep considering and talking about these issues. They took ownership of the issues and directed the conversation themselves. This class period was one of the most profound moments of teaching in my life, though in the scheme of things, it was simply a moment in time, some students may remember, and some may forget. But after seeing their responses and e-mails, I’m hopeful that my students will draw from moments like this to become advocates into their own communities.
I like doing things ahead of time. So, when I was unexpectedly offered extra classes by two different colleges last minute (only weeks before the semester started), I was a little panicky, especially because I have a number of piano students this year, and we've been working hard as a family to simplify our lives and routines. But since both colleges were willing and able to work within my already set schedule, I said yes.
For one college, I converted a hybrid class into a fully online class, and for the other college, I converted a fully online class into a hybrid class. In addition, I needed to create two sections of accelerated hybrid "half-term" classes.
I quickly realized I needed to “coach” myself similarly to the way I would coach a client through an academic project. To make this work in a way that fit my priorities, I would have to break everything down into manageable chunks, and have every element of the classes pre-planned. I would also have to give myself a strict schedule to get this done in the brief weeks before class.
In order to transform the hybrid class into the online class, I started with the basic outlines that I use for my face-to-face lectures, and fully fleshed them out into prose, offset by embedded media. There was no room for procrastinating with this writing process. Along with the new lectures, I would use a modular system for the class: each topical lecture would be framed by discussion boards, writing projects, and brief review quizzes.
My self-given assignment was to work on a single module each day: writing a module introduction (with an outline of all activities), a lecture and quiz, and either importing or creating new assignments. To prepare for this I created a document with a list of the modules and projected projects that I kept open on my desktop to review, and check off along the way. And when I had accomplished my goal for a single module, my goal was to come to a full stop and step away. Stepping away was one of the hardest parts, but I knew that it as important so that I keep my focus without burning out over the next days.
In the meantime, I realized that the modular approach I used for the online classes worked well for the hybrid “half-term” classes as well. After completing the modules, I imported them into the half-term classes.
The other conversion—from online class into a hybrid class—was much easier. Because all of the content and assignments are already created and online, I have decided to teach this class using a flipped classroom approach. My in-class time will be used for coaching students through the online set-up, supplementing the given information with related materials, class discussions, live music, and peer review. The main thing I had to do was change the due date structure, and update the grading system to reflect our new in-class activities. I’m quite excited by the new possibilities that could unfold from this hybrid/flipped classroom format
I finished today. I have syllabi made for each of the four classes, and every assignment, lecture, and discussion board is set for the semester within the modules, and the modules are programmed to automatically open on particular dates. All of my in-class teaching for the semester will be done on a single day, and I have chunks of time set aside later in the week for engaging students through grading and e-mails.
It was a lot of work. It wasn’t quite how I had planned to finish up my last weeks of summer. And my mind is fuzzy. But I'm ready to go. Honestly, this level of microplanning is not my natural mode of teaching or engagement with life. But this is part of my life, especially as I work with non-traditional modes of teaching (online, hybrid).
I know that this kind of last minute planning is something that many adjunct professors face. So here are a few quick take-aways:
Joanna: Two summers ago, I was part of a "learning cohort" at Athens Technical College, where I created a new themed class--mine on Bob Dylan and American Music--along with several other professors who approached their disciplines through the lens of a particular subject. The students of the different summer classes joined together for community events, like film screenings of related televisions shows and films. For my class, I screened Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home, giving an oral presentation before the screening. If you haven't seen this wonderful film, go watch it now!
As I was looking for one of my favorite Dylan quotes, I stumbled on the essay I wrote, a kind of public musicology essay as it was intended for students across all disciplines. And with all of the wonderful attention on Dylan now, I thought it would be fun to share it here.
Why do we keep listening to Bob Dylan? Why do performers continue to cover his songs? Why are library shelves bowing under the weight of books on Dylan, with new ones pouring out every year? And why do film and television soundtracks continue to incorporate his songs? And what about the new albums, remastering of older albums, and the endless stream of bootleg series albums? What is it that draws people back? In our class, we’ve already started to wrestle with the elements of Dylan that can be off-putting. His vocal production is often seen as the most difficult element. And despite this, people return again and again. As Kevin Dettmar writes, "In an era when pop (and even folk) stars were, as today, meant to sing like the nightingale, Dylan instead sang as the crow. But that croak, it seemed, contained a depth of feeling and passion and anger and wisdom and disillusionment not hinted at by the songbirds; it came as a revelation. And it sounded like the voice of Truth."
Anyone who writes about Dylan or creates a film about him has to wrestle with four dimensions: the music and lyrics of the songs themselves, the mythology around him, his carefully and sometimes cagily protected personal life, and his wider cultural influence. We can already see in the opening moments of No Direction Home that director Martin Scorsese skillfully interrogates all four dimensions of Dylan, and intricately overlaps them. It weaves together interviews by Jeff Rosen with Dylan and his musical and cultural contemporaries, and personal friends, along with film footage and photographs from across Dylan’s career, and an endless stream of songs. Watch the images carefully. Listen to the endless variety of music sounding throughout. Absorb the contemporary audience responses to Dylan’s transition to rock and roll. Ponder along with poets and musicians who consider Dylan’s wider influence on American culture. Consider the ways in which music not only reflected the issues of its day, like Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, but also became an agent of change.
Through his kaleidoscopic approach, Scorsese urges us as the viewers to connect the dots ourselves. How might Dylan’s experiences of the dramatic possibilities of a rural carnival influence the kinds of lyrics he writes, the bizarre and mythical characters strung together in stream-of-consciousness songs like “Desolation Row”? What about the imaginative possibilities in sci-fi novels and childhood trips to the local cinema? How might the narrative style of country and western singers of the 30s and 40s have influenced Dylan’s story songs? What about the sonic possibilities in blues performances by musicians like Muddy Waters? Early R&B and rock? Folk musicians like John Jacob Niles? Odetta? Joan Baez? Irish musicians like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers? Protest songs by Billie Holliday and Pete Seeger? What about the fragile and heartbreaking connections between Woody Guthrie at the end of his life and Bob Dylan as the beginning of his career, Dylan’s very first song written in homage to Woody?
When we hear and see the influences that Dylan imbibed and blended, then we can understand the transition from his acoustic folk era of the early 1960s into electric rock-and-roll not just as a radical break in sound that angered much of his audience during the time, but as simply another way to delve into the compendium of American music sounding behind and beside him. The title of the film--No Direction Home—is taken from Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” But listening to these performers speak out and hearing his covers of their works and their covers of his works, we realize that Dylan’s music has a home in the tapestry of American song making. And for many of us, we return again and again to his work because in some profound way, his songs feel like coming home.
This year, Bob Dylan will be awarded the first Nobel Prize in Literature ever to go to a songwriter. Of course, this is all over the news, but here are a couple of articles from Rolling Stone and NPR.
After designing and teaching a course on his work for three semesters, my head is spinning, my mouth is grinning, and my eyes may or may not be tearing up as I continue to watch things unfold today. I hope that many teachers take the time over the next few weeks to explore Dylan’s legacy.
For now, as the stories continue to unfold, I thought I would share a few of my favorite resources.
The Official Bob Dylan Site I’ve watched this site grow and expand over the past few years. What I appreciate tremendously here is that they’ve provided the lyrics to almost every Bob Dylan song, as well as documenting where, when, and how many times a song has been performed. For too many popular artists, trying to find the lyrics to their songs can lead down paths to sketchy and perhaps spam-laden websites. The site also includes news, interviews, some streaming audio, and other useful links.
BobDylanTV YouTube Channel It’s unclear if this is the “official” YouTube site for Dylan, but it’s the best channel I’ve found. And unfortunately, as I found with teaching, videos for Dylan are particularly unstable as far as their availability on YouTube goes. I’ve found even more videos removed as of this morning, which is disappointing as I think this would be a great time for increased availability as many are drawn to explore his work given today’s news.
Rolling Stone magazine’s inclusion of archival material online is phenomenal. for example, this 1969 interview. They also have a number of “song list” style articles, which are great ways to explore his legacy and perhaps find some unfamiliar songs, for example, 100 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs.
Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” is a masterpiece of storytelling. Framing Dylan’s story around his momentous move from acoustic singer-songwriter to electric rock-and-roller, the narrative radiates both backwards and forwards from that point, combining archival footage with contemporary interviews with Dylan and his colleagues. The film captures the simultaneous transparency and caginess, vulnerability and defensiveness that Dylan presents in his public persona. Bonus, the film will soon be released in an expanded edition with over two more hours of special features!
Dylan and protest/politics--deep breath--these are complicated issues and I hope that I can write a follow-up post with more resources and incorporate some of the archival footage available on YouTube. However, this article is an excellent survey, and would be a good jumping off point to discuss the issues in a more in-depth way.
Please listen to some Dylan songs today, and feel free to share your favorite songs and resources in the comments!
Joanna: Returning to the school year after a busy--and fun--summer. One of the academic projects I worked on was creating and teaching a class on Bruce Springsteen and American popular music. The students responded well, and it generated some incredible conversations around his music. It also inspired me to continue researching his connections with other singers and songwriters.
The fruit of that research is a series of four articles on the public musicology blog The Avid Listener. The first one, "Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger: 'This Land is Your Land'" was published this week. I love the moment in time when Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sing together in front of the world, with Pete, in his gentle way, inviting the crowd to sing along.
Read, share, and let me know what you think!
Joanna: Sputniks and muttniks and Elvis...oh my!
Earlier this week, Tim's last essay for The Avid Listener was posted. I'm a little late to the game, but so much thanks to Felicia Miyakawa for her shout-out for this post and the whole series.
When international events center around dogs in space, expect the songs to get even sillier. And surely I'm not the only Muppet fan who wants to chant out "Doooooooogs in spaaaaaaace!"
Go over to The Avid Listener to read, listen, laugh, and consider. On a more serious note, it's hard to read Cold War history and listen to these songs without considering how large a role the marketing of fear plays in our response to politics and current events today. Who is marketing the fear, and who benefits from it? Take a moment to pause and reflect.
A short excerpt to get you started:
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, on October 4, 1957, triggering the space race with the United States. Although the satellite was only the size of a beach ball and emitted nothing more than radio beeps, many Americans feared it, supposing that it had some sort of militaristic purpose. This fear can be tracked through three novelty songs from the late 1950s: “Russia, Russia (Lay That Missile Down),” “Sputniks and Mutniks,” and “A Russian Love Song.”
Joanna: Tim hits us up with another entry on Cold War novelty songs for The Avid Listener. I'm sure all of our Smolkoly readers are wondering why on this green earth is there a vintage picture of Beef Stroganoff in this post? Does it look delectable? Does it perhaps make you want to get up and dance?
If it does, you might just be ready for "The Stroganoff Cha-Cha" and Tim's essay on this and other songs of Dickie Goodman. To stretch out a metaphor, the song's mashup of Cuban, American, and Russian elements perhaps resembles a modern-day fusion restaurant.
The combination of a slow and heavy Russian work song with a light and frisky Cuban dance must have sounded odd in early 1959, since there was little connection at the time between the cultures of the two countries.
If this is making you hungry, here's a recipe for Beef Stroganoff from one of my favorite food bloggers. Dinner, music, dance and an enlightening essay.
Joanna: Tim is at it again with the second in his series on The Avid Listener, Celebrating the Nuclear Apocalypse with Tom Lehrer. Following up on his spec-tic-tic-tac-ular post on Doris Day, Tim once again brings a ludicrous touch to his discussion of novelty songs about the Cold War, one that is absolutely appropriate for the brilliant satire in Lehrer's song "We'll All Go Together When We Go."
Here, Lehrer's wicked sense of humor serves an important cultural purpose:
Like Pez, Peeps, and Pop Rocks, a novelty song is a sugar rush for the ear. The great number of novelty songs about the Cold War attests to the fact that people needed to diffuse their fear of the Soviet Union, and the possibility of nuclear war, with humor and satire.
Go read more at The Avid Listener!
Joanna: Here are a few more resources that I've found helpful in organizing my writing time.
I love this simple to-do list as a practical and simple way to organize my day. I try to create a list the night before so that when I wake up, I'm already engaged with the structure of the day. The checklist helps me to go ahead and do the next thing, even if I don't feel like it. It helps me to be realistic with goals, and it easily adapts to my week where no two days are similar. Since each day is different, but each will generally follow a particular routine across weeks, I can fit my writing expectations around particular days. It also helps me to group activities together. For example, except for e-mail--which I check at least two times a day and answer immediately whenever I can so that it's off my plate--I have clumped most of my class prep and grading into one or two specified days during the week. This way, I can set aside my internal to-do list for the particular days that are not "class days" and focus my mind on research and writing.
Returning to the idea in my earlier post that much of our writing is done before we sit down in front of our screen to write, this is a great guide to prewriting techniques. This article outlines structured brainstorming (write it down so you remember!), journaling, free-writing, outlining and perhaps my favorite technique, clustering. I teach my students--many of them first generation college students--the art of clustering as a study technique. If you memorize fact-by-fact for a test, the information most likely will slip out of your mind. But if you bring the ideas together in clumps, your mind more easily retains the connected ideas. Those of us who make up ditties to remember grocery lists, or alphabetize to-do lists in our heads when we can't find a slip of paper to jot them down, know this works.
By clustering the ideas that you are working with in your research, you can see the relationships in fresh and illuminating ways. Physically do this. Grab some index cards and jot down your ideas, shuffle them and group them. Or if you're in a later point in the research, physically cut apart your paragraphs and rearrange them. Try giving each paragraph a few key words, and see what emerges when you compare the key words across the paragraphs. Perhaps the conclusion is actually a key part of the introduction, or what you thought was a subsidiary idea is actually the capstone that reorients your whole argument. Clustering can also help you to see what the central ideas are vs. the secondary ones, and encourage you to use your writing to organize and highlight those relationships.
The fabulously titled article "Like Pushing an Elephant into a Volkswagen" is a good capstone for this topic. It's a roundtable discussion between five authors who balance writing with their full-time jobs, in which they share their lives with candor and vulnerability. They stress the importance of networks, having people come alongside you as you put on different hats, not setting aside the important relationships in your life. Each one has their own way of finding time to write, and practical suggestions are scattered throughout. Some of what they discuss is incredibly encouraging--such as the ways that their family life, day jobs and writing intersect in positive, mutually beneficial ways. But there's real honesty about the emotional/mental/physical drain that happens as we are pulled in different directions. This needs to be acknowledged. Some of us have different seasons of life, and it is okay if there is a particular season where writing is not a major part of a particular season.
I'll write one more post in this series simply to sum up some of the best strategies I've found. Happy writing, all!
Some wars are good. Most are bad. Some are just plain weird. The Cold War was definitely weird, and one of the best ways to grasp its weirdness is to listen to Cold War novelty songs from the 1940s to the 1960s.
Joanna: Over these past weeks, Tim developed essays for the public musicology site extraordinaire, The Avid Listener. The essays on The Avid Listener hit a rare sweet spot: in-depth musical and historical analysis written without jargon or overly specialized language. They give any interested reader the chance to explore ways that music frames and shapes culture.
Tim's essay gives a sneak peek into the writings for our forthcoming book on popular music and the Cold War. I really appreciate the way that Tim can blend wacky humor with critical analysis, using the novelty song genre as a distinctive window in the the political climate of the Cold War.
Go over there and read his essay “You’ll Tic Tic All Day Long”: The Cold War, Geiger Counters, and Doris Day. Then spend some time perusing some of the other wonderful essays on the site--you won't be disappointed.
Joanna & Tim
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