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“Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music,” Sharony Green

Instructor: Sharony Green
Course: Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music (HY 300)

“Bebop to Hip Hop” is a 300-level course that explores social developments, like the beatnik, Civil Rights, and counterculture periods, through the lens of postwar music. The course includes active and collaborative components and a new creative mixtape project, which is sure to be a hit.

What are your course goals?

I am very interested in students seeing how life is cyclical, even if there is often something unique about a particular moment in history. This course uses music as a gauge to understand American life after the Second World War. They will, for example, be made aware of critical turning points, like the arrival of the GI Bill that gave war vets the opportunity to buy homes, go to school, and so on.

But the ongoing thesis is that no matter the grand expectations we had after the war, life has progressed socially and financially in fits and starts. In other words, even though an African-American soldier could go to school, we needed to see another critical turning point — integration — that permitted him and other African Americans to go to almost any university.

How does music figure in?

Well, we definitely look at music created from the 1940s to the present day. Bebop, generally speaking, is a genre of jazz most folks see coming into being in the early 1940s. We’re talking about a form of jazz that is increasingly improvisational, the sort that reflects the critical individualistic spirit that we tend to think of when we think of Americans. Other music sometimes unveils a similar dynamic — some of the best rappers can freestyle, which is improv as you know.

Rapper Kendrick Lamar performing the song "Alright" in chains, with young black men in jail cells behind him
Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the 58th Annual Grammy music Awards in Los Angeles Feb. 15, 2016. ROBYN BECK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

But this course isn’t a history of music course. We are most interested in probing how musical genres, song titles, lyrics, people, among them, musical artists, reflect this changing world that may not be changing as much as we think. In fact, last semester my students and I watched the GRAMMYs on this app called GroupMe. The idea was to bring ideas from the class into this shared moment.

Yes, some students were briefly passive viewers. Meaning, yes, a few got angry if, for example, Taylor Swift, won more awards than they think she deserved. Or if Kendrick Lamar didn’t win enough. But most of the time, they were serious thinkers.

At one point — I’ll go ahead and say when. It’s when Kendrick Lamar performed “Alright” — I got booted out of the chatroom for an hour because of all of the Internet traffic owing to his performance. I was sure the students would leave the chatroom. After all, they only needed to stay in there with me for an hour and a half because we had met earlier in the week for an hour. This is a two and a half hour class.

Sure enough, they were so into it, when I finally made it back after Internet traffic died down, they’d continue talking to each other. There were pages and pages of comments and questions I had to read just to catch up. I was so proud of them.

What do you want students to leave this course knowing?

One of my students pretty much summed up the thesis of this course, which draws on the work of historian James Patterson, who, in his book Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974, says life wasn’t as grand as we thought it was after we beat the Japanese. Yes, some of us had an education and houses in the suburbs, but there was still so much work to do socially.

Understanding this thesis, one of my students said, “We’re still living in the postwar period.” By this, he meant we’re still living the moment we typically understand as post-WWII, and that the issues we’ve been thinking about since the war are still with us — as seen in Lamar’s video, which pivots on an African-American man from South Central addressing the fears of many people, not just African Americans.

You might recall the Chicago Trump rally when the protesters started singing lyrics from “Alright.” The idea here is that we, like Lamar, have to tell ourselves everything is going to be alright despite the difficulties we face as minorities, the working class, women, and so on. It’s truly an anthem, and this young man who is from an affluent Midwestern family totally got it. That kind of awareness makes teaching worthwhile. He could have passively addressed what Taylor Swift won or didn’t win, but he instead used his analytical skills in a way that made me proud. It didn’t matter our politics were. The point of this class is to think it all over and make connections.

What makes this course different from others you teach (or others in your department)?

This course is different first and foremost because it’s one I never even considered making a flyer for to get students. I had a strong feeling that if I put “hip hop” in the title, they would come. I have since seen many courses with the word “hip hop” in the title and I worried a bit but not for long. I wanted to avoid having too many more new “preps,” but as a junior professor who is still learning her way around the UA community, I am aware that we are in a critical moment of growth. Our student enrollments have skyrocketed, while at the same time, history majors have declined. I want my department to boost those numbers, so this is part of a shared effort — getting students to take history courses.

That said, what really makes this course different is I usually enter the room very excited. No matter how tired I am or how tired the students look by mid-semester, I know I am going to play some music via Youtube or a CD or show a documentary or some digital clip from another source that will wake us up. I am a child of the 1970s and I don’t mind saying as much. There’s a song from that period by the O’Jays called “I Love Music,” and that is a universal sentiment. Folks love music across generations and across cultural, racial, regional, national, and other backgrounds. How cool is that?

What are your favorite teaching strategies in this course?

The most critical teaching strategy is thinking deeply about how to get students to do something they don’t want to do — read! This semester, in addition to reading, students will also do a mixtape or a soundtrack to an assigned book. mixed_tapeI don’t want book summaries or book reviews. I want them to accomplish the learning goals — among them, reading books and demonstrating that they know the critical turning points — but also write in a critical way and understand the difference between primary and secondary sources.

What better way to accomplish this than with a mixtape, which must be turned in with — ahem — liner notes?

Liner notes were very fashionable before folks started downloading music from the Internet. These were summaries of songs often written by a music critic, tucked into the sleeve of a vinyl record. You essentially read them to get one person’s take on why the album was worth listening to.

With this assignment, I’ll get one student’s take on the plot in the book and how it dovetails with our interest in the “grand expectations” of Americans during the postwar period. Fortunately, my other half, who is also a historian, is a thrift store shopper and he once found a bunch of cassettes for very cheap. Some were blank. Some have classical music. The students will record over that music or use some of it. So far, we’ve collected four boom boxes that they must check out. Yes, this will be totally old school. They will record from the radio or from cassette tapes or CDs. There are no real parameters other than being aware that I should not hear or read anything they would not share with their parents or grandparents (who are probably my age).

What challenges does this course present?

There are a lot of challenges. When I first taught it last spring, it was mostly a writing course. In other words, it was a way to fulfill the research requirement for history majors (We call it the HY 430). This time around, it will be a lecture course. I obviously can’t lecture for 2.5 hours. I will often feel like a deejay, playing music and videos and movies and talking and hoping technology is my friend. I will always have backups just in case something doesn’t work. Of course, sound is an issue. What’s the point of playing music if it sounds awful?

If nothing else, we can always take it to the Quad with a boom box.

Will you introduce anything new this fall?

The mixtape is new. Last semester, they didn’t have to do that because, again, the course was focused on writing a research paper. As a means of attracting new history majors, I may ask students in my “American Civilization to 1865” course to make a similar playlist for that window of modern life. The course opens with a simple question: where does “American” civilization begin? Do we start with the Paleoindians, who supposedly walked across the Bering Strait thousands of years ago, or do we start with the Europeans or indigenous people?

I always find it useful to ask students to pay attention to motivation. What makes us move through space? Who moves willingly and for what reasons?

So what does a playlist about movement look like?

Well, it could be very funny. I am already intrigued by this “running man” dance craze. Maybe I can find an animator to make Christopher Columbus do the running man. Think about why music is played in Bryant-Denney. When I was a kid, only the band played, but now, popular music is used to rev up the fans and players. It would be so cool if we could get everyone in Bryant-Denny to do the running man. I may ask the “Bebop to Hip Hop” students to do it for sure. What have Americans been running to and from and for what reasons and for how long? That would be a great question to historicize.

Sharony Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History. Read more about Sharony’s research and teaching on the department website, or listen to her students’ first playlist on the blog.

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