School Days

(Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll!)

By Rick Mitchell

Illustrator: J.D. King

Illustration: J.D. King

I am usually impressed when teachers tell me that they’ve always known they wanted to be teachers, and that they’ve never had another job. I am one of those who took a more circuitous route to this profession. In fact, I might have been voted “least likely to become a teacher” among the class of 1970 by the administration of Katella High School in Orange County, Calif., which suggested that I unceremoniously depart midway through my senior year.

In college, I thought I found my calling as a journalist. Instead, I became a professional rock critic, which is sort of like being a journalist except that you never have to grow up. Perhaps no career besides that of professional athlete or musician affords such an opportunity for supposedly mature individuals to extend their adolescent passions so deep into adulthood. For 20-odd years, through countless mainstream newspapers and alternative magazines, seedy dives and concert halls, I soldiered on with my appointed duty, until I finally outgrew the mysterious joy and pride I once had found in telling people that music they enjoyed actually sucked. Only then, in a desperate epiphany cleverly disguised as altruism, did I decide that education was my true calling. I now teach English, history, and philosophy at a private international school in Houston.

So how does my past life as an opinionated and erudite pop-culture snob influence what I do in the present as a kind and caring adult who is routinely interrupted and ignored by teenagers?

Well, I still listen to a lot of music, new and old, for my own enjoyment. The fact that I am far more conversant in hip-hop than the average middle-aged white guy gives me a semi-secret code for relating to certain students who otherwise might be difficult to reach. I also try to stay current with trends in rock, R&B, jazz, various regional styles, and music from around the world. As a result, a few of my more musically astute students seem to think I’m pretty cool for an old fart and ask to borrow obscure stuff from my collection, or want to know my opinion of their favorite new CDs.

Most of my students, on the other hand, couldn’t care less what music I listen to on my own time. What is relevant to them, and to the purposes of this article, is the music we listen to together in class. I regularly incorporate music into lesson plans for all three of the subjects I teach, from thematic connections between song lyrics and poetry in English, to the epistemological implications of aesthetics as a philosophical area of knowledge. I also give an eight-week series of guest lectures on the history of jazz for the advanced music classes.

What I want to focus on here, however, is the integral role music plays in the curriculum for my 9th-grade U.S. history class. Although I sometimes have to remind students that listening to music in class is not an invitation to start the party before the bell rings, the music lessons are treated as special events by most students, and, like historically based films, they serve to augment and enliven the lecture/discussion cycle that necessarily takes up the bulk of the class periods.

Race in American Music

One of the central themes of my history course is that America is a nation of great contradictions. The history of American music provides an excellent means for illuminating perhaps the most basic contradiction of all in U.S. society, that of race. How could the author of the Declaration of Independence, which declares that “all men are created equal” and possess an “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” have been a slave owner? How could the founding fathers be inspired by the example of limited government set by the Iroquois nations yet engage in a policy of genocide when indigenous tribes interfered with westward expansion?

American music — jazz, rock, rap, R&B, gospel, country — has been the most alive and innovative musical tradition in the world for at least the last century. All these forms come out of the gumbo pot of African, European, and Native American sources that characterizes the musical heritage of both North and South America. Yet, in the United States, black artists typically have done the lion’s share of the innovating, while white artists (and white-owned record labels) have reaped the lion’s share of the financial rewards. Furthermore, our cultural elites still overwhelmingly look to Europe to validate American “high” culture, when what makes us unique is the unprecedented cultural crossbreeding that has taken place here. Compare the corporate and government support for “classical” forms such as the symphony, opera, and ballet to what’s afforded to jazz, which should be considered the classical expression of American vernacular music. It is impossible to seriously study the history of 20th-century American music, from ragtime to rap, without also studying the history of racism.

Yet American music is also the story of gradual and sometimes spectacular triumphs over racism and class discrimination, of self-taught geniuses and bootstrap capitalists who neither asked for nor received public subsidies, and whose musical creations, for better and worse, have captured the imagination of the world for the past half-century. As trumpeter/educator Wynton Marsalis frequently has commented, jazz music can be seen as the ultimate artistic expression of American democracy, in its emphasis on individual expression within a cohesive group context.

My 9th-grade U.S. history course syllabus begins with the European conquest of the Americas and the disastrous consequences that followed for the Native American population and enslaved Africans. During the first week of class, as the class is doing homework assignments from the text about European conquest and colonization, I devote the better part of two 50-minute periods to demonstrating how Native American, African, and European elements came together and evolved into all the myriad forms of American music. I use recordings that reflect the traditional roots of the music, while explaining that all musical forms evolve over time and that 20th-century recordings inevitably have introduced modernizing influences.

Because of time constraints, I generally explain what elements I want students to listen for in a given piece and then play an excerpt that illustrates the point I am trying to make. I often fade the music down to talk over it, then fade it back up to let the music reinforce what I’ve just said. The DJ in me would, of course, prefer to play each track in its entirety — and sometimes students will implore me to let the music play — but excerpts are usually better suited to 50-minute periods and short adolescent attention spans. (See for a listing of albums and individual tracks used in this lesson.)

I begin in South America with an example of Inca music from Peru, pointing out the distinctive handmade instrumentation and piping melodies. I next play some West and Central African drumming, focusing on the complex polyrhythms not commonly found in European or Native American music. This is followed by examples of Spanish and Portuguese guitar music, during which I refer to the earlier North African influence on Spanish flamenco. I then show how these distinct elements were fused to create Afro-Cuban salsa, Colombian cumbia and Brazilian samba.

For example, the music of Toto la Momposina, a wonderfully folkloric female singer from Colombia, consciously combines Native American flutes with Afro-Latin percussion and Spanish guitar. When her full band brings in the horns, it becomes a contemporary cumbia orchestra. As I point out to students, this sort of pervasive intercultural exchange characterizes not only the music of the Americas, but virtually all aspects of our culture — our food, language, religion, and social customs. It is, effectively, what defines us as Americans.

I launch the North American segment of the lesson by explaining some of the ways in which the practices of British slave owners in North America differed from the Spanish, French, and Portuguese in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most notably, the British banned hand drums and other African instruments, so that slaves were forced to invent their own instruments or adapt those of the Europeans to their purposes. The polyrhythmic hand clapping in black churches and the bottleneck slide guitar favored by Delta blues singers are examples of such improvised African retentions. (The exception to this was New Orleans, essentially a Caribbean city until the early 1800s, which is why New Orleans plays such an important role in the birth of blues and jazz.)

I first play recordings of West African griot music, in which singer-songwriter historians travel from village to village, singing praises to the various clans. I then play examples of traditional Celtic music from Ireland and Scotland, noting the similarities between West African griots and Celtic bards. Both functioned as oral historians as well as musicians, and both made their livings by bestowing praise upon wealthy clan chieftains. (Rappers who give “shout outs” to fellow rappers and their record label execs are thus perpetuating an old African tradition.) Next, I show how the West African griot tradition survived in North America in the archetype of the itinerant Delta bluesman, and how Irish and Scottish music mated with African-American blues in the backhills of the Appalachians to produce country and bluegrass music. Then I briefly fast-forward to the mating of “black” blues, gospel, and R&B with “white” country and bluegrass that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll. The first rockers, I tell my students, were the slave musicians who took the master’s instruments back to the slave quarters and put them to their own purposes, whether praising the Lord or getting the party started. Elvis Presley’s first record featured a bluegrass cover on one side and a blues tune on the other. Both sides came out sounding like what we now call rockabilly.

Students are invited to ponder the ironic contradiction. Because of slavery, African and European musical concepts met and made love on unfamiliar ground. The heritage spawned by this act of cultural miscegenation is contemporary American music, in all of its artistic glory and commercial crassness.

It has conquered the world in a way that U.S. military and political might never will. That such a terrible and dehumanizing institution as slavery could create the conditions that allowed the brilliance and beauty of great black artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin to flourish is one of the tragic ironies of modern Western civilization. U.S. history is full of such contradictions. As historians, and as citizens in a nominally democratic society, we must study these contradictions so that we will not be fooled by those who would insist that Americans have always been the good guys. Or, for that matter, the bad guys.

There are, of course, no recordings to document how American music evolved from the 17th century through the 19th century. But from the invention of the phonograph in the early 20th century, popular musical recordings have charted what average Americans were thinking and feeling, how they talked, how they sang, and how they danced. For history teachers not to take advantage of these historical artifacts, especially in light of the technological advancements that have vastly improved the sound quality of old recordings, is comparable to leaving the photographs out of a textbook.

From Harlem Renaissance to ‘Hippie Day’

I come back to music throughout our study of 20th-century America. When we read about the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, I play classic recordings by blues and jazz greats such as Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, Armstrong, and Ellington to demonstrate the cultural sensibility that produced the poetry of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. In 2000, Rhino Records released an excellent four-disc set called Rhapsodies in Black: Music and Words from the Harlem Renaissance, featuring poetry readings by well-known African-American actors, musicians, and celebrities spliced with original recordings from the era by the artists mentioned above and many others. For students to hear rappers such as Ice T and Chuck D, and actors such as Debbie Allen and the late Gregory Hines, reading African-American poetry helps to make the connection between the historical context and their own lives. It also helps make the music — which was, of course, the funkiest party music of its time — come more fully alive.

When we discuss the Great Depression and the New Deal, the class watches the movie The Grapes of Wrath (one of the few films I show in its entirety) over two-and-a-half class periods. This is followed by a half-period lesson on the tradition of white, working-class protest music, from Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads through Bob Dylan’s early political-protest songs, Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and Rage Against the Machine’s rock/rap cover of Springsteen’s title track, which echoes Tom Joad’s last lines from the movie: “Wherever there’s somebody fighting for a place to stand/Or a decent job or a helpin’ hand/Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free/Look in their eyes, Ma, you’ll see me.”

In this case, I don’t announce what I am about to play before I play it. I’d rather have students make the connection on their own. There is always a nod of recognition when the buzzsaw electric guitar kicks in — “Ah, Rage,” some guy will mutter — and then another nod when students realize that they are listening to the same song they just heard sung by Springsteen in a stripped-down acoustic arrangement, and that the lyrics are taken from the movie we have just watched. Again, hearing a contemporary band that they claim as music of their own generation, or at least not far removed, helps students to make the connection between the historical context of the Depression and their own lives.

When we come to the 1950s I devote two class periods to retracing the musical and cultural conditions that gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll. In the first, I cover the parallel development of black music (gospel, blues, swing, rhythm and blues) and white hillbilly music (country, western-swing, bluegrass) from the 1920s through the 1940s. I then show how these styles were crossbred in the early 1950s by black artists such as Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and white artists such as Bill Haley. For example, Chuck Berry’s “Mabellene,” an early rock classic, has the same beat as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys’ “Ida Red,” a traditional western-swing tune from two decades earlier. Yes, Chuck Berry, like many black artists of his generation, was influenced by country music as well as blues. On the other hand, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records by a white artist, takes its musical cues from

Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” a jump-blues tune sung by a much-older black artist with roots in the swing era.

Rock ‘n’ roll existed in form before Elvis Presley, but the moment of pop-culture conception arrived with Presley’s first single for Sun Records in Memphis, which, as I alluded to earlier, covered Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a bluegrass tune, on one side and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” a blues tune, on the other. It’s no coincidence that Presley’s next single was a cover of Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” one of the first R&B hits to use the term “rock” (a frequent euphemism for sex) in the title.

In the next day’s lesson, we examine the relationship between rock ‘n’ roll and the post-war emergence of a popular mass culture focused on youth. We watch excerpts from Presley’s movies — the big dance number from “Jailhouse Rock” is always a winner — and listen to his huge hits from the late 1950s, as well those of other teen idols from the period including Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Frankie Lyman. We also listen to Otis Blackwell, an obscure black musician whose original recordings of “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up” were “borrowed” by Presley, almost note for note. (Hear for yourself on Blackwell’s only CD release, All Shook Up, reissued on the Shanachie label in 1995. )

The music lesson should naturally lead to a discussion of the impact popular youth culture has had on American life in the past 50 years, and how musical integration opened the door to legal integration. Once large numbers of average white kids started listening to popular black music and attending concerts featuring white and black acts sharing the same stage, it became increasingly difficult for local authorities to keep audiences racially separated.

Rock ‘n’ roll promoters such as Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed began to insist that their concerts be integrated. It is widely assumed by rock historians that Freed’s conviction in the payola scandal of the late 1950s was due, at least in part, to his courageous stand against segregation.

Undoubtedly, the most anticipated music lesson I give all year is Hippie Day, which has become a spring tradition at my school. On the day after the big essay exam that covers the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam, the principal gives the entire freshman class permission to come to school dressed in 1960s fashions instead of the usual uniforms. Some of them, especially the girls, really get into it. For a child of the 1960s such as myself, it is a wondrous sight to behold, all the more so because so many of my students are not native-born Americans and have grown up in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia. Of course, I bring in old college photos of myself with shoulder-length hair and a bushy moustache, which are always good for a few gasps and a lot of laughs, since most of the hair is long gone. At lunch, we hold a “sit-in” on the quad, featuring performances by student and faculty musicians. (Last year, our faculty band, the Blinding Foreheads, performed a five-song set that culminated with a singalong on “Ohio,” Neil Young’s incendiary response to the Kent State massacre.)

During my history class periods, I play classic rock and R&B records while explaining the evolution of 1960s protest music from the folk-music revival through folk-rock and into acid-rock, and from civil rights-era soul to Black Power funk. Feel free to substitute your own favorites, but I start with Dylan (“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) and Peter, Paul, and Mary (“Blowin’ in the Wind”) and move forward through the Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), Simon and Garfunkel (“The Sounds of Silence”), Donovan (“Sunshine Superman,” “Mellow Yellow”), Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”), the Doors (“Break on Through”), Jefferson Airplane (“White Rabbit”), the Beatles (“All You Need Is Love”), Jimi Hendrix (“Are You Experienced,” “All Along the Watchtower”), Aretha Franklin (“A Change Is Gonna Come”), James Brown (“Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud”), Sly and the Family Stone (“Everyday People”), and Edwin Starr (“War”).

Explaining the drug references in some of these songs is always a bit dicey, since I do not want to be accused of promoting drug use, and that’s exactly what these songs do. But my students seem to be sophisticated enough to appreciate that while much of the music was great, and much of the politics admirable, the 1960s counterculture bequeathed a mixed legacy to subsequent generations.

It’s too simple to blame today’s crack babies on the Beatles’ use of LSD and to blame the AIDS epidemic on “free love.” But it’s also too simple to say there is no connection at all. It’s another of those contradictions that serve to make the United States the complex society that it is, and another reason why we should be suspicious of those who try to make complex issues seem simpler than they really are, like those who thought drugs would be a shortcut to nirvana, and those who now brandish the slogan “zero tolerance” as a weapon of righteousness.

Cultural History Is Real History

For culture-war conservatives, I suppose my music lessons could be considered at best fluff, at worst a subversive challenge to the notion of a classical eurocentric education. I would agree that they might very well be subversive, but they are not fluff. They are instead the stuff of real history.

Too often, history is taught as a timeline of wars and famous leaders, in which average people are little more than pawns and cannon fodder. Just as thousands of anonymous soldiers died when Napoleon met his Waterloo, from which he emerged unscathed, so too will the war in Iraq be remembered as Bush’s war, though he is likely to survive no matter how many historically nameless Iraqis and Americans do not.

While major military and political events serve as natural landmarks in any history syllabus, the true and oft-untold history of our world consists of what societies were doing both during and between these cataclysmic chapters. Musical recordings offer vivid evidence of what was taking place in previous decades and centuries and can bring history alive in ways that books, photos, and even films cannot. Of course, it is important to examine how culture reflects and influences political events. But cultural history should not be considered merely a sidebar to military and political history. It is important in its own right, perhaps more important than memorizing the names of past presidents and generals.

In “School Day,” his ebullient mid-1950s ode to the newborn child called rock ‘n’ roll, school boy Chuck Berry can’t wait for the bell to ring so he can head down to the corner juke joint and rock out. Why wait for the bell, Chuck, when we can learn so much about who we are as a society from listening to your records? Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll!

Rick Mitchell ( is the former popular music critic at the Houston Chronicle and The Oregonian in Portland. His freelance articles and reviews have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines during the past 25 years. He is the author of two books on music, including the forthcoming Whiskey River (Take My Mind): The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk (University of Texas Press). He currently teaches history and philosophy at the Awty International School in Houston.