It Feels So Groovy to Say': Summer Class Digs Rock Music

June 25, 2009 — "Don't know much about history," sang Sam Cooke in "Wonderful World." Elizabeth Lindau does – at least about the history of rock 'n' roll.

Lindau, a Ph.D. candidate in music, is teaching a "History of Rock" course this summer, tracing the music from its roots to the 2000s with Coldplay and Radiohead.

'I'd like the students to come away with a historical narrative of rock's major figures, events and stylistic changes," Lindau said. "They'll also learn about hot topics in popular music scholarship – things like race, class, gender, genre, authenticity, appropriation, studio production and industry. The existence of college-level surveys of rock shows that the music has come into its own as an art form. It's now part of the cultural canon."

Her class, which is fully enrolled, will begin with early influences on rock 'n' roll, including Tin Pan Alley, the blues, country musicians such as Hank Williams, and crooners such as Bing Crosby.

'There are so many interesting stories – it will be impossible to cover everything. I'm sure to disappoint at least one student by leaving out her favorite band,' she said.

Among the stories she will include are musician Frank Zappa's opposing the efforts of Tipper Gore, wife of former vice president Al Gore, to require warning labels describing lyric content on the packaging of recordings; popular radio disc jockey Alan Freed making movies to convince parents that rock 'n' roll music was not corrupting their children; and producer Phil Spector, who created the "Wall of Sound.'

Lindau plans classes focusing on censorship, Woodstock, "girl groups" such as the Ronettes, glam rock, punk rock, MTV, and grunge music.

'The syllabus is a bit rock-centric, I'm afraid," she said. "I can't claim to cover things like rap, folk, soul, boy bands or disco in a lot of depth with so little time. These topics are worthy of their own summer courses.'

She won't ignore the links between rock and drugs, she said. "There are lot of musicians who took drugs and had a rebellious lifestyle. But they don't seem to be the most interesting things to discuss."

She does not expect her students to come to the class with knowledge of rock music, but she said many students are familiar with it through video games such as "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero," as well as the popularity of older music.

"Students today also have access to music of different eras and genres through the Internet," she said. "They don't need to dig through dusty record bins looking for obscure releases – they can find any type of music imaginable on iTunes or YouTube."

She said some students will have musical knowledge and experience, but it is not required. She will assign readings from "The Rock History Reader," edited by Theo Cateforis, a collection of primary source materials such as an excerpt from Chuck Berry's autobiography and several New York Times editorials.

Lindau, 30, was drawn to rock as a youngster.

"I was an MTV junkie and I listened to the oldies station on the radio," she said. "I grew up listening to popular music."

She took up classical music and immersed herself in that, eschewing rock music for a while. Today she has more catholic tastes, listening to rock, jazz, blues, classical, country and avant-garde, from John Cage and Brian Eno to Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young to Beethoven.

'When I came to graduate school at U.Va., I was interested in avant-garde classical music," she said. "Since our music department has so many faculty and graduate students doing exciting work on popular music, I've combined my love of experimental art music with my love of rock 'n' roll. My dissertation research explores connections between rock music and the avant-garde.'

She wants to present a broad view of rock music to the class.

"We're covering 60 years of music history in 3 1/2 weeks," she said. "I want the students to get some of the breadth and depth of it."

— By Matt Kelly