Long before he ever stood in front of a University of Virginia classroom, wrote for Slate, finished grad school at Harvard, or even finished college himself, Jack Hamilton rocked stages across the United States and Europe as a member of the Mike Welch Band.
When he took a break from touring to return to his studies at New York University, he was still considering life as a musician after graduation, but the lure of his research was too tempting. Hamilton wanted to do more than just play music; he wanted to learn about its history and influence on culture.
He went on to earn his Ph.D. in American studies from Harvard University, focusing his research on the constant conversation between race and music, a topic he will explore in depth in his upcoming book, “Rubber Souls: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.” Hamilton also keeps up a regular analysis of current music and popular culture trends by writing as a critic for Slate.
UVA Today sat down with Hamilton to find out more about his first year at the University and what he’s discovered while researching the storied lives of people like Sam Cooke, Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix.
Q. What first drew you to U.Va.?
A. When I applied here, it was like a dream job. I knew some people who were teaching and working here and when I got the job offer, it was an absolute no-brainer. I’m totally thrilled to be here.
Q. Was there anything surprising or unexpected you learned after your first year on the faculty?
A. One of the things I was really moved by was how much passion U.Va. students have for the school. I went to N.Y.U. as an undergraduate, which is sort of notorious for not having school spirit. I’ve never taught at or attended a school before where I felt like the level of passion and love the students have for the institution is this pronounced and earnest. It’s really productive. It’s not just a “rah-rah” thing. People are really invested in a genuine way, and that manifests itself positively.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the book you’re working on, “Rubber Souls: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination”?
A. It’s about how rock ’n’ roll music begins the decade of the 1960s being seen as an interracial form, and by the end of the 1960s it’s seen as something that just white people do. The best way that I can describe this is by looking at Jimi Hendrix. By the time he dies in 1970, it says over and over in his obituaries how remarkable he was as a black man playing lead electric guitar. It’s noted in a way that was not remarkable at all when Chuck Berry was doing the same thing a decade earlier. I look at what accounts for that shift, and especially what accounts for that shift in a decade that is often seen as being marked by a huge amount of racial crossover.
Q. What interests you most about the interplay between racial and musical identities?
A. Music and race don’t actually graft onto each other really perfectly, which is one of the things my book is about. It’s kind of odd because we think of music as auditory and we tend to think of race as a visual category. So what does it even mean to describe sound as having a racial component? We make those sorts of connections really effortlessly. Like if we talk about the singer Adele, people often say she sounds black and somehow everyone knows what that means. But when you really think about it, it’s a weird thing to say. I’m interested in how those logics work.
Q. How are you bringing that discussion to your students?
A. This next semester, I’m teaching a media studies course called “Race and Sound in American Culture.” It looks at the intersection of the way people have used race to think about sound and sound to think about race. We’re looking mostly at music, but also at other parts of sonic culture. It starts in the early 19th century and moves all the way up to the present. A lot of that deals with popular culture and popular music and the circulation of sound.
Q. What first led you away from life in a rock band and into the world of academia?
A. I kind of fell into doing music journalism while I was in college and I got an internship at a now defunct Hip Hop magazine. That opened up a new avenue where I could write about music, talk to musicians and review albums. It was fun.
I came to academia because I had always been interested in music historically. I remember complaining to one of my former professors that I wanted to write more about the music history that interested me, and he told me I should go to graduate school.
Q. Do you have an all-time favorite album?
A. My all-time favorite album is “Innervisions” by Stevie Wonder, but there’s very little music that I write about in my book that I don’t really like. I love the Rolling Stones and it’s great to have the chance to write about albums like “Beggars Banquet,” “Sticky Fingers,” and “Exile on Main Street.”
Q. Outside of music, one of your most shared articles for Slate was about the television show “The Simpsons.” Why do you think it resonated with people so much?
A. I love that article. I’m really proud of it. Part of it is just because I really love “The Simpsons” and I’d never gotten to write about them. I think “The Simpsons” has had a huge impact on American comedy, especially for people of my generation. For a lot of us, it’s really helped shape our sense of humor with how quick and referential it is.
For me, the article was a chance to talk about the show’s impact in wider culture and what makes it funny. I don’t write about comedy all that much, but I’m very interested in what makes us laugh and why we find it funny.
Q. How have you been spending your first for summer in Charlottesville? Do you have any favorite spots?
A. I like Charlottesville a lot. It’s been good. I’ve been going to a lot of concerts. I’ve seen a bunch of shows at the [NTelos] Pavilion and at the Jefferson [Theater] too. I live downtown, so it’s easy to go to Whiskey Jar or Alley Light. I also really like the places in Belmont like The Local and Mas.
Q. Going forward, what’s the most important thing you hope your students learn from you?
A. I really try to impart on my students the importance of doing what you love, particularly in college. I’m lucky that in a lot of ways this job is my dream job. I get to come to work every day and engage with things that I really love and am very interested in. It’s important to keep in mind that that’s something you can do. There are ways that you can work on what you’re passionate about.