Historical Songbook

I’ve taught a class for the last seven years that focuses on the racial justice movements of the late 50s to the early 70s. We learn a bit about the mainstream Civil Rights Movement but spend much more time on radical movements involving black, Chicano/Latino, Asian American, and Native American youth.

The very first mini-lecture for the class is something I devised about two years before I first taught the class. It’s a short historical exercise based on specific images and a song from the mid-60s. The main objective of the exercise is to frame what I like to call “historical empathy”–the critical practice of viewing the past through the eyes of those who lived it, with the critical understanding that you are destined to fail in that practice.

Music seemed to be a great way to help transport my students into another time and, perhaps at best, to keep them cognizant of the ways they might rush to judge the past by their own present subjectivity. As I tell them, how you think or feel about the political projections of the youth we study are secondary to first grasping how they envisioned and acted on their own “truth.”

And so, I began including a song into most classes, not only as a way to teach historical empathy but also to show them how radical, critical, and utopian understandings of racial justice found expression in the musical arts.

Well, I’ve found myself thinking lately about the kinds of classes I’ll develop and teach for the last 15-20 years of my professional career and, as I do, music seems to be one of the more powerful analytical organizing tools for me. Specifically, I am starting to conceptualize teaching a class based on the 80s and 90s. But there is very little historical scholarship on the recent past. In fact, in many ways, the mainstream narratives of this period remain unwritten. Accordingly, the question of what to teach is really open and filled with critically-creative possibility for me.

(Let me jump in here to say I know it might seem weird to non-academics for me to be thinking about the back end of my career when that “back” is about 25 years away. But in my world it’s not unusual for people to teach certain signature courses for decades. More importantly, historical work is slow and the expectation I have for myself is that I teach courses that align with the kind of historical research/writing I want to do. I have a current research project and another in development, and after that I might only have another two or so major projects left. I would hope to begin teaching courses relating to those other research topics within the next 5-7 years, in the hopes that doing so for some time will help me with those projects. And so, I’m starting to think now about the courses I might teach years from now to help me write about stuff I will write about even more years from now.)

As I start to think about what I would teach in this undeveloped class on a week-by-week basis, music seems to help me identify possibilities. At least maybe it helps provide me a way into those times as a professional historian, as well as a professional nostalgist.

And so I’m going to start something here that I am going to label “Historical Songbook.” These posts will usually involve me writing about one song from the 80s or 90s and using it to make sense of a particular moment, topic, theme.

These aren’t going to be long essays or anything (although, as you can tell from this brief introduction to the project, I can always be wordy). They will be spaces where I can explore some things and maybe even “think out loud.” While my big picture goals are pretty historical and analytical, I’m hoping to be more impressionistic than anything else.

My goal is to also begin to use my blog more regularly, as a space for me to write in non-scholarly and non-authoritative ways. Simply put, to write “me.” But that doesn’t mean non-historical. History is more than my job. It’s my hobby, my intellectual love, and my enjoyment. My thought is that I can share the way I might build a narrative for a time period by riffing off of music, another great love.

I don’t know how many regular readers I have out there these days (hi Steven!) but that doesn’t matter much. I’ve come to realize that what I write here is more for me than for anything else. If my blog is to be anything useful, it has to be a space for me first. Maybe then, in the end, it can at least interest my kids when they want to look back and rediscover their old man from a new angle.

So I hope you enjoy. I’ll try to be pretty regular with these posts and make it my Monday writing warm-up. Of course, the academic life holds few promises other than regular avalanches of “unexpected” work.

3 thoughts on “Historical Songbook

  1. Thanks for the shout out! Not only am I a regular reader, I like this new theme. Looking forward to what comes from it. And you are exactly right, this is a space for you, first. If it doesn’t interest you, it won’t interest us. If you are engaged, we will be engaged.

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