Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
I’ve been so invested in the History of Paper class, it recently occurred to me that there have been no posts here on another class I’m teaching this semester on Bob Dylan. What a great experience, although sometimes tough to keep up with the schedule… What am I teaching this afternoon again? English? History? Art? At the end of the day, it seems I’ve finally started to hit the sweet spot where all of these disciplines begin to collide.
Since I’ve reached a quarter of the way in, I wanted to offer a little progress report on at least the two upper division courses. First, the Bob Dylan class . . .
This course explores the astonishing body of songs written by Bob Dylan–over 600–and charts his evolution as a songwriter/performer from the early 1960s to the present day. We’ll historicize Dylan’s revolutionary engagement with the 60s acoustic folk movement and examine his lyrical and performative genius in the crucial electric albums later in the decade. The class traces Dylan’s career as the most influentially transformative musician of the rock era, who, at 75, continues to perform over one hundred dates a year and who received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. We’ll also explore Dylan as a reluctant cultural icon, a unique poet, and a virtuoso performer, who remains a polarizing figure.
The big question is where do you even begin with this sort of course? I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised (but I was!) students weren’t that familiar with Bob Dylan’s music career. So to offer a little context in the early weeks, I offered outside “listening sessions” to try to provide some context to at least some early influences on Dylan’s songwriting and stlye, performance and persona. These were intended to lead up to (and include) Dylan’s first two albums, Bob Dylan (1962) and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). Enter the rabbit hole . . . An exercise in restraint. The biggest challenge was to organize and limit the number of artists and songs.
So this is my essential list–divided into four weeks:
My biggest hesitation may have been to schedule an entire week of Woody Guthrie, but this worked out well. The biggest challenges were (1) finding balance in discussing the music and offering background (biographical and otherwise) to the artists and (2) explaining to students–with no musical background–music terminology. And I’ll admit the latter required a little research and listening myself.
Overall, these sessions were generally very helpful to students (based on feedback), although again there was a lot of time added to refresh students on song’s/artist’s receptions (and, in the case of musicians like Robert Johnson, mythologies) and on American history. For example, when discussing Woody Guthrie, I explained a little on the Dust Bowl and migrant workers, FDR’s New Deal, Communism in America in the 1940s, and the outbreak of World War II. In addition, students’ initial impulse is to merely read the lyrics. While there were some close readings like Guthrie’s “Lindbergh”, we spend a lot of time in early weeks reviewing elements like melody, harmony, rhythm, structure, etc. Perhaps my favorite part, of course, was simply watching the students listen to many of these songs for the first time and hearing their initial thoughts and preferences . . . Rarely does one get a chance to introduce Hank Williams or Robert Johnson to a group!
W.C. Handy’s Blues Band
Mississippi John Hurt
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys
The Carter Family
Dust Bowl Ballads
The Asch Recordings
American Radical Patriot
Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti
So Long, it’s Been Good to Know Ya
I Ride an Old Paint
Grand Coulee Dam
Pretty Boy Floyd
Pastures of Plenty
This Land is Your Land
Do Re Me
Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues
Dave Van Ronk
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Peter, Paul and Mary
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry
*So What do you think??? What “essential” artists did I miss? Who can be taken off?
Send me your suggestions and comments below . . .