History | From Ragtime to Rap: Popular Music in the Making of Modern America
A383 | 7368 | M. McGerr
Above class open to undergraduates and EDUC MAs only.
What can the lives and music of Grandmaster Flash, Queen Latifah,
the Beatles, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Patsy
Montana, Jimmy Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Scott
Joplin tell us about modern America? How can hip-hop and be-bop
help us to understand some of the critical issues in the history of
the United States? This course answers these questions by studying
the ways in which popular music has been tightly interwoven with
American life from the late-nineteenth century to the present.
Rather than focus on musicological analysis, the class uses the
history of popular music to explore issues in the social, cultural,
political, and economic history of the modern United States.
Stressing comparisons across time and space, we will examine a broad
range of musical cultures from the late nineteenth century to the
present, including ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, swing, blues,
country, rhythm and blues, folk, rock and roll, soul, rap, and
others. Throughout, the course considers the inter-relationship
between music, on the one hand, and class, gender, race, ethnicity,
and generation, on the other. The course also investigates the ways
in which musical genres have been affected by economic developments
such as corporations and consumerism and by technological
developments from player pianos to digitization. We will discuss
the role of popular music in myth-making about America. And we will
study whether popular music has fostered or thwarted democracy. Our
emphasis is always on the ways in which music fosters and reflects
In developing your understanding of the issues listed above, this
class pursues the aims common to upper-level history lecture
courses. You will work to increase your ability to think
historically, to recognize how the past conditions the present and
the future, to read, watch, and listen critically, and to express
yourself on paper and in discussion.
There are no formal prerequisites for this course, but it does build
on the material and approaches developed in the second half of the
introductory U.S. history survey, H106. If you haven’t taken H106
or a course on the U.S. in the late nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, you may find it useful to read through the relevant
chapters in a textbook such as Jeanne Boydston et al, Making a
Nation: A History of the United States.
All required readings and musical examples will be available on-line
at the course website. The two required films—The Jazz Singer
(1927) and Woodstock—will be on reserve in the Wells Library. There
will be three in-class tests.