School of Rock

Rock 'n roll majors draw passionate students

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By Trapper Schoepp

A pair of Levis blue jeans covers the glass on the door to Dr. Martin Jack Rosenblum’s office, which feels more like a miniature rock music museum than a professor’s office.

Backstage passes, Bob Dylan posters, a plaque that reads “Music taking poetry too far,” and other vintage rock memorabilia cover his office walls. His CDs and books are sealed in Ziplock bags, as if they’re artifacts to be preserved forever.

Rosenblum’s long gray beard belies his youthful, spirited demeanor.

“I’m twice 34 + 1,” he says with a grin. “Wait a minute, I can’t do math. I’m 65 years of age.”

While math may not be his forte, Rosenblum speaks of rock and roll music with the sophistication of an MIT faculty member explaining the physical sciences. 

Rosenblum is at the forefront of an academic movement that examines rock and roll’s history and cultural impact. He contends that the newly launched Rock and Roll Studies certificate program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is the first of its kind in the nation.

UWM graduate Chuck Zink is one of the first students to complete the program and says Rosenblum’s classes “were an escape from everything else.”

“Most people instantly called me, and still do, a ‘Doctor of Rock and Roll.’ I usually reply, ‘No, I’m just certified to Rock,’” Zink says.

In the age of American Idol and Guitar Hero, Rosenblum argues that rock and roll has become a manufactured product that lacks the authenticity it once had. Despite his historicizing of the genre, Rosenblum is not nostalgic for a bygone era of rock music.

And while the study of rock music is susceptible to fan adoration, Rosenblum says that both students and professors must look past their musical tastes in the classroom.

 “It’s taken a tremendous amount of time to sort through the fanage and critical apparatus and academicians are as responsible for confusing the two as they for making core curriculum fill with the latter,” he says. “We’re in an interesting time right now where academia is at long last sorting it out.”

As a scholar and artist, Rosenblum has made a life out of understanding both artistries.

“I’m of two minds,” he says. “There are these moments where there’s this flash of combination between these two parts of me that keeps me inspired every single day as if I’ve never even dealt with the material before.”

Since he began teaching English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1970, Rosenblum has become an internationally recognized recording artist for Rounder Records and a cult-like figure for his Harley-inspired poetry under the moniker the Holy Ranger.

 “That artistic influence does serve as the boiler that heats the pipes that run into my scholarship rooms.”

Rosenblum is a fighter for the future and past of rock and roll music in academia and is not entirely alone in his ambitions. 

Music professor Alex Lubet teaches a class at the University of Minnesota about the school’s most illustrious dropout: Bob Dylan.

“All music should have a place in the curriculum,” Lubet says. “Popular music is, because it's ‘popular,’ inherently important.”

Certificate program

The core curriculum of UWM’s Certificate Program in Rock and Roll Studies is made up of a five-class cycle that Rosenblum teaches, starting with Music 102: American Popular Music and ending with an independent capstone project.

Nineteen courses from UWM’s history, English, film, journalism and anthropology departments are electives that can be used to fulfill the certificate’s 24-credit requirement.

Among the electives offered are History 271: The 1960s in the United States, English 383: Rock and Roll Cinema, JMC 142: Television and Radio in American Society.

The interdisciplinary interplay within the certificate program is a testament to the collaboration that exemplifies the program. To get the certificate curriculum in place, Peck School of the Arts compiled input from other departments as to what the certificate topics should cover.

With rock pedagogy already existing in UWM’s English and history departments, Rosenblum says it was important that all came together with the music department when shaping the certificate program.

He added that these departments were elated that there would be a topical collaboration relative to a subject matter that’s scattered across the university. Rosenblum says UWM’s faculty was “very surprised” by the program, but that there was no opposition.

Of all the classes offered in the program, Rosenblum considers the center of the program to be Music 300: The Literary Aspects of Rock and Roll. He first taught the class at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design while he was acting as the official Harley-Davidson company historian.

UWM senior Mitchell Keller says Music 300 is his favorite class.

“It helped me broaden my horizons in understanding popular music and the literary roots it has to other art movements like beat poetry and American free verse,” Keller says.

“I could have graduated this coming May but I have extended my learning into the summer just for the Rock and Roll certificate,” he says. “It is that important to me.”

Classical

Rosenblum spent his teenage years in a prodigy program at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin studying classical music.

His perspective on music all changed when he saw Gene Vincent in person. He realized that rock and roll had content that was entirely unique in comparison to other musical forms. 

“There I was studying classical music, playing rockabilly,” he says.

Rosenblum’s adolescent conundrum is directly reflected in music departments today: If classical music can be a central part of music curriculums, why not rock and roll and popular music?

Professer Lubet, who has a Ph.D. in classical music composition, says one of the main problems is resistance.  “Faculties in comprehensive schools of music such as the one I teach in are dominated by classical music performers with huge investments in what they do.”

“There's also the problem that theories of popular music are not well evolved, in large part because scholars are so often notation-centric and not willing to do the hard work of discussing musics from other traditions,” he says.

Timing is the other barrier between academia and rock music.

“Serious attention to any art form usually lags behind the advent of the form itself,” says Dr. Bradley P. Ethington. associate director of bands and the professor of the Music of Radiohead course at Syracuse University.

While classical music is approximately 500 years old, jazz is almost 100 years old and rock music is even younger.

“The serious study of jazz only began about 20-30 years ago, and a similar lag is to be expected with any new form of music,” Ethington says.

“Although the classical repertoire is more significant and warrants deeper scrutiny on many levels, popular music will always exist and will always be studied,” he added. “It is an integral part of our cultural fabric.”

Classroom Approach

Rosenblum says that rock and roll “warrants the same type of treatment as classical music if we think of that treatment as being serious,” but contends that scholars can’t study the two genres in the same way.

He explains that classical is frozen composition music while American vernacular music like rock and roll works within a tradition.

“You wanna’ know something about Brahms' Third Symphony? Well, you can look at the manuscript,” he says.

Understanding the evolution of a song like “The House of the Rising Sun,” though, takes loads of ethnomusicological research. The song has seen many different incarnations from the time it was a field recording in 1937 to when it was a smash hit for The Animals in 1964.  Analyzing the path of a song like this is a classic example of what Rosenblum teaches.

“The difference often lies in the size and scope of the work,” says Ethington of Syracuse. “Historically, folk song is a genre that is passed on aurally, just as the great classics of Greek culture were largely an oral tradition, passed on from one generation to another.”

He doesn’t see such a radical difference between teaching classical and rock music, at least in terms of the modern rock band Radiohead.

“In one sense, there is very little difference between approaching ‘Paranoid Android’ and say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (or any other piece of music, for that matter),” he says. “All music has form, structure, melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, etc.”

The Narrative shift

The core curriculum of Rosenblum’s certificate program focuses on the time period between 1965 and 1975 when a major narrative shift occurred in the rock and roll idiom.  Self-proclaimed Dylanologists often argue that this shift officially occurred at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965 when Bob Dylan famously “went electric” and merged his socially conscious lyricism with a full rock band sound.

To the disapproval of many protest folk singers of the time, the “spokesman of a generation” had forever changed the course of popular music when he ditched his acoustic guitar for an electric on that day. Rock music was no longer just a vehicle for sentimentalism, as in songs that previously dominated the airwaves like “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It could and had to say something.

“I started to realize that this thing we call rock and roll was certainly moving into a different artistic realm and very obviously moving from low to high culture and academia was not dealing with it,” Rosenblum says.

The importance of Dylan’s lyrics and this shift are evident in classrooms all over the country today.

“I anticipate that Dylan's lyrics will continue to resonate for hundreds of years,” says Kevin Barents, a lecturer at Boston University who teaches a class on the lyrics of Dylan. “It is timeless literature like Shakespeare's sonnets.”

Barents’ class focuses on applying considerations normally reserved for poetry to Dylan’s lyrics. He says the course is a “sneaky introduction” to a poetry course and that Dylan’s albums seem tailor-made to talk about specific poetic issues. 

“For example, The Basement Tapes is great to talk about the sounds of words, variations of vowel frequencies and alliteration,” he says.  “John Wesley Harding has a lot of lines in a regular meter, especially ‘ballad meter’: iambic tetrameter (de DUH de DUH de DUH de DUH) followed by iambic trimeter (de DUH de DUH de DUH).”

Dylan’s lyrics and the narrative shift that followed also gave birth to legitimate rock journalism, according to Rosenblum.

“Historically speaking, there was no such thing as serious criticism and there was no such thing as criticism regarding a popular music idiom until rock music took on a different narrative,” Rosenblum says.

Rosenblum’s class readings range from music journalist Greil Marcus’s classic The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes to his own book, Searching for Rock and Roll: Authenticity And Art In Vernacular Music.

Cultural significance

Rosenblum uses ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger as a touchstone and says, “You can’t extract a song and forget where it comes from.” He says that music cannot be separated from its cultural context and influence.

Ethington agrees.

“I don’t think any music can (or should) be studied without looking at its cultural context,” Ethington says. “This is as true of Mozart or Wagner as it is with Miles Davis, The Beatles or Radiohead.”

Ethington sees striking parallels between the careers of The Beatles and Radiohead in their cultural significance and musical sophistication. “Both changed the course of rock music,” he says. “Both experienced a meteoric rise in popularity and defined the music of their decade. 

Nathan Mattise, a student in Ethington’s Radiohead course, says Ethington’s thesis for the class was that Radiohead is most important band since The Beatles. “It's hard to argue otherwise after listening to him.”

Barents says he attempts to focus just on the songs rather than their cultural context: “Ezra Pound in ‘The ABCs of Reading’ says that we make a mistake when we begin by looking at the poet, not the poem, and I agree with him.”

Praise

Rosenblum has gained a reputation around UWM as not only a hands-on and enthusiastic professor, but also the cool professor. He can be spotted around campus in his round Lennon-style glasses, smoking hand rolled cigarettes, and wearing a black blazer even on the hottest of days.

“Is there anyone more bad ass than Martin Jack Rosenblum?” Zink asks. “He showed me that there was artistic value in the music that influenced me but also that there could be that same value in my own music.”

UWM graduate student Graham Marlowe says he often wonders where Rosenblum finds the energy to carry on the way he does.

“He was well into his 60's and yet he walked and talked like a still-hip sage from outer space,” Marlowe says.

Marlowe also noted Rosenblum’s unique teaching style.

“Instead of the traditional, pre-packaged boredom of ‘do readings, come in and listen to me disseminate the readings for you in a prescribed way’ classes, Marty ran his wide-ranging lectures like improvisational jazz performances,” he says.

Students who otherwise feel alienated by academia find a home in these rock music-oriented classes.

“No other set of classes I've taken at UWM have drawn as much interest as to do the ones in the rock n roll concentration,” Mitchell Keller says. “There's no comparison.”

Ethington noted the wide variety of students in his class on Radiohead. He had a mix of music majors, as well as students from many other disciplines from physics to psychology to art.

“It seems that everyone likes Radiohead,” he says. “What was interesting was that these students, in their late teens and early 20s, came to know Radiohead as the music of their generation.”

Mattise says Ethington’s class was easily one of his favorites.

“The passion of the professor, the perspective it gave me on the band (I shamefully wasn't too familiar with them beforehand) and the importance placed on critically discussing music was super appealing.”

Future           

While most universities now offer courses in the history of rock and jazz, very few offer degrees, minors, or certificate programs like Rosenblum’s.

With Liverpool University now offering a masters degree in Beatles studies, Rosenblum hopes that his certificate program will grow as well. He thinks that other professors at UWM would support a rock and roll degree but says there are only informal talks of at the moment.

“In the same way that someone can have an Art History degree or an illustration, painting, sculpting, etc. degree; popular music can be just as rigorous intellectually,” says Mattise, who’s now a multimedia journalist in California. “The counter argument of ‘what job does this lead to?’ holds little weight for me.”

His former professor used that argument. 

“I don’t know what it does for someone who is seeking employment, unless they’re going into rock journalism, music criticism, or they’re going to teach popular music at the college level,” Ethington says.  “All worthy pursuits, but the job market is limited.”

This kind of job placement and professionalism is contrary to the outlook of Rosenblum.

“Retiring? No never.”

As Rosenblum says this, a young student wearing a David Bowie shirt walks in. Rosenblum greets him like an old friend he hasn’t seen in years, saying they need to catch up. It seems as if each one of Rosenblum’s students is a member in his exclusive rock and roll club at UWM.

“In his presence, the constraint of time no longer seems part of the equation or the learning process,” Marlowe says. “It was give and take, and Marty gave much more of himself than most students today will ever give in their lifetime.”

And while Rosenblum may have heard “Like a Rolling Stone” a thousand times, he knows one of his students may not have heard it once.

“Every morning I get up I think of the songs in which I will be dealing with that day in class and though how many times have I heard them, I am continually interested.”

With the light beaming in his office, he picks up a sunburst acoustic guitar and begins finger picking a bluesy riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a front porch in the rural south.

“Just this morning I discovered a new chord progression that I can’t believe I’ve never thought of,” he says. “You know it’s like, where did that come from?”

Rock on, Dr. Rosenblum. Rock on.

 

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