Cool Courses: History of Rock and Roll Gives Students a New Appreciation of their Favorite Songs

Posted Sep 09, 2022

Whether you are a fan of funk, folk rock, heavy metal, psychedelic rock, disco, punk, hip hop, grunge, country, or an entirely different kind of music, The History of Rock and Roll will make you look at — and appreciate — music on a whole new level.

Associate Professor of History Anthony DeStefanis isn’t just the course instructor, he’s also a fan of rock and roll! Let him tell you more about his course.

Anthony Destefanis
Anthony Destefanis, Associate Professor of History

FYS 1054: The History of Rock and Roll

This course is an introduction to the history and culture of rock and roll. Two questions shape the course: How did the times shape the music? And how did the music shape the times? We will begin with an examination of American blues music: its development in the American South, its migration to northern cities beginning in the World War I era, and its evolution into rhythm and blues, and ultimately, rock and roll. The first part of the course will also examine other ancestors and influences: country and western and tin-pan alley, and the success in the mid-1950s of the musicians who marked the birth of rock and roll. We will study the musical and social trends of the 1960s, including the British Invasion, the rock explosion and social upheaval of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the emergence of new genres such as punk, reggae, disco, funk, heavy metal, grunge, and hip-hop during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The course will combine lecture and discussion to explore the historical progression of rock and roll while also examining topics such as cultural geography; rock and roll as a working-class art form; race, gender, sexuality, and class relations; generational conflict; youth cultures and subcultures; and the business of rock and roll.

What inspired you to develop this course?

Rock and roll intersects with my interests as a historian. I study U.S. history and specialize in labor and working-class history and race and ethnicity. Rock and roll is a working-class art form and African American blues and rhythm and blues were crucial in the development and growth of rock and roll. I have used music as a primary source in my courses since I started teaching as a way of getting at the mood of particular historical moments, but I had never taught a class entirely about music. This course combines historical analysis with exploration of an art form and the people who made this art. This interdisciplinarity is ideal for the FYS/FYE program at Otterbein. I am also a fan! Punk rock meant the most to me as a teenager and I’ve always listened to a wide variety of music that is in the rock tradition.

Why do you love teaching this course?

My other courses are on the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, immigration, race, and ethnicity, labor and the working class, and the making of modern America. All of these classes ask students to confront difficult and often wrenching history. There is a great deal that is inspirational in these courses, while they also explore the immense amount of violence that is a reality of the American past. Like these other courses, the rock and roll course explores some difficult history, but it is also about joy. Rock music – whether it’s the punk I loved as a teenager, or hip hop, or what is otherwise popular with young people today – is often startlingly honest and covers the entire range of human emotion. Exploring this music shows us the power of artistic expression and opens doors to understanding how people voice the eternal human hope for a better day.

What is the most unexpected thing students learn in this course?

First, students don’t typically think that the contemporary popular music they listen to has any connection to rock and roll. They often think that hip hop, for instance, has no connection to rock music, whether in its origins or in what they are hearing from hip hop artists today. It’s fun to show students that these connections exist. Second, lots of people don’t listen to or try to comprehend lyrics! I think this is true generally, not just among the students who take this course. With this in mind, we do lyric analysis that seeks first to place an artist and the song under examination in its proper historical context and then try to understand what the artist was trying to get across in the song. What is “Tutti Fruitti” about? What is “Like a Rolling Stone” about? What is “Fight the Power” about? Why did Jimi Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner” the way he did? There are no lyrics in Hendrix’s rendition, but he was trying to say something he felt was important.

How do the themes in your course prepare students to think critically?

Like many of the other courses I teach, the categories of analysis we use in the rock and roll course are class, race, gender, and sexuality. By examining rock music through these different and often overlapping categories of analysis, my hope is that students come to see that class, race, gender, and sexuality can help them better understand what has happened and what is happening in the world around them.

What is some of your favorite student feedback you have received about this course?

A lot of rock and roll music is about teenage angst and confusion as well as the joys of being a young person. Over the course of a semester, students often become adept at finding these things in music with which they might have been unfamiliar. I think that helps them better cope with the challenges they face while also forming a greater appreciation of how awesome it is to be young. Otherwise, many students who take this class are serious music fans, but they often don’t know that much about the origins and development of the music they love so much. They regularly talk about how they find the process of discovery both fun and gratifying. They also like that we spend time on both what happened and why things happened. They are curious; they want to know why. Students also appreciate the time I spend on helping them become better readers and writers. I do this in all my courses and it’s something that the humanities programs at Otterbein really emphasize.

What are some interesting projects or activities you do to engage your students in your course?

Listening journals and song and artist analysis assignments. Before COVID-19, I had students attend a concert performance by an artist that is, broadly speaking, in the rock tradition. The FYE program generously provided the funding for tickets and students wrote a review of the show. They also had to negotiate a night out in Columbus, something I think is good for first year students to do. People are clearly going to concerts again, but I don’t yet feel comfortable requiring students to be in a crowd. I’m hoping I can bring this assignment back next fall. Otherwise, students currently in the course are doing a semester-long exploration of a rock subgenre. They get to choose the subgenre they will examine – funk, folk rock, heavy metal, psychedelic rock, disco, punk, hip hop, grunge, etc. – and will conduct research aimed at understanding how their subgenre developed and why it’s important in rock history. We’re just getting started on this project and the students are clearly excited about it.

What is a dream course you would like to develop or teach?

A course based on HBO’s The Wire. The show ended its run in 2008, but I think it still tells us a great deal about the urban crisis, post-industrial America, community-police relations, city politics, urban public education, the workplace, and, of course, class, race, gender, and sexuality in early 21st century America.