Thirty years is a long time—and that’s exactly how long Karl Martin, Professor of American Literature, has been thinking about American culture. With a degree in American Studies, Martin has all the tools under his belt to introduce “LIT4090: Rock and Roll and American Culture,” the first course ever offered at PLNU on rock ‘n’ roll. In an exclusive interview with The Point, Martin gave the lowdown on this new course that rock and rolls out in fall 2020.
The Point: What is this new course?
Karl Martin: This is a class I’ve always wanted to teach. The entry American music gives us into American culture is really fascinating. The ways we can think about American culture through our music is fascinating—rock ‘n’ roll particularly. I felt like I’m not getting younger, so if I’m ever going to do this, I should do this now!
TP: What time period are we talking about?
KM: You really start with the early 1950s. There are some precursors in rhythm and blues and in country music that date back earlier than that, but it’s really the early 1950s that people point to as the first rock ‘n’ roll music. We’ll go back to some of that early stuff that feeds into rock ‘n’ roll, but then start with the 1950s.
TP: What will classwork look like?
KM: Homework is going to be almost exclusively listening. I’ll have some readings especially early on, but I mostly want students to just listen to the music. Then we can spend the class time building some context around the music and make the connections to American culture.
TP: Was it easy to get the class approved?
KM: I didn’t get a lot of resistance. The department talked about it in different ways of whether it would fit as a music course or as a history course. Finally, I decided I’m just going to try to see if there’s student interest and offer it as an elective.
TP: When will the class take place?
KM: Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 4 p.m. to 4:55 p.m. It’s just a two-unit class. We’re offering it purely as elective credit.
TP: Do you know how many seats will be available?
KM: We’ll see what the demand is, but it won’t get bigger than 40 seats.
TP: Do you have a favorite artist you’re looking forward to analyzing in this course?
KM: There’s a bunch. From the early stuff I really love Johnny Cash, but Ray Charles as well from the R&B time period. Also, others like John Fogerty in Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. We’re also going to cover the singer-songwriter movement which would then include Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Bonnie Raitt; a bunch of underappreciated women and contributors to all of this.
TP: Are there any similar classes you’ve taught to this?
KM: To this? No. This is brand new, but it goes back to what I learned in grad school. This is material I’ve been studying for 30 years. Early on in my career, I think especially teaching African American literature, I realized how many connections there were to music in African American literature. Back when CDs were all the rage, I was given a grant to buy some recordings. That’s where I was really able to build a historical understanding of the music. Even though I love it, I wasn’t listening for my own interests at that point. I was also building collections to listen to the records historically.
TP: Would you recommend this class to a certain type of person? Someone with a background in rock ‘n’ roll already?
KM: No, they can come in absolutely cold. If you’re willing to listen and interested in learning about the music and its context, I’d love to have people there.