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All shook up: Understanding how Elvis and rock 'n' roll influence American culture

| Judy Berthiaume

It’s no secret that music is huge at UW-Eau Claire.

Whether gathering with friends at a concert, performing at a campus venue, or putting earbuds in to study, Blugolds are making and consuming music daily.

Yet few students stop to consider the influence their music has on their lives and the world around them, says Dr. David Jones, a professor of English at UW-Eau Claire and a popular regional musician.

“Music is a constant part of our intimate and public spaces,” Jones says. “We spend so much time with music daily yet we do very little analysis of it. Music influences so much, even how we dress, yet we don’t think about what it means. It’s really an amazing phenomenon.”

Jones is using one popular music genre — rock ‘n’ roll — to help a class of Honors students think differently about music, motivating them see music not only as a form of entertainment but as a broader social movement that transforms cultural norms.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is so prominent and had such a huge cultural influence,” Jones says of the focus of his popular “History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” course. “It was a musical style that became part of our national discourse 50 years ago.”

In the class, students learn about the evolution of the style of rock ‘n’ roll, which had its origins in folk and blues music. They also explore how the music industry itself has evolved since rock ‘n’ roll came on to the music scene.

Music has grown from being mostly oral folk songs to the commercially viable billion dollar business that it is today, Jones says.

In his rock ‘n’ roll class, his students consider music as a form of expression, but they also delve into the history of the music and the industry around it.

As a class, they discuss rock ‘n’ roll as a musical style, but also as the cause of significant cultural transformations in the United States, Jones says.

“Students tend to think of music as a hobby, and not as something that contributes to our personal identity and our national identity,” says Jones. “Sometimes students can have a hard time wrapping their minds around the significance that music has in their lives. But music played a huge role in the social movements of the 1950s and ‘60s, and continues to influence social movements today.”

Through books, lectures, film and the music itself, students in the Honors class study the genre’s evolution, its influencers and the impact it’s had on various social movements, as well as how technology has changed music and the music industry.

“We look at the music side of rock ‘n’ roll but also the social and historical sides,” Jones says. “I want the students to think about the industry and the people who are part of that industry. We try to unpack and demystify the idea of celebrity so they understand that these were ordinary people who had the opportunity to do something extraordinary. But we also look at the realities of what being part of that world means; we talk about the struggles along with the excitement.”

Tyler SchusterA few weeks into the course, sophomore Tyler Schuster — a music education major who plays in UW-Eau Claire jazz ensembles and in a local jazz band — says he’s been intrigued by the idea of rock ‘n’ roll having its roots in blues and jazz.

“I was raised on classic rock,” says Schuster, a native of Apple Valley, Minn. “So it’s been interesting to see how the rock music I grew up with can be traced back to its blues and jazz roots. I also like seeing the connections between the earlier musicians like Elvis and Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s and to artists today.”

With a love for both music and history, the class is a perfect fit for him, Schuster says. The course has him thinking differently about both history and music because he’s seeing how the two are so closely entwined, he says.

“I think of Woodstock and the impact that had on our culture, and it’s really amazing,” Schuster says. “There had never been anything like that before so it was a big deal. That was an example of music influencing how we think about that time in our history.”

Delving into the stories of the people behind some of the famous music and musical events also has been eye-opening, Schuster says.

“Some of it’s really shocking,” Schuster says of the stories involving rock ‘n’ roll’s influencers. “Some of it's dark and some of it’s a little lighter, but what I really have taken away is that these are just normal people. They get nervous before shows or make personal choices that are bad for them. They’ve done great things but they really were just regular people.”

Having a musician teaching the course is a bonus, Schuster says.

Jones’ knowledge and passion for the music world is obvious, and he uses his talents to help students better connect to and understand the topics he’s covering in class, Schuster says.

For example, a recent class had Jones playing his guitar and singing two versions of the legendary “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” one as sung by blues legend Bill Monroe and one as sung by Elvis Presley.

The tempo is different in each version he played, which helps the students feel the songs and the emotions in them differently, Jones says.

Already, the rock ‘n’ roll class has him thinking a little differently about his own music, Schuster says.

“It’s cool to hear him play something Elvis; I’m starting to think about how I can connect some of that older music to my own jazz music,” Schuster says. “Connecting the old genre to the new is pretty cool. I’m seeing the similarities between rock ‘n’ roll and jazz — they’re really not that far apart.”

Hearing that his students are making those kinds of connections is music to his ears, Jones says.

After all, Jones says, few things bring people together like music.

“People come together in physical spaces to hear music,” Jones says. “Songs can bring people together, and great ideas are found when people come together. Music is a way for people to process ideas and feelings, and to work through challenges. Music reflects the spirit of the times. So it’s important that we think more about the music that has so much influence in our lives and society.”

Photo captions

Top photo: Dr. David Jones

Side photo: UW-Eau Claire sophomore Tyler Schuster