Syllabus for The Literature of American Popular Music

Course Description: The course will examine the interactions between different forms of American popular music and American literature. Music and literature will be considered in historical and cultural context. Students will read works of fiction, poetry, and drama that deal with popular music, as well as sociological discussions of American popular music. A key part of the course will be listening to and seeking to understand key examples of several genres of American popular music, from folk ballads and parlor songs, through blues and jazz, to rock music and beyond. This is a lecture / discussion course with a significant on-line discussion component. Note: Some of the literature in this course contains violent and sexually explicit material as well as racially offensive language. Course Goals: 1) To give students experience in understanding literary texts within historical and cultural traditions. 2) To understand the experience of African-American culture as it is embodies in works of literature. 3) To explore the ways in which political and social marginalization affects the production of culture. 4) To explore the significance of popular culture on literature. 5) To practice reading literary texts critically. Requirements: Four quizzes on the reading (4 x 5 = 20%); two reflective essays (2 x 20 = 40%); [Minimum length for essays is three double-spaced pages; maximum length around six pages]; in-class & on-line participation (2 x 10 = 20%); mini-project, preferably on-line (20%). Occasional pop quizzes (extra credit). Participation: This is a large class, but the room is arranged conveniently for discussion. We will make name cards & I would appreciate if you would use them throughout the semester, which will enable you to address each other by name. You will see under the Requirements section of the syllabus that failure to participate regularly in class discussions will forfeit 10% of your grade. You are also expected to participate online: You should anticipate making twenty or more substantive comments over the course of the semester. Weblog: The website for the course takes the form of a weblog. I will post material for comments at least twice a week and students are expected to make substantive responses using the comment function of the software. URL: Essays: Essay topics will emerge from on-line and in-class discussions. You can write about anything that interests you. Minimum length for the essays is three pages double-spaced, 12 point font, standard margins. We'll take time in class and on-line to brainstorm possible essay topics. Mini-Project: A brief report or webpage on a single musician, writer, song, poem, problem, issue, or story - or another topic of your own invention. Course Rules & Procedures: In order to assure the smooth functioning of the course and to provide the best conditions for intellectual work, please observe the following rules and procedures. Come to class prepared to participate in discussion based on the readings & the online writing (more on this below). Being "prepared to discuss" involves a number of things, such as being awake & alert, not having a hat or hoodie pulled down over your face, not having earphones in (or near) your ears, having your cell phone turned off & put away, having done the reading, etc. In other words, I expect that you will join me in creating the conditions in which an intellectual community can flourish. Within those parameters, though, I expect the class to be conducted in a friendly & casual manner. Feel free to bring a drink or a snack, for instance. I offer these guidelines for the good of the class; as the instructor, it is my job to create a situation in the classroom conducive to learning, but the most important of my responsibilities is to help establish an atmosphere in the classroom in which everyone feels comfortable expressing his or her views. That means that we will all treat each other with respect. It also means that participation is expected. Participation counts for a great deal in the success of this course. (It is possible to make up for some lack of classroom participation by extra posting on the weblog.) Attendance & Etc: Attendance will be taken using a sign-in sheet. It is your responsibility to make sure you sign the sheet each day; it will be considered a violation of academic integrity to sign the sheet for someone who is not present. With the exception of documented family or medical emergencies, there are no excused absences. (Being asleep in class counts as an absence. Please don't come to class if you are too tired to stay awake.) You may miss two class sessions without penalty; after that, each absence will deduct two percent from your grade. If you miss a class, you are responsible for finding out what took place: check the weblog, ask another student, make an appointment with me (but please don't ask "Did I miss anything important?"). Quizzes and tests cannot be made up except in cases of documented family or medical emergencies. Pop quizzes cannot be made up in any case. While I recognize that getting around campus can be arduous in the winter, please make every attempt to come to class on time: regular late arrival will affect your attendance grade.

Academic Honesty: Plagiarism is a violation of academic ethics and Clarkson regulations; in some cases it is against the law. All violations of academic honesty will be referred to the Clarkson Academic Integrity Committee. The essays for this course will be turned in electronically, using A complete explanation of Clarkson's policies on academic honesty can be found in the Clarkson Regulations, available online and linked from the class website. There is also a link to an explanation of what does and does not constitute plagiarism.


Class Schedule January 10/ Th: Intro to course. Website. Two iconic figures. Ballads & Blues. 15/Tu: The Ballad Tradition 17/Th: The Blues Tradition 22/ Tu: John Henry & the American Ideal (see weblog for online reading assignment). 24/Th: "That Bad Man, Staggerlee" - Outlaws & Gangsters in Am. pop culture. Cecil Brown, Stagolee Shot Billy (handout). 29/Tu: August Wilson's play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Quiz 1. 31/Th: More on Ma Rainey. The Black Diaspora. Early Urban Blues. February 5/Tu: James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues." 7/Th: Charlie ‘Bird' Parker & Thelonious Sphere Monk as iconic artists. Break 14/Th: "Sonny's Blues," The Harlem Renaissance, & Am. Culture. Quiz 2. 19/Tu: Jazz & Rock short stories (handout). 21/Th: Blues Poems (handout). 26/Tu: Walter Mosley's novel RL's Dream, chapters 0-7. 28/Th: Walter Mosley's novel RL's Dream, chapters 8-16. March 4/Tu: Walter Mosley's novel RL's Dream, chapters 17-28. 6/Th: A Brief History of Rock Music. Quiz 3. 11/Tu: The Outcast: Janis Joplin as Case Study. 13/Th: Joplin, cont. Break 25/Tu: The Rebel: Bob Dylan as Case Study. 27/Th: Dylan, cont. April 1/Tu: Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues, pages 1-91. 3/Th: Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues, pages 92-169. 8/Tu: Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues, pages 169-conclusion. 10/Th: Open day. Quiz 4. 15/Tu: Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, pages 1-112. 17/Th: Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, pages 113-212. 22/Tu: Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, pages 213-conclusion. 24/Th: Conclusions

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “Syllabus for The Literature of American Popular Music

  1. did i ask if you knew the swedish novel of recent years (the most popular wildly popular swedish novel in sweden and in europe as well i read) titled POPULAR MUSIC (in the english trans as published abroad by harper) and POPULAR MUSIC IN VITULA (as published in the united states by seven…?). not so popular on this side of the pond. it’s set in abt 1960’s in upper sweden where that country has a triple merge of lap, finn, & swedish peoples at a time when the first road went up to vitula and followed by the popular music of the beetles era. european and english reviews have all referenced salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE and cutting edge irish and british writers (hornsby & the guy who wrote THE COMMITMENTS). richard steger and i were sent the european edition by the famed photomontagist of stockholm christer themptander and his radical librarian partner the weaver inger
    fredrikkson. i did like it though it never made the splash here it made elsewhere. edward mycue

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