Students learn roots through music

Students learn roots through music

Staff WriterNovember 7, 2005 

Many students in Jocelyn Neal's music course say they leave each day at least "a little bit country" in a college world where rock-and-roll, hip-pop and rap typically rule.

Some might have signed up for the history of country music class at UNC-Chapel Hill thinking it was a "slide" and that all they would do was sit around and listen to Top 40 with a twang.

But that has not been the case.

"You'd think it would be a slack class," said Wes Bordeaux, 18, a freshman from Wilmington. "But it's tough."

Neal designed the course five years ago to give college students a window into the social, cultural and instrumental aspects of a musical genre with deep North Carolina roots.

"When I was hired at the University of North Carolina, it was partly because my research focused on country music, among some other things," Neal said.

For nearly a decade, many university music departments have been incorporating popular music into their course offerings. In 1997, UNC-Chapel Hill added "History of Rock Music," a popular class that filled up almost as quickly as it was added to the schedule.

In the class. students learn about the influence of rock on the country beat. They learn about the influence of gospel and folk, and they see how the line between genres is blurred in much of today's music.

Neal mixes music with her lectures as she moves from 1922 to the modern sound. She sends students to area concerts and brings musicians, songwriters and industry executives into the classroom.

"I have some students who take the course because they're interested in the music," Neal said. "A lot of the students take it because it's a window into North Carolina history and their family's history."

A week ago, it was a packed house in the Hanes Arts Center auditorium, where Neal's class meets. Roger McGuinn, a founding member of the seminal '60s folk-rock group The Byrds, was holding court with his guitar and banjo. Dressed in black, from his boots to his leather vest, the 63-year-old musician tripped down memory lane and back again. Between guitar and banjo riffs, he told tales from his folk-music roots to his rock heyday.

Though his roots are in folk, McGuinn was able to show how a country twang could give a song a different sound.

McGuinn comes to Chapel Hill regularly to meet with Paul Jones, director of ibiblio, an Internet-based library. Since 2000, McGuinn has helped build a "Folk Den" site on which he gives away MP3 recordings of traditional folk songs.

He has become big in a music preservation movement. He worried one day while listening to a Woody Guthrie song that unless contemporary musicians worked to keep that sound alive, it might be lost to future generations.

With that in mind, he readily accepts invitations to speak in college classrooms.

"Classes like these get kids to understand about the music and where it comes from as opposed to just listening to this contemporary music on the radio," McGuinn said. "It gives them a little more scope."

McGuinn's visit showed just how many generations a sound can reach. Kat Hogue, a freshman from Hillsborough, knew last week that someone big from the 1960s was going to be at Neal's Monday afternoon class. But fearing that McGuinn might draw a larger crowd than the 300-seat auditorium could handle, Neal kept the identity of her guest lecturer a secret.

Hogue speculated with her mother, Nancy Vest, a 52-year-old UNC-CH student, about whom the guest might be. "My mom and I were thinking maybe Dolly Parton."

The night before McGuinn arrived, word leaked out in the local music community. Hogue sent an e-mail message to her mother about McGuinn, saying she could come to the class. The two enjoyed a mother-daughter moment, listening to McGuinn perform parts of Byrds hits "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Steve Allred, associate provost, joined up with his son.

"If we only offered courses in the Classics or English literature, we'd be a poorer university for it," Allred, 53, said.

Staff writer Anne Blythe can be reached at 932-8741 or ablythe@newsobserver.com.

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