The Old Weird America: Music as Democratic Speech from the Commonplace: Song to Bob Dylan
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Level: Undergraduate
Division: University-wide Programs
Department: University Lecture Program
Course Number: ULEC 2640
Course Format: Lecture
Location: NYC campus
Permission Required: No
  • Cultural Studies
  • Music
  • Literature
Throughout American history people excluded from or ignored by the traditional narrative of the country have seized on music as a means of both affirming and questioning individual and cultural existence. Music has been used to make ecstatic, despairing, and symbolic statements about the nature of America and about life itself. These are big words for ordinary, anonymous songs like “The Cuckoo Bird” or “John Henry.”—but it is in songs that seem to have emerged out of nowhere, and in songs that as self-conscious works of art are made to reclaim that nowhere, where much of the country’s story bides its time. This course examines “commonplace” or authorless songs as elemental, founding documents of American identity. These authorless songs can be examined as a form of speech that is always in flux, especially in the work of Bob Dylan across the last fifty years. Course material includes film excerpts and recordings from the 1920s to the present, as well as Colson Whitehead’s 2001 novel John Henry Days, the 19th century blackface plays of Thomas “Daddy” Rice and Sarah Silverman’s 2007 blackface comedy “Face Wars,” Luc Sante’s essay “The Invention of the Blues” from the collection The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume 1, and much more.
Students must register for both the lecture and discussion section of this course.
Course Open to: Degree Students


Open to Undergraduate students.