29 April 2010

Blues in the classroom

the royal estate
beginning our walk
Our Lady of Kazan'
Peter the Great's 
cottage, originally on 
the White Sea
Peter the Great's 
dining room
and his study
book on Dutch ship-
building (Moscow, 
1709) displayed in 
Church of the 
Heritage site
grounds of Church of
the Ascension
tourists and guide
bell tower of St 
George the Dragon 
bell-ringing service in 
(above and below) 
dancing on the lawn 
near Ascension
Over the years, music has served me well in the classroom. I've used everything from Rachmaninov to Tom Lehrer to Buddy Guy. Sometimes the motive is just to give everyone some relief from grammar drills and from my own voice; sometimes I can't think of any other way to make a point; and sometimes it's a way to illustrate the sheer flexibility and expressiveness of the English language--especially when a song lyric takes liberties with standard usage.

Last week, trying to explain the word "funky" drove me to play "Cool Jerk" by the Funk Brothers with Bootsy Collins. (Actually, I've used the whole film this track came from, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, in other classes. I recommend it highly.) The word had come up in our text, referring to an antique doorbell that didn't work quite right, but I felt we couldn't just leave it there. None of the dictionary definitions quite got the right combination--the earthiness, the positive and negative nuances; in music, the slippery successions of flattened notes and just-slightly-anticipatory timing, backed by a nervy bass. You'll be glad to know that I didn't follow the courtroom example of Khodorkovsky and his glass of crude oil by bringing something that smelled funky into the classroom.

Given Russians' capacity for national introspection and self-criticism (to risk a stereotype), I was glad to be able to introduce Tom Lehrer earlier this year as an example of some Americans' capacity for the same. It helps that he enunciates clearly--as a math professor should. Example: "Send the Marines" ...

For might makes right,
And till they've seen the light,
They've got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
'Till somebody we like can be elected.

... We only want the world to know
That we support the status quo.
They love us everywhere we go!

(Earlier this year, one of our students took another Tom Lehrer song, "Lobachevsky," and adapted it in the service of a wicked commentary on V.D. Arakin, whose series of English textbooks stalks our students' every waking hour for five years.)

(And to put the final nail into the coffin of my credibility as a person of depth and maturity, I've also used Allan Sherman in class. All together, now:

Do not make a stingy sandwich, pile the cold cuts high.
Customers should see salami coming through the rye.

Or who could forget this classic?

I know a man, his name is Lang, and he has a neon sign,
and Mr. Lang is very old, so they call it Old Lang's Sign.)

After this, my use of blues in the classroom will sound positively dignified. And as I've said before (with the help of Stephen Nichols, among others), there is plenty of amazing content in blues music that relates just as much to themes of redemption as it does to a wider English exposure.

Not every blues song I use in class is terribly exalted. Sometimes they just tell the truth about life. William Clarke's "Pawnshop Bound," for example:

I'm gonna pawn my watch, turn around and pawn my ring
I'm gonna pawn my stereo, my TV and my range.*
To put some food on my table baby, I'm gonna pawn everything.

(*Language teacher's footnote on "range": What do you call that thing I call a stove?)

One day, we considered John Hiatt's song "Thing Called Love," best known as one of Bonnie Raitt's songs in her classic album Nick of Time. There are several lines in this song that can spark good classroom discussions, perhaps none better than these:

I ain't no porcupine, take off your kid gloves


I ain't some icon carved out of soap
Sent here to clean up your reputation

We had a good time discussing these words, too:

Ugly ducklings don't turn into swans
And glide off down the lake
Whether your sunglasses are off or on
You only see the world you make.

. . .  which led to a discussion about pessimism and optimism, realism and cynicism. This one class actually turned out to be about 50/50 optimists and pessimists. One student said, "It's best to be a realist." I asked what that meant. Can you be a realist in isolation, or do you have to be in a dialogue with others to know the boundaries of reality, of possibility? For myself, I admitted being a total idealist, "but I'm glad to have you pessimists to compare notes with."

My favorite line, as you already guessed if you know this song, rings especially true after the Moscow subway bombings:

We can live in fear or act out of hope
For some kind of peaceful situation
Baby, how come the cry of love is so alarming?

Exactly! How come?

The question of why people resist love--whether in private life or on the public stage--has an urgent fascination for me. What could be a more central concern for an evangelist? The theme comes up constantly in blues and other music, too. Last week we listened to Tracy Chapman sing "Give Me One Reason to Stay Here," and compared it to Junior Wells' version. The last chorus sums it up:

Baby just give me one reason, give me just one reason why I should stay
Because I told you that I loved you,
And there ain't no more to say.

Righteous links:

Cause for celebration and contemplation: twenty years of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Permanent war watch: Tom Engelhardt, "The Urge to Stay."

Joe Boyd "successfully avoided" talking about politics on his Rebel Pilgrim blog, ... until now.

The Immanent Frame considers the case "for and against proselytism." These are arguments very worth considering carefully. I wonder if you'd agree with this statement, and under what conditions:
Individuals may have a right to conversion, which should be legally protected by every state that has signed any of the modern universal declarations of human rights.  But this does not necessarily imply a parallel, juridically enforceable right to proselytize.  The individual’s right to exit his or her religious community does not necessarily entail the right of outsiders to enter that community in order to encourage others to exit.
Elektrostal gets a mention in Tara McKelvey's just-published article, "A New Start: Prospects for Obama's 'Global Zero'" (his goal of eliminating nuclear weapons).

From the Christian Peacemakers' site: 25 insanities of the Israeli occupation.

Good news, maybe, for music fans who are also Linux fans.

The Leadership Institute for Group Discernment comes back to George Fox University.

Nancy Thomas reports on last week's gathering of Quakers Uniting in Publications.

For all Chicagoans scattered around the world, three by Mike Royko. (Thanks to the Chicago Reader for the pointer.)

Tracy Chapman, "Give Me One Reason to Stay Here."

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