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Exploring Bruce Springsteen's America

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Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I spend 75 minutes listening to and talking about Bruce Springsteen with twenty 19- and 20-year-old freshmen at the University of Wisconsin. When the class began, most the students didn't know much of Springsteen's music beyond "Born in the U.S.A." and "Born to Run." The most common explanation for why they signed up for the class was something like "my parents are crazy about Bruce and I'd kinda like to know why." They're smart, engaged, a bit more urban and geographically diverse than the average UW class. (New York City, Long Island, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Pittsburg, and China via Queens, in addition to our standard upper Midwestern mix). I'll introduce you to a few of them in a minute.

First, a bit of context. The class, technically titled "Bruce Springsteen's America" is part of the "First Year Interest Group" (FIG) program. Designed to foster a sense of intellectual and social community among students who might otherwise get lost in the wilds of the mega-versity, each FIG consists of a small seminar and one or two "linked classes," sometimes lecture classes with discussion sections designated for FIG students, sometimes small classes in language, writing or math. Students in my first semester FIG on "Dylan, The Beatles and the Sixties" were also enrolled in the class on "The Vietnam Era: Music, Mayhem and the Media" (which I team-teach with HP blogger and Vietnam vet Doug Bradley, whose report on a visit to the FIG can be found here) and a writing class in which the assignments were organized around music-related topics. The students in the Springsteen class are taking a class on "Black Music and American Cultural History," which among other things fulfills their "ethnic studies" requirement.

Which brings me to the raison d'etre of this blog: call and response. A central element of African American cultural traditions, "call and response" is both a form of democratic pedagogy and a way of tapping into what educational theorists call "multiple intelligences." (I'll elaborate on those ideas in a future post.) In my book A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, which the FIG students are reading in the "Black Music" class, I described call and response like this: "The basic structure of call and response is straightforward. An individual voice, frequently a preacher or singer, calls out in a way that asks for a response. The response can be verbal, musical, physical -- anything that communicates with the leader or the rest of the group. The response can affirm, argue, redirect that dialogue, raise a new question. Any response that gains attention and elicits a response of its own becomes a new call. Usually the individual who issued the first call responds to the response, remains the focal point of the ongoing dialogue But it doesn't have to be that way."

For now, I'll just provide a quick sketch of how the class actually works. Each week, we listen to one of Bruce's albums -- at the moment we're finishing up Born in the U.S.A. -- and read sections from Dave Marsh's biography of Springsteen along with three books about American society since the 1960s: Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class; Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community; and David Sirota's Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now--Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything. For each class period, six or seven students submit e-mail posts in which they reflect on how Bruce's music responds to the world he was living in and what call it's making to us as we grapple we the problems we're facing in ours. In turn, those posts serve as the calls which spark class discussion. Sometimes that takes us deeper into the music in its original context: Sometimes it spins out towards today's world.

As everyone who cares even a little about Springsteen knows, Bruce released a new album earlier this month. One of the striking things about the critical response to Wrecking Ball has been how often critics feel called to pontificate on Bruce's attempt -- usually construed as failure -- to connect with the "kids today." As far as I can tell, their reactions are mostly about their own ambivalence about aging. Almost no one's bothered to ask the new generation what it thinks. That's not a big surprise. One of the few constants in the America I've grown up and aged in is that the older generation rarely bothers to listen to the one coming along It shouldn't come as a major shock when the younger generation returns the favor. Doesn't have to be that way. One of my hopes for this blog is that it will open up a cross-generational call and response. I love being able to share Springsteen's music with the students, but the biggest benefit of the class for me is when they point me to the music and films that matter to them. This semester, they've put Bruce in dialog with Green Day, the Fleet Foxes, and a small festival of indie films. You'll be hearing about some of that directly from them.

For the rest of the semester, and probably beyond, we'll be sharing our thoughts on the issues that come up in class. We're thinking of them as an extension of the classroom dynamic, part of the ongoing call-and-response with Bruce and the world he's responding to and calling on us to change. We'll be using "my" site as a central location, so you can get a sense of the dynamics without having to bounce back and forth between a bunch of different sites. The charter members of what we're thinking of as a communal project are Gina Conti, Michelle Croak, Stacy Heder, Spencer Jarrold, Brian Moran, Niccola Somers, Will Towne, and "peer mentor" Ben Cherkasky. Each of them will challenge you, as they challenge me and each other, to rethink the things that matter: community, democracy, dignity, justice, love.

Each of us will begin with a post saying something about where we're coming from and our sense of why Springsteen matters. Beyond that, as Bruce sang when he was closer to the students' age than mine, "these two lanes can take us anywhere."