Musical Memory

The_Music_MachineThey were the cream of the crop students in this high school history class, listening attentively to a teacher who had come back from retirement just to teach such a group. Strolling back and forth in front of a map bedeck white board he inquired loudly. “Does anyone know what happened in the United States between 1963 and ‘68? There were a number of good answers that could have been given for the turbulent times that were so influential in the coming of age for many baby boomers, but the millennial age students just sat there frozen.

Finally one child took a stab at describing that time, “Simon and Garfunkel wrote a lot of good music?” she responded questioning.

“Yes, that’s true,” he could not help but smile, “Though not exactly what I was looking for.”

But it didn’t matter that this teacher had previously shared his own experience with the Civil Rights movement and as a Vietnam veteran. The class took this begrudging acknowledgement as a prompt to ask if he was referring to the music of Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix or a number of groups who rose to fame in the sixties. It seemed as if these students knew the music the previous generations well, but not their politics and history.

When I was growing up I had very little interest in the popular music of my parents’ time. Most of it seemed very bland and mostly based on Broadway musicals. Coming of age during a depression, they certainly didn’t have money for indulging in phonograph recordings of the latest music. However, I knew a bit of their history particularly that surrounding the United States presidents and World War 2. In fact when in high school I could rattle off the countries, heads of state and even generals who figured so prominently in this war.

Why did these apparently knowledgeable students know more about popular culture than politics that occurred during the parent’ time? World War 2 was considered an honorable war, fought against villainous leaders. It had been glamorized in countless movies and books, and has not suffer from the same denouncement as the conflict in Vietnam. The baby boomer’s ambivalence and even resistance to supporting a country’s war efforts made political events not clear cut. But their music, a unique combination of folk and jazz that led to the birth of rock and roll, that seemed to be something to brag about.

Each generation tends to identify the previous one by what they valued. So the jury is still out on the millennial generation. We will have to wait and see what their children remember their parents proudly telling them to identify their place in history.

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