Musical Memory

The_Music_MachineThe cream of the crop students sat in this International Baccalaureate high school history class. They listened 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 bedecked 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 they could have given for the turbulent times of the civil rights movement and Vietnam war that were so influential in the coming of age for many baby boomers. But the in 2013, the 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.” The teacher 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 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 or based on Broadway musicals. Coming of age during a depression, they certainly didn’t have money for indulging in phonograph recordings of the latest hits. 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 their parent’ time? World War 2 was considered an honorable war, fought against villainous leaders. It had been glamorized in countless movies and books, and had not suffered from the same denouncements 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,–seemed to be something to brag about.

Each generation tends to identify previous ones 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 about their place in history.

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