Fall 2009

ARTS 617
Music and Downtown New York, 1950-70

Charry,Eric S.

10/03/2009 - 10/24/2009
Note: Special Schedule 09:00 AM - 05:00 PM

Music Studios 301

Special Schedule: 1/11, 1/12, 1/25, 1/26, 2/8, (Makeup Dates, if necessary: 1/18, 2/1, 2/15)

Since the early 20th century, downtown New York has been one of the most artistically vital and creative geographic areas in America, known for its avant-garde, counter, and alternative cultural tendencies. Home or workplace of Upton Sinclair and the muckrakers, Jackson Pollack and the abstract expressionist visual artists, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the beat poets, and Merce Cunningham and the modern dancers, Greenwich Village and neighborhoods to the east and south continue to attract a special breed of artists and activists. Musical artists were not only integral to this scene--one can argue that they defined it.

The unique confluence of musical currents in downtown New York in the 1950s and 60s was extraordinary. The intensity, diversity, and critical inclinations of the music communities that lived and worked side by side within the roughly one square mile below 14th Street were unparalleled. In this course, we will study the history and simultaneous flourishing of four distinct music communities that inhabited and shaped downtown New York culture: Euro-American experimentalists (Edgard Varese, John Cage, Lamont Young), an African American jazz-based avant-garde (Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra), blues and folk revivalists (Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan), and Lower East Side rock groups (The Fugs, Velvet Underground). Although they had much in common, most notably a drive to create something new that critiqued, countered, or provided an alternative to mainstream American values, they also had significant, even insurmountable differences. Much of the course will be devoted to understanding their points of convergence and divergence, especially in conversation with broader currents of the time (e.g. the civil rights movement and related notions of freedom, shifting youth subcultures, and avant garde aesthetics).

We will read about and listen to recordings of a wide variety of musicians, identify aesthetic trends, and study the local industry that supported them. This will include examining the catalogs of record labels (Folkways, Vanguard, Elektra, ESP), analyzing the environments and bookings of coffee houses, clubs, and concert spaces (Village Gate, Five Spot, Gerde's Folk City, the Electric Circus, the New School), and reading primary local sources, such as the Village Voice (inaugurated in 1955), and the East Village Other (inaugurated in 1965).

The culmination of the class will be a walking tour of downtown New York on Sunday October 18, visiting the sites of key performance venues and residences.

Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street should be read in its entirety before the first class. Additional required reading includes chapters from Beard and Berlowitz (eds.), Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture, Bob Dylan's Chronicles, A. B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business, Amiri Baraka's Black Music, Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, Sally Banes's Greenwich Village 1963, and others, which will all be available on online electronic reserve from the Olin Library.

Assignments include a midterm paper (due two weeks after the first class) and final paper (due two weeks after the last class) as well as short classroom presentations.

Click here to view a Googlemap for the course.

Course tuition: $2022.

Eric Charry (B.M., M.M. New England Conservatory of Music; M.F.A., Ph.D. Princeton University) is professor of music. He is author of Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and editor of Hip Hop Africa: New African Music in a Globalizing World (Indiana University Press, 2012). He has two books in progress: The Emergence of an Avant Garde in Jazz, 1956-1965 and Downtown: Music as a Cultural Force, New York in the 1950s and 60s. Click here for more information about Eric Charry and click here for more information about his work.


Consent of Instructor Required: No

Format: Seminar

Level: GLSP Credits: 3 Enrollment Limit: 18

Texts to purchase for this course:
Dave Van Ronk & Elijah Wald, THE MAYOR OF MACDOUGAL STREET: A MEMOIR (Da Capo Press), Paperback


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