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The rockin’ role of music in society

By Zach Barlow

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Ed Chatterton said he knew he wanted to teach a class about “drugs, sex and rock and roll” when he was 18 after attending the 1970 Atlantic Pop Festival. Photo by Zach Barlow.

Edward Chatterton, 62, got his master’s degree in history at Western Washington University and is now a history instructor at Whatcom Community College. What separates Chatterton from most other teachers, however, are not the steps he took to get to where he is. Chatterton’s uniqueness lies in what he has done since then. Chatterton is the creator and instructor of the second-year honors history class titled “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll: The Role of Popular Music in Societal Change in The U.S. 1954-2013,” or History 295.

“My goal is that students will not take their music at face value but start looking at the deeper meaning, not just in music but how they experience it,” Chatterton said.

The class explores rock music in the 50s and the effect it had on American society and young Americans, as well as how rock music has changed over time and the rock music industry today.

History 295 isn’t like many 100 or survey-level classes that are held on campus, Chatterton said. “It’s a 295 level class which means there’s a certain type of student that’s targeted. We try to explore topics in greater depth and I strongly encourage more interactions between students both in and out of classroom,” Chatterton said.

The concept of an honors class may seem daunting to some, Chatterton said, but if students are interested in the class and are not honor students, or students with a GPA of 3.50 or above, Chatterton will still consider them for the course.

Jen Shore, 25, is a Whatcom student enrolled in the class.

“I was underneath the required GPA level but had taken a class with Mr. Chatterton before. He asked me if I would be interested in taking history 295. I wanted to be a part of the class but told him I didn’t think it was possible. Ed got me in anyway,” Shore said. “I think he’s just looking for people who can make meaningful contributions to his class.”

When Chatterton was 18 years old he attended the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival in Byron, Ga. The festival held performances by artist such as B.B. King, The Allman Brothers Band, and Jimi Hendrix.

The festival proved to be a monumental moment in Chatterton’s life, he said, and years later he would end up writing his master’s thesis on those experiences.

“Our relationship with music shapes who we are as a society. [Music] shapes interactions between cultural groups; music changes culture and culture changes music,” Chatterton said. “It’s only as I get older and start to look back at that cultural event [the Atlanta Pop Festival] that I start to wonder why most other historians have never heard of it,” Chatterton said.

Chatterton runs the class like an “honors seminar,” he said, where he lets the students themselves be a large part of the driving force behind the curriculum.

“There are no exams all quarter, the majority of your grade comes from your final research paper,” Chatterton said.

The class is focused largely on narrowing down a topic for the students’ research papers and class discussions or “think pieces,” he said.

“My objective with the research papers is to have no one on this campus know more about your topic than you do,” Chatterton said.

He said one of his favorite “think pieces” he does is playing his students the song “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd and asking them what they think the song is about. “It’s really cool to hear what people have to say,” he said.

Shore said after taking the class her musical experience has drastically changed.

“I never really grasped the concept that music was so reflective of society. I mean, I had an idea, but a lot of people take it for granted,” Shore said.

As for research papers this quarter, Chatterton said he was excited about the number of directions his students have chosen to go.

“One student is looking at the phenomenon that is ‘American Idol’ and how it’s changed pop culture, while another student is exploring the links between classical music and metal,” Chatterton said. There’s also a student exploring Grunge Rock in the early 90s in Seattle and another looking at the relationship between musicianship and IQ.

Along with research papers and “think pieces” the class discusses in depth the effects of rock music on racist and sexist cultural norms, he said.

“Part of what I’m seeing is how rock music explodes these racist ideas, and to some degree gender roles too,” Chatterton said. “Look at Chuck Berry, who was a middle-aged, lecherous black dude writing music for 15-year-old white girls.”

The class will also look throughout the quarter at the conflict that arises between rock music as an art form and rock music as an enterprise.

“One example is ‘Tutti Frutti’ sang by Little Richard; here you have this makeup-wearing, loud, screaming, scare-the-hell-out-of-white-people African American dude. Then you have Pat Boone, who is this lily-white dude. Who, later, re-recorded exactly the same song, same words, and same beat,” Chatterton said. “Pat Boone ‘sanitized’ ‘Tutti Frutti.’ The conflict is between sincere music that comes from the heart and music the industry is just trying to make money with.”

Another example Chatterton used is the song “Spend the Night Together” by the Rolling Stones. By the time that song got on the radio they had to change their lyrics to “I want to spend some time together.”

“They had to change their lyrics, but we all know what they meant,” Chatterton said.

Chatterton also compares and contrasts the marketability or “corporation control” of music from the mid-to late-1900s to now, he said.

“Right now something major is happening within the music industry. It’s being democratized through things like YouTube and Pandora,” Chatterton said. “Allen Stone and Macklemore have no record deal. They’re not packaged like some bands and I think that’s a great thing. It takes me back to the 60s when musicians were experimenting all over the place.”

However, Chatterton said he still doesn’t deny the power of marketability and the corporate grasp on some areas of modern music.

“If Katy Perry weighed 300 pounds and had buck teeth she probably wouldn’t be where she is today. Corporations will always try to package music to make a profit,” he said. But due to the internet, record companies can’t say, “‘this is what you’re going to buy’ anymore,” he added.

Another major topic the class covers is the British Invasion, or the popularization of British bands in America.

“The simple answer to what the British Invasion was is The Beatles,” Chatterton explained. “By the 60s our rock was very ‘sugar coated,’ whereas The Beatles had been influenced by our music in the 50s. So in a sense, The Beatles brought American music back to America through a British filter,” Chatterton said.

Chatterton admits that when The Beatles first gained popularity he wasn’t the biggest fan, but later in life he discovered the cultural significance of their music.

“When ‘Sgt. Pepper’ came out I was still into Hendrix, I thought that was ‘wimpo’ music,” Chatterton said. “Later, I did a research paper while I was studying for my masters and I got footage of kids from all around the world talking about what they thought about The Beatles. They all said the same thing, they loved it. The music transcended language. It transcended communism and capitalism,” Chatterton said. “I don’t think we’ll have cultural impact in music like that again.”

Chatterton said he was concerned with today’s music growing into more of an individualistic experience.

“In the 1900s music was more social,” Chatterton said. “Today you have 37 kids getting off a bus and each one of them have a set of ear buds in. There’s no common musical experience with that.” At rock festivals Chatterton said there are a number of bands playing on 4 or 5 different stages. People are then forced to pick and choose who they want to see, dividing themselves. It’s not the same as “if you’re one band and have 400,000 people digging you,” he said.

“The soundtrack to our lives is heard solo. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but I do think that something is lost,” Chatterton said.


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