ICYMI: Sally Sommers Smith Wells, “Blurring Categories: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize”

Remember when the biggest breaking news was about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, not tweets? Dylan’s award was, as Sally Sommers Smith Wells tells us in the most recent TAL essay, “one of the biggest news stories of 2016.” It seemed at the time that all of my music scholar and journalist friends facebooked, tweeted, or blogged about the award; they all had opinions! So why was this such a newsworthy story?

Here’s a teaser from Sally’s essay:

“Some critics focused on the meaning of literature in the wake of this award. Others were far more concerned about whether one could separate an artist’s lyrics from themusic that presents them. The award—and the debate over whether Dylan’s lyrics could be considered poetry—prompted heated discussions about the nature of art and celebrity and served as the centerpiece for an amusing short story in The New Yorker.  Although Dylan did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in early December, he ultimately acknowledged the award with a ‘warm, humble’ acceptance statement that alluded to the ongoing philosophical conversation that the Swedish Academy’s decision had inspired, without providing any answers on the subject.”

This essay digs into big issues, such as the problematic cultural prestige of “art” music and the relationship between words and music in song. And, of course, there’s plenty about Dylan’s craft. Fans of Dylan’s music (and lyrics) won’t want to miss this essay. Read the entire essay here.

The Avid Listener: Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.


This week on The Avid Listener: Joanna Smolko, “Hard Times Come Again No More”: Springsteen’s Vision of Community

music_girl  This week at The Avid Listener, for our final feature essay of 2016, we bring you the 4th installment of Joanna Smolko’s series about Bruce Springsteen. For this essay, Joanna explores Springsteen’s performance history of the Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More” and what the song has symbolized in Springsteen’s career. Here’s a teaser:

“As Bruce Springsteen’s career unfolded, he became increasingly overt about his political framework and his belief that music can be a powerful means both for illuminating issues of social injustice and for bringing people together in community.  Springsteen mined the rich lodes of traditional American music in his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006). Here, he found a treasure trove: traditional songs that glimmered and shone as he gave them roots—rock inspired settings and elements that could also be forged and shaped into new works. Following this album, he continued to explore the ways that traditional songs could be melded together with rock and roll. Springsteen’s performance of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” was part of his 2009 Working on a Dream tour, and his subsequent reworking of the lyrics in new songs shows his process of adaptation. In particular, “Hard Times” can be read as a song of mourning in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 and a call to respond with community-based activism and cooperation.”

Read the entire essay here. If you are a Springsteen fan, you won’t want to miss the fabulous videos embedded in this essay, as well as in in Joanna’s three previous essays. (If you missed them, here are links to essay 1, essay 2, and essay 3.)

We’ll be back in the New Year with more feature essay. If you enjoy The Avid Listener, consider submitting an essay for publication consideration. We don’t exist without our authors, and we have lots of open slots on our spring calendar.


The Avid Listener: Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.


This week at The Avid Listener: Joanna Smolko, “Springsteen and Human Rights: ‘Chimes of Freedom’”

Last week, on the night before the national election, Bruce Springsteen performed at a final Hillary Clinton rally. During the performance, he said “The choice tomorrow couldn’t be any clearer. Hillary’s candidacy is based on intelligence, experience, preparation, and an actual vision of America where everyone counts.”

This week’s essay by Joanna Smolko is about Springsteen’s struggle with Bob Dylan’s legacy, how Springsteen builds on that legacy to support progressive agendas, and how his commitment to progressive movements hasn’t wavered. Posting this now is certainly bittersweet. But we at TAL are committed to social justice, broadly defined, and we continue to hope. So this week’s essay reminds us that progression is a long game, dependent on stamina, not sprinting. And we can count on at least some musicians to give voice to the cause.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Since the beginning of his career, Springsteen has been haunted by his label as “the next Dylan.” Though promoted by John Hammond at Columbia Records (as Dylan had been), and admiring Dylan greatly (as he recently articulated while reflecting on Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature), Springsteen consciously chose to distance himself from Dylan’s musical style and forge his own path as a songwriter, embracing instead a carefully orchestrated, hard-rocking sound. In a 1999 interview withMark Hagen, Springsteen recounted that in his early twenties he began to avoid writing lyrics that relied on loosely strung-together images, a stylistic feature that was emblematic of Dylan’s music. However, from the late 1970s on, Springsteen covered songs written by Dylan, perpetuating—purposefully or not—the link between his work and that of Dylan.”

You can read the entire essay here. There’s more to come.

The Avid Listener: Listen, Write. Discuss. Repeat.

This week on The Avid Listener: Joel Zigman, “‘Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)’: Building (trans)Masculinity Through Top 40 Country Music”

This week at The Avid Listener, we’d like to introduce you to yet another new author: Joel Zigman.* Joel’s essay, called “‘Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)’: Building (trans)Masculinity Through Top 40 Country Music,” is personal, a reflection of his love affair with Country music, a love affair that bloomed at a transitional moment in Joel’s life. This essay is about Top 40 Country, but it’s also about how gender, class, and place work in Country music. It’s about Texas, and cowboys / cowgirls, and self-representation. And it’s about the ever-relevant truth that music helps to shape how we see our connections to society.

Here’s a teaser:

“Country music is the communal property of this proud, resisting working class, belonging to the everyday life of its primary audience far more so than the Nashville stars and executives that produce it. It also serves as a cultural symbol and proxy for the country persona. This means that all who care to listen are served an open invitation to take ownership of and participate in the fantasy of the country boy or girl. Because country music sounds out a working-class subjectivity, it projects all the aspects of that perspective. For example, because working-class people often perform jobs that involve manual labor, they tend to rely more on nonverbal communication through gestures and body movements. This focus on actions makes gender in country music practical, performed, and tangible. There’s a transparent formula to follow: beer, whiskey, femme worship, trucks, hats, sweet tea, boots.”

Read the entire essay here. Stay tuned for our next essay, “Deaf-Blindness and the Avid Musical Touch of Helen Keller” by Stefan Sunandan Honisch. This essay is scheduled to be published on October 17.

As a reminder: we are always looking for new authors. If you have an idea, you would like to pitch, contact me!

*Avid readers may recall that another essay was slotted for publication today. We had to make a substitution and moved Joel’s essay up by 2 weeks in the schedule. We apologize to readers who depend on the digest for class preparation. We will adjust the digest in the coming weeks to reflect the changed publication schedule.

The Avid Listener. Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.

This week at The Avid Listener: Joanna Smolko, “Politics and Protest in Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.'”

This week we bring you part 2 of Joanna Smolko’s series about Bruce Springsteen. (If you missed the first essay, you can find it here.) In this essay, Joanna takes on Springsteen’s hit song “Born in the U.S.A.,” a song that has been appropriated for many different expressions of patriotism. What did Springsteen originally have in mind for this song?

Here’s a teaser:

“I liked Springsteen before he became political,” a friend of mine commented on Springsteen’s performance at the 2009 Super Bowl. But in actuality, Springsteen has always been political. From the outset, he infused his music with elements of working class identity: unions and families, steel and rust, coal and dust, machines that bind you to a community and way of life, and machines that allow you to ride away in a cloud of exhaust and defiance. But there was a specific moment that galvanized Springsteen’s self-identification as a political spokesperson. As Marc Dolan narrates, “Born in the U.S.A.” was used as an anthem in Ronald Reagan’s 1985 campaign without Springsteen’s permission, and in a speech, Reagan cited Springsteen as a beacon of the “American dream.”

Read the entire essay here. Stay tuned for our next essay, “The Accidental (Musical) Tourist” by Virginia Anderson!

The Avid Listener: Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.

TAL #TBT: “If Music History is Written by the Victors”

In preparation for our September 5 re-launch of The Avid Listener, I offer one of our most popular essays, Sara Haefeli’s “If Music History is Written by the Victors,” as this week’s #TBT essay. Remember this?

“Winston Churchill claimed that ‘history is written by the victors.’ If this is true of our history of music, then who won? What does ‘winning’ mean? Why is it that musicologists have historically chosen to focus on what we generically call ‘classical’ music (or ‘art’ music, or—even worse—’serious’ music) and not on all the other musical practices around us?”

This essay is a useful tool to get discussions going about how certain bits of music and certain composers (and heck, even certain countries and traditions) make it into our music history classrooms and textbooks, while others don’t. Who makes those decisions? How did we get to the narrative(s) we have?

This fall we’re going to move to a publishing schedule of two essays per month. We’ll kick off our third year with two essays by Joanna Smolko about Bruce Springsteen. If you are new to The Avid Listener and want to take a look at our back catalogue, take a look at our most recent digest in .pdf form. Each title is hyperlinked to the online essay. Essays are open access (no fee, no paywall) and aimed at a non-specialist audience. Please share widely and often, pitch us essays, and adapt for classroom use (for college-level classrooms, here’s a Guide to Integrating TAL into the Classroom; for high-school classrooms, here’s a guide to using TAL to meet Common Core ELA standards).

The Avid Listener: Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.