279. First-Year Blues

First-year seminar classes can help ease students’ transition from high school to college. In this episode, Tim Nekritz joins us to discuss his first-year seminar class on the history of American Blues in which students explore racial and gender discrimination through the lens of music while also learning to navigate the college environment.

Tim is the Director of News and Media at SUNY Oswego, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and the developer of a first-year seminar course in American Blues.

Show Notes


John: First-year seminar classes can help ease students’ transition from high school to college. In this episode, we discuss a first-year seminar class on the history of American Blues in which students explore racial and gender discrimination through the lens of music while also learning to navigate the college environment.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Tim Nekritz. Tim is the Director of News and Media at SUNY Oswego, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, and the developer of a first-year seminar course in American Blues. Welcome, Tim.

Tim: Great to be here.

John: Our teas today are: …Tim, are you drinking tea?

Tim: Yes. And I am drinking Tea Forte blackcurrant. It’s excellent, and if John recommends a tea, you’ve got to go with it,

Rebecca: I’m drinking chai today, John.

John: Very good. There’s no jig or anything. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: No, there’s no Jig, nothing crazy. I was at an event and there’s limited choices on our campus event tea selection. Chai is what I chose.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea today.

Rebecca: Back to an old favorite, John.

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your first-year seminar course in American blues. Since it’s been a while since we discussed one of the first-year seminar courses here at SUNY Oswego, could you tell us a little bit about the objectives of the course?

Tim: Absolutely. The idea is for it to be a small class, because you really want to build a sense of cohesion there. And I saw that a lot, because students would become best friends right away, despite anything I did or not because of anything I did sometimes, but so it’s building connections with other students and instruction in the institution. It’s very much a gateway course to them being college students, to a degree. We don’t overdo that, but we try to make sure that we can work that into the curriculum wherever we can. There’s a certain amount of college preparatory experience for that, obviously, it’s not orientation, clearly it’s not orientation. For example, I brought in Tina from Excel to talk about career preparation and internships and that type of thing, brought in someone from Counseling Services Center, which I’ll talk more about later, but just try to connect them with some helpful faces and offices on campus. There’s also intercultural competence, which was a big part of this course, which I know we’re gonna discuss more later, …critical thinking skills (so introduction to what that is on the college level), and communication skills and very basic level, whether it might be their first research paper, might be their first oral presentation in college and trying to get them prepared in whatever ways we can.

John: We introduced these classes several years ago, and we had a number of people teaching in the first round of this on our podcast, but that was sometime in the before times.

Tim: Yes.

John: …so we thought it would be useful to review this just a little bit. But it’s also something that the college is expanding. The goal is within the next two years to offer one of these courses to every freshman student.

Tim: Yeah, and we work with Mallory Bower, as well as Kristin Croyle, who are excellent to work with, as far as trying to get people almost over their fears. So it’s like, put in an idea. And as opposed to just like yes/no, they might help you workshop it and there’s pr- preparations where seasoned professors like me, I’m not in the old category, apparently. And so like, “How do you develop your course? What stumbling blocks did you have? What were things that worked?” and that type of thing, which obviously varies from course to course, as we all know. But it’s good, because in a way, we’re building communities here, but we’re building communities among the people who are interested in teaching that class.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s interesting about the first-year courses that are at our school is that they’re intentionally not in the discipline and they’re often interdisciplinary. So can you talk a little bit about your course and how that fits into the bigger picture at Oswego.

Tim: Certainly, I came about designing it in a backward way, which is how I do most things, it seems like, but essentially, I really got an interest in blues and blues history fairly recently. And we got an email from someone named Roger House, Roger went to SUNY Oswego for a couple of years before transferring to another institution. And he’s now an American Studies professor at Emerson College and does a lot of stuff on blues history, cultural history, and that type of thing. And he emailed us a column that he wrote that references his time at SUNY Oswego. And then at the bottom, it said, Roger House is the author of Blue Smoke, which is a biography of Big Bill Broonzy. And at the time, I was reading anything on the blues I could get my hands on. And I read it, and I realize,d everything that he went through, he went away to World War One, and was treated great in Europe… well, relatively great for a servicemen… for someone who’s toward the bottom of the rank, but at least was treated like a human being which he wasn’t used to back home… comes back, the man he worked for, picks him up and immediately degrades him and tells him “You don’t deserve to be in that uniform.” This is a person who sat home and did nothing and he’s telling Bill who served his country, for very obvious and racist reasons, to take off his uniform and put his overalls back on. And that was a big pivotal moment. But it’s also something that resonated with a lot of people. A lot of people who went away to World War One, and then had to come back home and face the indignities of racism. And so then he was part of the great migration to Chicago and the blues scene that arose there and then he was rediscovered because he did some social commentary during the folk revival in the 1960s. I’m looking at this and it’s not dissimilar to Forrest Gump, although not as fabricated, but you’re looking at, okay, all these different parts of 20th century history, and this could be something that’s taught. So I sent an email to Mallory and said, “This is a crazy idea and I know we’re friends, but you can tell me it’s stupid if you want.” But she didn’t. She thought it was great. But part of it is you can really teach cultural history, black history, entertainment history, pop culture history, there’s so much that can be developed here. And then it seemed like the first black women to reach a mass audience were the blues queens of the 1920s, when that became big. Because they could not be heard or paid attention to elsewhere, but then suddenly, out of nowhere, Mamie Smith has a huge hit that sells all these records and record executives are like, “Oh, wait, there’s actually a market for black music” because Mamie Smith was really like the Jackie Robinson, she broke the barrier. It was in part because she had a lyricist, Perry Bradford, who sold his compositions, but because people would buy it, but nobody wanted at that point to record a black artist. And so he got Mamie Smith recorded, and then Crazy Blues became this huge hit and suddenly people realized, “Oh, well maybe this is not a bad thing.” But that being said, what happened immediately is that they started recording white women who tried to sound like black women, which of course is even worse, really. And so they were very hesitant. I was reading things that said, “Oh, and then suddenly, opportunities opened up” …and they didn’t. It wasn’t until Bessie Smith came along with Downhearted Blues in 1923. That just sold unbelievable numbers to all audiences, black, white, anybody. And the record company said, “Okay, well, I guess this is something that we can do.” But there’s so many lessons behind that, and the fact again, that the record companies held off on actually trying to make sure that black woman can be heard, which was amazing, disappointing at the same time. So that’s just one example. And then being able to teach the great migration through the Chicago blues scene. The fact that Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters and all these people came from the south and collected in Chicago, or Detroit, or any city where the jobs were, but then in Chicago, all the conditions were perfect for them to start up an amazing blues scene and just to transform everything, like when Muddy Waters plugged in an electric guitar, and everyone was like blown away by that. But he had to do it, because he was playing in these loud clubs and people were just talking. So he had to electrify what he was doing. But so anyway what I started doing is looking at some of the themes and some of these decades, these eras, and that type of thing, because there’s also just such a long pre-history of African music, African inspired music. And then at one point that drums were banned on plantations because people thought they could send messages to each other, but also the way that the field hollers and the religious music, music that they did just were work songs and how that influenced what came later. The problem is, you could almost do a whole course on that. That’s really way back. That would be earlier American history, but I’d have to inform that and then talk about the fact that you had like the Ma Rainey’s of the world who were already spreading the blues before it was known as the blues. And so laying a lot of foundations with the vaudeville and tent shows, or W C. Handy, and his first blues recordings, but even some interesting things because blues was folk music for the longest time. And then W. C Handy decided to publish it, and suddenly it is no longer folk, it is now commercial. And so how that changed everything. So there’s so many interesting lessons that happen along the way.

Rebecca: So what I’m hearing, Tim, is that you’re using music to sneakily teach history.

Tim: I’m a sneak.

Rebecca: You’re so dangerous.

Tim: I know, it’s horrible.

John: There have been a number of economic articles written on the role that rural free delivery and the Sears catalog provided in the blues because it brought low cost musical instruments to places where there were just no music stores.

Tim: That’s great. I do touch on that a little bit, because, in the rural south, you can’t drive to a music store. But then suddenly, Sears made guitars and other instruments, very inexpensive. So little things I just love because I’m a big fan of James Burke. I know he spoke here a few years ago, in his Connection series and the day the universe changed, about how all these small things come together. And so that’s exactly what I like talking about. That’s a perfect example.

Rebecca: How did you get students engaged in the subject matter? What are some of the kinds of activities that you did with students?

Tim: One of the things that I did because I can’t convey the Blues as well as blues artists can, I would give them a Spotify playlist of like 15 to 20 songs and have them listen to it. The first time I taught it I couldn’t find a book and it’s like, this is easier than reading a book. And then finally, some people talked to me about “You probably should at least get a basic book.” So I have a really inexpensive one. Elijah Wald’s, Blues History, which is I think like $12. I try to be friendly on the budget. And so I would have one on Blues Queen, for example, or then in the mid-1920s, what happened is Blind Lemon Jefferson had a hit song called Black Snake Moan and Blind Lemon does not get the credit. He totally changed the industry with that. And part of that is sexism, unfortunately, because when the record companies were getting the Mamie Smith’s of the world, the Bessie Smiths, was like, “Okay, well, we need to put an orchestra behind them.” And then suddenly Blind Lemon Jefferson has a huge hit. He’s one person, that’s so much easier to pay. And if you have the Bessie Smith’s and Mamie Smith, and the Ida Cox’s, the people who were getting well established, they command more money, economics again, but you find some blind guitarists somewhere, you can pay him less than that, because unfortunately, exploitation is a big part of labor market functions or malfunctions, I guess you would say. Women really dominated the scene for the first five years and then they started going to solo male singer guitarists, or pianists, or fiddler’s, or whatever. And so then I did one about some of the early male artists, then all the Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake. But then I also talked about why that happened, because again with economics, if you’ve got nine kids, and one of them’s blind… basically, there was a sharecropper system, which was again rigged, almost indentured servitude, unfortunately… and so your kids, if you’re in the system, they all had to help you produce. So if you’ve got a child who’s blind, they can’t necessarily do that. But then, especially when Blind Lemon Jefferson started hitting some other people, it’s like a lot of them might have already had them working as buskers and that type of thing, but then the record companies of course, there’s nothing original to a record company, thought “Oh, we’re gonna assign more blind bluesman including the fact there were some who were signed who were said they were blind but weren’t.” And like all these really crazy things. So like I did that. I did one Chicago blues, and then folk blues and social blues and then the British blues boom, which was led by The Rolling Stones, among others. But there’s also a great quote from George Harrison, my favorite Beatle… everyone has a different favorite Beatle perhaps… but he has said “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” because, again, it’s one of those weird, circuitous things, because Lead Belly, among other things, did a song called Rock Island Line, which was covered by someone named Lonnie Donegan, who actually took the Lonnie from Lonnie Johnson, who’s another great unsung hero. Rock Island Line became a huge hit in Britain and formed something called skiffle. Skiffle was like a combination of blues and folk and a couple other things. And then all these skiffle bands started forming including one called Quarrymen, which was John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and later, George Harrison. And so George Harrison nails it. And the main thing, I think, that the students notice, because I am willing to trade off extra credit for market research. So I have a five point question on the final, which is a bonus question, which is, “What’s one thing you wouldn’t have known if you took this class” and a large part it’s like they had no idea that the blues is the foundation for rock and roll, and inspired jazz, and soul, r&b, funk. And then a really cool thing is Marquel Jeffries from the Institute, who’s also a rapper. I had him come in and talk about the connections between blues and hip hop. And he did a fantastic job with that, because just as the blues has informed so many 20th century art forms, I’m glad that I can introduce that to people because, again, that is cultural appreciation. It is also cultural appropriation too, that is part of this as well.

John: And certainly there was a lot of that in the history of rock and roll.

Tim: Oh, yes, Elvis being a big one. But at the same time, that wasn’t cool, necessarily, but Elvis himself was a big fan of R&B. This is what he wanted to perform. And at one point, they tried a bunch of things, and then he started playing some really crazy R&B tune. And Sam Phillips came in the studio and said, “What the heck are you doing?” And he said, “keep doing whatever you are,” because that was everybody’s ticket to money on the money train. But part of it too, is that people like Sam Phillips knew these R&B records were selling like crazy. They needed to break into the larger and mostly white market. And so they needed a white face to market that with and that’s what they did with Elvis. So there’s a real lesson there. And then there’s so much other cultural appropriation. I know that Larry Watson, who performed very recently, he has a whole song that he did in Waterman theater called “Liar,” which is all about cultural appropriation. It was great. So obviously, it’s appreciation versus appropriation, who’s benefiting from what? The fact that Led Zeppelin then would change a few words on a bluesman’s song and then file the copyright themselves. Janis Joplin did it too. And all these people who very much took advantage of that, but then there are also a lot of people who appreciated the blues. I consider myself someone who preserves it because I like doing old blues songs… not nearly as well as they do… but I at least want people to know who some of the blues pioneers are as best I can.

John: And the Rolling Stones certainly did that and I believe they had Howlin Wolf open for them on some of their early tours.

Tim: Yeah, I showed them a great video that was one of those teenybop shows and they said they wouldn’t perform unless Howlin Wolf played and it’s just kind of hilarious because Howlin Wolf is playing, he’s doing what the Wolf does, and all the kids are bopping to it. And it’s like, “Wow, imagine if they were actually exposed to Howlin Wolf and all these other blues players that they never actually were.” So that could be like an alternative history of suddenly the radio stations that are playing Howlin Wolf might have happened, but it didn’t happen, obviously.

Rebecca: So you had students do a lot of listening and reading, what kinds of things did you do in class? I know you had some interesting projects and other learning activities.

Tim: Well, I will get back to the playlist. Basically, they would come in and the assignment would be let’s discuss at least one song on the playlist and everyone would do it… almost everyone would do it. Some of them want to talk about two or three. I’m like, hey, that’s cool, too. So like, if I’m talking about a blues gospel tune, talk about why gospel blues was a thing. I don’t even know how this existed, but when Ma Rainey’s Prove it on me Blues, from the 1920s, singing about being a lesbian, and you can’t get more marginalized in America at that time than by being a black lesbian. She’s like, “This is me, here I am.” And it almost feels like how did this happen? Because after the 20s, that disappeared for a long time, even that kind of expression. But that kind of showed, and I had people in the class who were very inspired by that, the courage that it took her to do that. And then just weird stuff like Blue Yodel Number 9, which is Jimmy Rogers with Louis Armstrong and Lil Armstrong. So it’s blues, with yodeling and old country and jazz. I read about it in a book. And I’m like, “this shouldn’t exist,” because again, we think of how much music was categorized back then. So those are great discussion exercises. But then the one really fun project I thought was I asked him to write a blues song talking about it could be their perspective or some other perspective. And so I brought in Kyle from the Counseling Center, because he’s big into expressive arts, and it’s like, “Is there anything that’s bothering you that you can sing a blues song about?” So a lot of them talked about loneliness, homesickness, missing friends and that type of thing. Some of them were really deep, and I’m like, “oh, goodness,” some of the stuff that they were writing. The first semester, there was actually a surprise attached to it, in that I had reached out to some friends. And right after Thanksgiving, we get back and we had a concert. And so my friends from a band called The Shylocks, they did two tunes. A third tune was one that was written by someone in the class. And I said, “Guess what we’re doing?” So I had a number of people there, and Kyle, a very well known blues player, Jess Novak, recorded one because she connected with one of the students in the class really well, because Jess talks about the old boys club and all the rest of that stuff. And there’s one student who talked about back home, she would get solos. People were like, “Oh, it’s because you’re a girl.” and all the rest of this stuff and be patronizing to her. But then we did research papers, and she presented on Etta James, and she’s asked if she could sing At Last. I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” And she did and I knew why she got the solos back home because she was really good. But then, to turn that around, I said, “Hey, Jess, remember that student.” And I sent Jess her thing and she performed it. And it was one of those, you could have dropped it back in the 1920s. It was that good. So I had some of them performed live, some of them recorded it as well. And it was just really cool to see because these students, some of them acted all cool, and that type of thing. But some of them were like just very emotional to see people perform a song that they wrote. I wasn’t able to do it last year… lowell, one thing, the cat was out of the bag, perhaps… but it was great because they got to use self expression, but then also see how people interpret songs. So it worked on many levels. And it was a heck of a lot of fun too.

John: When you had them write the songs, did they actually write it down in notation? Or did they sing it? Or did they write it down assuming there’d be a 12 bar pattern underneath it?

Tim: Great question. Basically, I just had them do lyrics. I am not qualified to teach composition. I can teach about writing. Last year, I don’t know what happened, but I wrote about 50 songs. I was looking into sources that talked about songwriting, like Larry Kyle spoke to the class or Jess Novak spoke to the class. I had them talk a little bit about their songwriting experience, how they wrote songs. And of course, with everything, “Well, it depends on the song.” But so I actually did try to workshop with them a little bit. And most of them didn’t really want my help. They just wanted to do it on their own. But I said they could do it in 12-bar blues, but they didn’t have to because obviously the blues has evolved, whether they want to do an ABAB rhyme scheme, or just ABCB or whatever. And honestly, I was looking for effort. Some of them were fantastic. Some of them were not anything that necessarily was going to be recorded. But the effort they put into it, especially if it came from the heart, that was more important to me, just that they learned about self expression. Some of them were already songwriters, so they had a bit of a leg up there. But at the same time, it was really an exercise that was to express themselves. And some of them did fictional stuff, and that’s great, or took something and elaborated on it, but that’s how I write songs too. So yeah, I can’t fault them for that. But so all of them are really good. I just asked them to do four stanzas. That could be four verses, three verses and a chorus, two verses a chorus and a bridge, just to show that they had invested in it. And nobody who turned in a song disappointed me or came even close to it. So I was happy how that worked out. And again, they didn’t know it was gonna be performed. And the performers, I didn’t have them say who wrote it, intentionally. But then one of the performers actually wanted to perform them live… open mics and stuff. And I asked the student’s permission, like, “Oh, totally, yeah,” and that type of thing. They didn’t want their name attached to it. So it’s just that personal to them. And again, I always say I learn just as much from the students as they learn from me. And so I learned a lot about what’s going on in their lives. And by the same time there are people who want to write songs about their blues, but some of them they didn’t necessarily want to take ownership of or let people know how they’re feeling. There’s larger reasons for that than I can fix in a class. But at the same time, I thought it was really great that they at least got that experience.

Rebecca: So I think it’s important to note, if students are writing songs, it’s a first-year class, it’s not part of the music major, there’s a lot of non majors. So students may have ended up in the class because they selected the topic, or because it fit in their schedule. So how did you handle students that were not too excited about writing a song or worried about being outed?

Tim: Yeah, a lot of it was reassurance. There were a few music majors in there. Some of them even said, Wait, I thought this was a jazz history class. I’m like, no, there’s 50 jazz history classes, there’s very few blues history classes. That’s the reason nobody knows about the blues’ role, because blues history is just not taught. A few places have programs. The University of Mississippi is a good example of that. But generally speaking, we all do jazz, because jazz is so much neater and more ornate and doesn’t involve feelings and unfortunate situations and people being murdered for cheating on their lover and whatnot. But so students took it for a variety of reasons. I think you expressed some of that, but also because Mallory is a big supporter, and so she plugged a lot of them into my class the first time around. But for a non-music major, I even said right off the bat, you don’t have to be a music major, but you have to enjoy music in some way. Like if you don’t like to listen to music, this probably is not the first-year class you should take. I talked on what I call syllabus day. I do talk about the songwriting assignment, and then sometimes a couple students might disappear. But I want them to be comfortable with the class. So I try to set the expectations early, we talk about it a lot. And before I give them the assignment, and that’s why I always ask songwriters for advice. But like I had Juliet Forshaw, who actually taught a songwriting class last semester, come and speak to my class. And it’s a trade off, I got to speak to her class. And so imposter syndrome was high. That day, despite all the songs I’ve written, I still don’t feel necessarily like one. And so she came in with her partner, Michael Judge, and so they played some Avalon songs, but also, she went deep into how she created it. And again, there might be people who write the music first, and then write the words and just like, well, that’s not necessarily going to be the case here. I told them, if they wanted to put a lead sheet and put some chords on there, that’s great. There were a couple of people who already did make music. But really, it’s not unlike writing poetry. So that was one of the analogies I used. And so some of them would come up to me with a couple ideas and said, “How do I flesh it out?” and I’d suggest a rhyme or say, “Here’s a great point, can you expound upon that?” …like every writing course I ever took. And so I was worrying that maybe I would get more resistance and more people who just didn’t want to do it, or who I would have to really work to get to do it, but then it surprised me, the day that they were due, they would show up… once in a while they’d be late or other people would send it to me via Google Drive or email and not show up that class just in case….

Rebecca: In case they had to share it out loud or something. [LAUGHTER]

Tim: I think they were afraid of that. And I told them, I’m not going to make you sing it. Of course, I didn’t tell people the first time that someone else is gonna be singing it either. But they took it in stride. And obviously the past couple years have not been the easiest time to transition into a freshman year, especially the year that people came in and they hadn’t been in in-person classes because they graduated from high school, which had been virtual since March 2020. And so I think they adjusted well to being back in class. I think they’re excited to be back in a class and in college. So I think that helped a lot. But generally speaking, they appreciated the assignment. I mean, they didn’t jump up and down and talk about how great it was. But they all put in the effort. I think that says a lot, because I remember it being really hard to be a freshman and that’s back before we had the Internet and other distractions.

John: So how many times have you offered this class now?

Tim: Two times and obviously you learn something every time you teach it, and then it’s like, I’m gonna change this next year. And then next thing you know, it’s like late August and like, “Oh, well, maybe I won’t.” But one thing I’ve been doing too is getting a variety of guest speakers and some of them are musicians. And then like I said, you’ll have people in Counseling Services Center or Tina from EXCEL or just other people who might be helpful just to come in and maybe do like a 30-minute talk. This was an election year, as many people are painfully aware. And so I had some from Vote Oswego come in and talk about that and civic engagement. And sometimes it might be just a 20 minute talk or someone coming in it might be a whole class. But in the case of someone like Kyle, he’s got a background, and he’s a blues fan, because he’s like, “Oh, my God,” when I asked him. His father took him to see Bo Diddley, and I’m like, “I’m jealous of you.” But so he had blues, introduced in his family. So he knew that, but part of it’s to hear all the services we have, which are very important for anybody to have, really, the way the mental health crisis is these days. So it’s great that he got to introduce that and also then the interactive stuff that he did… people understanding how to share how they feel, and that type of thing. So I think I was very lucky with guest speakers. And then it’s always like, “Okay, well, I’m keeping most of them if they can,” because like Marquel was an example of, I got to the 70s, 80s, the birth of rap and hip hop, and the first time around, I didn’t have the subject knowledge to do that a credible job. But then it occurred to me like, “Oh, wait, I know Marquel.” And so he did a whole bunch of research, asked me questions, and then talked about the history of hip hop, and then connected with the blues just so well, I was thrilled to have him and because guest speakers will liven up the class a little bit. And then some of them will do a session like Jess Novak did and they all connected with her immediately, and like they connect with me like that. But that’s why Jess does what she does for a living, and I do what I do for a living. But just I think trying to get some variety in the class, because part of it too, is if it’s class major specific people might be saying, “Okay, well, what can you do with this major or this class?” So I don’t think a lot of people they’re looking to become musicians… a couple of them are, but try to introduce people who can help them in other ways. The good thing for being a non-musician is that it’s, in large part, a history class. It just happens to have a really cool genre that goes with it and I get to listen to music and we have to write a song. It’s not the end of the world. They all survived and thrived with it.

Rebecca: What are some of the themes that came up in their songs? You mentioned that you got a lot of insights into what’s going on in their lives as first-year students and that might be helpful for a wider audience to be aware of.

Tim: One of them wrote a song called Lonely Man Blues that basically talked about being away from his friends, his family. One of them wrote a funny song about dealing with people at the holidays who had different belief systems than him. It was a bit of an angry song. I mean, I could see the Ramones performing the song as well as any blues band. But people would talk about that. And just homesickness. Even as bad as the pandemic has been, and having to learn from your house and that type of thing, at least that’s a familiar place. And for them, that’s really trying to figure out the comfort zone, making friends over again, because you know, social skills took a hit during the pandemic. And so some of them talked about the readjustment of that, or talked about someone who broke their heart. One person, actually wrote what sounded more like spoken word poetry, it was really long, but it was very honest. And it was a way that they expressed themselves about a relationship. So it’s something that they got out of their system. So in a way, they weren’t that different than what you see with normal blues songs, except, like I said, there was much less murder involved, thankfully. I don’t know what would happen if someone talked about murder, but it really was about feeling lonely, about missing people, about wanting more love and that type of thing. So it was, in a way, whether I expected it to or not, it hit on a lot of the themes that classic blues songs did.

John: One of the reasons for these classes is to help students connect to other students as well as to the institution. How did that work in the class? Did the students make a lot of personal connections through the activities you were doing in the class?

Tim: Absolutely. And again, I haven’t figured out how to master that yet, I would like to, but they would just make it organically. There were a couple of people who hit it off and became really good friends. I would like to say that somebody formed a blues band out of this. I don’t think that happened. But the good thing about a class like this is it’s intimate. And people do talk about things. And it’s interesting, because when Kyle was in the room, or Jess was in the room, they would talk about things they didn’t talk about in front of me because I’m their teacher, and I grade them. I had one student when Kyle was there, he said, every day, I feel like I’m going to break down crying, just because of all the stress and that type of thing that anybody goes through at that age. And so I think that they expressed these things.. kind of broke down some barriers among everybody, which I think was good. Obviously, nobody was going to become friends with each other. I took improvisational theater way back in my undergrad days. And that was great because everybody just goofs around and that type of thing. And it is to let your guard down class. And so that’s the tightest class I’ve ever seen was improv theater just because everyone’s just doing silly things. I didn’t do silly things in this, it’s unfortunate, maybe next time. But it was good because for one thing, no one studies this blues history. So they were getting a lot of information that was new to them. But then they would also talk about “Oh, I really liked this artist, this song.” And so people would be like “Oh, I love that song too.” And so there would be some side conversations… sometimes actually about the class… often about other things. But at the same time, I think people saw some commonality because they were all learning a lot of new content. But when they say, “Oh, I really love this, Ma Rainey song, Prove it on Me,” and then somebody else does, too, it’s bonding or these little moments in the things that they like or performers they’d never heard before. One of them did a paper on Blind Blake and I feel like this much qualified for the Blues Hall of Fame, just making a Blind Blake song in 2022, as it was. When they found themselves agreeing on songs, and some parts of history that make people not so happy, but at the same time, for some of them, it’s validating, knowing that these things happened. And for them to realize that this has impact on my life, still, 100 years after the blues started… obviously, racism hadn’t gone away, or sexism… and so to see these things expressed, and to connect with that, and connect with other people, because not every day, but sometimes we’d have some really, really good and honest conversations. And then people connect with each other over that. And maybe it’s not even because they agree, but they learned to respect other people’s viewpoints. And it was always a very respectful class. A couple of people even argued over whether or not things were rock and roll songs. And that was about as heated as we got. [LAUGHTER] I can tell you that much. Because when rock and roll started, the saxophone was the guitar. The guitar solo was a saxophone solo. And some people are like, :”No, that’s not rock and roll…” like, “that is rock and roll.” And so that’s what some of the arguments were. It’s like, well, though, it was kind of 12-bar blues still, there’s more R&B. An example I use is Shake, Rattle and Roll by Big Joe Turner, which was not a tune you would play around your children, I will put it that way. There were some lyrics in there that were pushing the envelope like “when you wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through. I can’t believe my eyes, all the mess belongs to you.” You couldn’t sing that easily in the early 50s. But then what happened is a white band, Bill Haley and the Comets who were very well known, covered it and took out the more offensive part of “the way when you wear those dresses, oh my, you look so nice,” which is a completely different context. There was still some sexism involved in that because there’s the 1950s, unfortunately. So what happened is that Big Joe Turner’s version became a big hit on the R&B track, Bil Haley and the Comets covered it and it became a big hit in America because they were allowed to be on all those airwaves. But just little moments like that that I was able to show or the fact that I think that Big Momma Thorton’s Hound Dog is vastly superior to Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog in every way. But I think when people get new information also, and maybe light bulbs go on over their head, that also builds a bit more of a connection too because these are things again, we don’t teach this anywhere. But it’s an important part of the cultural history and pop culture history and music history.

John: And it sounds like a lot of the intercultural competence that these classes were designed to work on was just built into the structure of the course.

Tim: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things I felt good about, because I knew that was an emphasis. And it’s like, well, this definitely has that throughout the years. For example, even though people will debate whether it’s blues, or it’s jazz, but something like Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. That was something the fact that it talked about a lynching and all the rest of this stuff. That was something that really moved students ‘cause unfortunately, they might have textbooks and talk about it. But it’s also Billie Holiday, who has an amazing voice. And so this really translated a lot of that stuff. There are a few songs that talked about the welfare system, or Big Bill Broonzy talking about being black, brown, and white, and some of the different situations that people face there. It was just such a great way of conveying this information. And you know, they’re all amazing songs, too. So you read it in a history book, and it can be kind of removed. But when you hear someone singing about this, that becomes very immediate,

John: Strange Fruit just it’s just an amazing song.

Tim: Oh, yes.

John: How did the students react to that?

Tim: If I had to pick one song during the whole semester that got a reaction from them, it was that. They might have heard about lynching. This really painted the picture in words and in Billie Holiday’s amazing voice. So I think that was an example. But there’s also… no one talks about Bessie Smith’s Poor Man Blues, which essentially it’s about all the black soldiers who went and fought for you in Europe, and then you rich man, you don’t want anything to do with us anymore. You want us to fight your wars and that type of thing. And it’s really interesting, because there are some quote unquote, blues historians, I will call them chroniclers who had the audacity to say that the blues are not a political genre, but it’s all political. When you’re poor, when you’re dealing with all these barriers in life, that’s very political. And so it’s amazing that while these were white people from Britain, who had no real background in the country’s history, and so that’s why I wanted to get a lot of the social and protest songs because that’s a big part of the blues. I mean, again, so much of blues… you’re an economist, you know that the economy impacts every part of people’s lives… and if you’re not being paid enough, if you’re not getting employment if you’re being treated badly by the system because of systemic racism, that’s a very political thing. So I think that’s the point that they also got very much from a lot of what they saw. So it was just great to have that opportunity to show people these things. Well, when I say show people, I mean, having way more talented people than me sing about it.

Rebecca: I can imagine that a lot of students and just people in general, listen to music and don’t always pay attention to the details. So having the opportunity to slow down and actually think about the lyrics and have conversations about it and connect it to history is a really different way of experiencing music, and it, I would imagine, translate to other things they’re listening to. Did you have conversations in class about how they might have been listening to other kinds of music differently?

Tim: So many of them know Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. They didn’t realize what a background in the blues, Jimi Hendrix had. Jimi Hendrix was very blues focused, even the Grateful Dead. So much of their stuff is blues. So especially when they saw this with artists that they knew, that helped make that connection a lot. Again, Eric Clapton is very much a conveyor of that, that they all know the Eric Clapton songs, but it’s like, well, that was written in the 1920s and 1930s, by someone who wasn’t Eric Clapton. But to connect all that backwards, or even the fact that to the era when I came of age, Nirvana, and their last performance on Unplugged, where they covered a Lead Belly song, Where Did You Sleep Last Night, and just how moving that was when Kurt Cobain did it in that I think his last performance ever. But then to see people make that connection. Okay, Lead Belly, and of course that was an old folk tale that he was singing, but at one point that got me into Lead Belly. And so just being able to peel back the layers and look at the history and see how that underpins the songs that they listened to. Because a lot of them do listen to what are covers of blues song. And there was a big blues revival in the 1980s, and it’s funny, because if you are a blues historian, you don’t want to admit it, but one person admitted, I hate to say this, but it was because of the Blues Brothers movie.

John: To be fair, there were so many great blues performers in the Blues Brothers movies.

Tim: Yeah, well, and the thing is, the movie company didn’t want to bring in these performers. They wanted “Oh, we have these hot young artists we want to do.” And Dan Ackroyd basically said “Hard no. I’m not doing this unless we’re allowed to bring in these performers who just didn’t get their due or just weren’t as appreciated.” And, so first of all, the music in that movie is great. It’s also very funny, but at the same time, people of a certain academic level don’t like to admit to something as base, dare I say, as the Blues Brothers movie had that impact on it. But then you had a lot of people in the 80s and 90s, like you’re seeing the Fabulous Thunderbirds having a big hit with Tough Enough, the Georgia Satellites having a really big hit with Keep Your Hands to Yourself, which was basically based in a blues structure and so much of the blues rock… the Allman Brothers, so much of what they did was the blues, and they became really big. But the unfortunate thing too, is that that had to do with suddenly becoming a white man’s genre. And generally speaking, like Robert Cray was big, but he was an exception, because by the time we get to the 1980s, most of the people who were playing blues, in large part, who were getting the air play were white men, even though it started with black women. And then also Stevie Ray Vaughan helped break it open too, and we can only wonder what happened if he hadn’t died tragically, but what he brought to the blues is just otherworldly. But he learned a lot of his stuff at the feet of Buddy Guy. Bonnie Raitt started… I think it’s a rhythm and blues foundation, where she basically knew there was all these blues performers. Larry Watson gave her a shout out recently performing on campus because she won a Grammy and is an example of somebody who actually walks the walk and talks the talk and she says, “Yeah, I was inspired by the blues, but I want to give back to the performers who didn’t have the opportunity to do that.” And the problem is like in the 1980s the blues was George Thorogood and I’m just not a fan of George Thorogood. That drove me away from blues for a long time, I think, but George Thorogood performed at Live Aid with Albert King and some blues performers, but they wouldn’t have been on the bill without George Thorogood which is morally compromising to me. But the problem was that there’s still a lot of great people out there. There’s Shamekia Copeland, who is well known. There are some rising stars still in the blues scene. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who is like 19 years old and talented and might be the next big thing in the blues. So there’s a lot still out there, but at the same time, that’s not the stuff that’s getting played on most radio stations.

John: Buddy Guy is still touring. It may be his last tour. I think he labeled it as his final tour, but we’ll see.

Tim: Yeah, well, I’ve seen Buddy Guy live twice. I saw him at the [NY] State Fair with BB King, and I think it was Tommy Castro and Susan Tedeschi, maybe.

John: Yeah, I was at that show. I’ve seen him at least a dozen times including twice at his club in Chicago.

Tim: Well, that’s fantastic.

John: … the old location and the new one.

Tim: Yeah, but Buddy Guy is so influential because he can do Jimi Hendrix, because Jimi Hendrix learned from him. He can do Stevie Ray Vaughan because Stevie Ray Vaughan learned from him . He did BB King… well, he and BB just did a lot of stuff together. And BB was a legend, but Buddy Guy stole that show and every show he ever performed at.

John: Yes. And I remember that show. He had just released the Riding with the King album with Eric Clapton. And he said, “Unfortunately, I’m not able to bring Eric Clapton here, but I’ll bring out the next best thing.” And I know everyone around me was hoping that Buddy Guy was going to come back on the stage, but instead it was his other guitarist who came out and performed with him….

Tim: Who was also really good.

John: …who was also really good, but he was not Buddy Guy [LAUGHTER].

Tim: Well, and what’s weird is that you’d look at it in retrospect, when Riding with the King came out with BB King and Eric Clapton, it’s easy to look at, “Oh, look at Eric Clapton doing a favor by letting BB King be on his record.” But it’s the other way around. Clapton… probably any bluesman worth anything would want to record with BB King. But the problem is with the cultural lens of me being a young, stupid, white kid it’s like, “Oh, wow, what an opportunity for BB King.” And it’s like, because Rattle and Hum introduced BB King in another context, too, because U2, they just had Joshua Tree… they could have done anything they wanted. And it’s like “We’re gonna do a movie. And we’re going to meet with some of our inspirations.” and that type of thing. And so they did a song with BB King and Bono… who is not always the most humble person, I will say. If you’re listening, Bono, I’m sorry, you’re still my hero… was just awestruck. BB King gave him a compliment, and he didn’t know how to take it, because this is BB King.

John: One thing with Buddy Guy is he sometimes will get into a mood where he’ll only do one musician for an hour or so at a time. And I was able to get tickets to his January run at Legends. And it was the only day I could make it. I was at a conference there. And it was listed as an acoustic only blues show. And after the first hour and 45 minutes, he said, “This is an acoustic blues show, so I guess I should do something acoustic.” [LAUGHTER] And he did a few songs and they went back to electric.

Tim: Well, it’s interesting because Syracuse was a big home of blues in the 1990s. Like my friend Larry Kyle said, you could get booked three or four nights a week as a blues artist in Syracuse. It’s not that way anymore, but there were a lot of really interesting acts back then. I was writing the course in 2021, and part of me is like is the ending of this going to be tragic? Is this going to be like you’re studying Latin… Womp womp, sad trombone. But then I went to the Blues Festival in Syracuse, the New York State Blues festival, it’s actually the first big festival since COVID had hit. And basically, to borrow a line from our friend Buddy Guy, I learned the blues is alive and well. It just changed a little bit like Larkin Poe, who is one of the bigger names in blues performed there, a couple of sisters, they are white. They’re supposedly related to Edgar Allan Poe in some way. And they have a lot of classic rock there, but huge crowd. Fabulous Thunderbirds performed, I thought they were not even one of the top five bands to perform. But Vanessa Collier, who is amazing… plays guitar, plays saxophone, and is just this great person. She was selling her own merch, she didn’t have to, there’s volunteers to sell your merch, but if you’re the musician selling your merch, you’re gonna do a lot better. And she stayed and signed stuff forever. And so after the start of the pandemic, just seeing a big crowd at all, just seeing how people reacted and how much people connect to that music, and then doing a little more exploration saying that, “Ah, the blues are still alive.” They’re not the blues that existed in the 1920s. To a degree things are drifting a little bit back toward women, toward black acts than they were in the 80s and the 90s. But it’s completely different. It’s so many different things. The same way the blues inspired this, people now have picked up rock and folk and even jam band and that type of thing, and brought that back… like Robert Randolph and the Family Band played. It’s very, very, very much funk that they play. But again, just mind blowingly good. So just seeing how blues has changed, or what we call the blues still exists. So finally, I’m mentally writing the last part of my class, but I wasn’t sure, up until then, whether I could tell them that the blues thrives, despite all this research I’d done on that type of thing and listened to Sirius XM Bluesville every day and knowing friends who played the blues. But to see this, see how it was received, see how many blues fans and how many new fans were won over to the blues… that made it possible for me to finish my class with my head held up high that I was not teaching a dead subject, I was teaching a subject that’s very much alive,

Rebecca: That seems like a good note, then, to wrap up with and we always end by asking what’s next?

Tim: Actually, it’s a funny question. I believe you both know a good man by the name of Jim Early, I’ve been recording with him… a record… which it sounds weird to call it that. And it’s not exactly the most bluesy record. But one of the things that this course has taught me and I tell my students all the time, you shouldn’t wait on your dreams or have someone tell you you didn’t do this. I did not grow up as a musician because we could only afford to have one of my siblings play an instrument and that wasn’t me. And so you don’t go through the system. And while you’re not a musician because you don’t know music theory and all the rest of that stuff. So it wasn’t until I got to college and joined a friend’s band and took a course in piano and composition that I’m like “you know what, maybe I am a musician or at least somewhat of a musician.” But I think so many parts of the blues is about overcoming things, and going against people who have preset notions or trying to keep you down in some way. And certainly I don’t suffer the hardships that the blues people did. But just seeing the creative expression, hearing all this music said, “You know what, I want to do music more and more in my life.” What’s next? Obviously, I look forward to teaching the class this fall, hopefully better, always want to teach better. But I try to introduce some historic research and publish in journals and journals don’t like blues history topics. Shockingly, it’s not a popular thing. I would love to do a book that looks at some of the issues I talked about, about blues women and how they started it and how they were relegated after a while. I’d love to talk to people like Shemekia Copeland, or Vanessa Collier. And there’s a lot of other artists who still cover those albums and that type of thing. I don’t know how to engineer it because so much of what I learned from this class, working with the students is so much of what people don’t know, I would love to write a book, even maybe get one journal article published, although I might have to start my own blues journal to do it. But to really get this information out where more people can get it, because people keep saying, “Oh, I’d love to take your class.” I’m like, “Well, you’re not a freshman and you’re not at SUNY Oswego.” Like maybe I’d try like an open source class or something like that, or find a way to impart these lessons to more people, because it’s certainly something that I realized, when you find knowledge gaps, it’s like, “Well, a lot more people need to know this.” And so how do I get that message out? I don’t know yet. But talk to me in a couple of years, I guess.

John: And it would be good to do some of this while you can still interview some of the people who’ve been in that for a long time,

Tim: Absolutely. Buddy Guy is really the last connection to so much of an era. But there are people out there like Bonnie Raitt would be an excellent interview, I would think. You’re right, because we are going to lose a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much, Tim.

Tim: You’re very welcome.

Rebecca: …very nice talking to you and hearing about the interesting things you’re doing.

Tim: Well, I enjoy talking about it and you all are excellent hosts, of course,

John: …and if I ever retire, my goal is to join a blues band and go on tour.

Tim: I know where you can get a good bassist.


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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.