Take note: the professor for today carries a guitar
“Glad to see y’all,” said Kate Campbell, an American songwriter and folk singer, who came to Seoul last month to lecture college students on the source of her songs.
“Do you know what y’all means? It’s a popular southern way of saying ‘everyone,’” the 44-year-old singer from New Orleans, Louisiana, continued as she took her seat in front of the podium, laying her guitar on her lap.
The lecture was part of an undergraduate course on U.S. History and American Culture at Sogang University. The course has a simple goal: To show students that American culture extends far beyond hip-hop and Hollywood. So far, the lectures have covered black pop music, soul and rock ’n’ roll. During April, one theme was American folk music, so the professors decided to invite an folk singer to come talk about her songs.
With the 30 or so people in the audience listening curiously to her speech, Campbell started to talk about her childhood, growing up with a father who was a Baptist minister and a mother from Tennessee. Her grandfather had always been fond of bluegrass music and his banjos, she said, while her favorite singer had been Elvis Presley.
Plucking and strumming her guitar, she gave the audience a taste of American folk music. She sang “Crazy in Alabama,” one of her best-selling songs, about a young girl’s confusion over the civil rights movement as marchers parade past her home and promised to perform more tracks, such as “When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas” or “See Rock City,” about a young Southern woman’s need to escape, at the concert scheduled to follow the lecture.
“The example I wanted to use was Kate Campbell, a singer I had come to admire after listening to her on a Boston folk music radio station, and from the CDs of her music that I’d bought as a result,” said Donald Bellomy, an assistant professor and one of the organizers of the event. “Her interpretation of life in the American South and of the civil rights movement, flavored by her experiences as a young girl during the height of the tensions of the 1960s, brought a very personal perspective to the issues, while other songs invariably come from the standpoint of individual men and women.”
Mr. Bellomy lectures on the transformation of politics in American folk music, from the overt polemics of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, to the interweaving of politics and the personal in modern singer-songwriter folk music.
His colleague, Jae H. Roe, a professor in the American Culture department, is also planning to lecture on the intersection of politics with art and music. He plans to focus on politics in modern American country music and rock, particularly in regard to the Iraq war.
“It was a chance to learn and feel how diverse American culture is,” said Oh Seul-gi, a junior studying English literature. “I used to learn that only from books.”
As the lecture came to an end, some time was allowed for questions. One student asked Campbell how she felt about the terms “rural white” or “Southern African-American.” Another asked about the musical differences between Neil Young and Leonard Skinner.
Pressed for her views on social issues, Campbell said that she tried not to take sides and that her songs do not advocate a particular politics. But in one song, she criticizes efforts to change a “beautiful cotton field into casinos” and sings how “scary it was to hear about the KKK.”
“A lot of my songs are written from an honest child’s perspective,” she said.
“I didn’t know that folk music differed so much by its regions,” said Kim Seong-hyeon, a graduate student studying American literature.
In May, other speakers will come, such as Moustafa Bayoumi from the City University of New York, answering “How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Arab Americans Today,” and the American crime novelist Jack O’Connell talking about “American Noir.” The lectures are free and open to the public. For more information, call (02) 705-8290.
by Lee Min-a