Professor B's Blog

November 25, 2014
by Professor B

MUSC 299 – National Day of Mourning

It’s Thanksgiving in America and once again, it’s time to pause and consider what the complex history of the United States and the people who inhabited this continent before colonists arrived. Every year people gather in Plymouth to remind people that there is another side to this “holiday.” The event is organized by the United American Indians of New England and was first held in 1970.

Here’s a video from 2012:

November 19, 2014
by Professor B

MUSC 299 – Trevor Hall, “Obsidian”

I was wondering through Spotify today and encountered Trevor Hall‘s music. I was reading student papers and not paying a lot of attention to the lyrics, but when the track “Obsidian” played, I dropped everything and turned up the volume when I heard distinct Native American vocables in the background. My cultural-appropriation antenna went up and I thought, “Uh oh,” someone is trying sound “Indian.” I hunted down more information about Hall. He is deeply involved with Eastern spirituality and often includes Sanskrit chants in his works. The song “Obsidian,” though, was inspired by his friend Nahko. Here is Hall telling his story:

Nahko himself is an interesting musician. He identifies as Apache, Puerto Rican, and Filippino. The members of his group of musicians, Medicine for the People, all have varying backgrounds as well. They use music as a platform to explore spirituality, personal responsibility, supporting the environment, and social causes important to Native Americans, Hawaiians, and other displaced and underrepresented people. (For those who know me, you can imagine how exciting it is to find a group that embodies my research interests!)

It would be interesting to know how Trevor Hall came to use the vocables in his recording. Did he work with Nahko to learn about Native musical practices? Did he use Native American singers? What else would you ask him if you could interview him?


November 10, 2014
by Professor B

MUSC 299 and 168 – Apaches, Shadows, Bongos, and Hip Hop

The 1954 Hollywood film Apache stars Burt Lancaster as Massai, an Apache Indian who refuses to surrender to the white man. All of the Indian roles are played by whites with dark makeup in an odd twist on blackface minstrelsy. For all that, the movie is sympathetic to the Native American’s issues and, at least in this trailer, seems to eschew the stereotypical dialect and characterizations of many mid-twentieth century films featuring them.

In 1960 an English band The Shadows recorded “Apache,” a song reportedly inspired by the movie. Listen to the opening drum beats, which the band must have felt signaled “Indianness.”


In 1972 the Incredible Bongo Band recorded a cover of “Apache,” featuring bongos and adding a horn section and organ. The recording is noted for its drum break at 2:21.

When DJ Kool Herc first began exploring ways to extend the dance break using a technique he called merry-go-round, the drum break from “Apache” was one of the first breaks he used.


And the rest is history.

October 21, 2014
by Professor B

MUSC 168 – Bad Country Music or Bad Pop Music?

Florida Georgia Line,

Have you listened to the new album from Florida Georgia Line? Do you like it? Hate it? A critic over on Saving Country Music rates it as the worst country album ever. Read his analysis here. He makes the case that what Florida Georgia Line has produced does not fit the stylistic parameters of country music. Instead their music follows more pop conventions. His comments go right to the heart of the argument by some that country music is losing its personality and becoming pop, a phenomenon that is not new (take the Nashville Sound for instance) and tends to cycle every few years.

Do you agree with this critic? If Florida Georgia Line’s new album isn’t country, what is it? Is it possible that the merging of genres that is happening in the industry will lead to a new sound, similar to what happened in the 1950s with the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll?

October 21, 2014
by Professor B

MUSC 168 – Song Plagiarizing and the Case of “Stairway to Heaven”

Every guitarist knows “Stairway to Heaven.” Guitar stores have been known to ban it for guitarists trying out the instruments. The heirs of one Randy California are claiming that Led Zeppelin had access to and substantially copied one of his songs, thereby entitling them to royalties. But it’s been forty-three years, a fact which has some decrying this move as a money grab. The judge ruled against a dismissal yesterday so the case will move forward.

The broad outlines of the case are described in this CNN article. Forbes provides a more detailed description of the issues involved, including what copyright infringement is and how it applies in this case. After reading this, it occurred to me that many of those early Beach Boys and Beatles songs could qualify for infringement if the standard is applied too narrowly. Can you think of examples that might fit? When you listen to the two songs in this case do you hear the similarities? For the musicians among us, do you think a chord progression is enough to establish plagiarism? Do you think there should be a statue of limitations? Where and how do you draw the line between imitation and plagiarism?

October 9, 2014
by Professor B

MUSC 299 – If anyone was offended…

AP –×2.jpg

OutKast caused a storm that quickly died down in most quarters with their 2004 performance at the Grammy Awards. Actions such as theirs reinforce stereotypes and some people feel it trivializes the work, aspirations, messages, beliefs, and identity of those within indigenous communities, once again reinforcing their marginalization. One thing that caught my attention was the response by the television network, “If anyone was offended…” That approach has been and is being used in other controversies, such as the one over the name of the Washington Redskins, and effectively moves the responsibility back to the one who “offended.”

After reading through the article below, what do you think? Can and should outsiders be allowed to appropriate the symbols and cultural products of another group? Does it matter what status in society that group has (for instance, would dressing up as a powerful Wall Street banker be offensive)?


Rap, Rage, REDvolution

As hip-hop emerges as an empowering voice for indigenous youth, mainstream rappers still objectify Indian country

Conjuring up the charge of cavalries and natives on some futuristic-western warpath, OutKaststormed the 2004 Grammys in February with the brazenness of the former, while bedecked as the latter. Resplendent in neon green Halloween-Hiawatha approximations of Native American regalia—fringe, headbands, and feathers—Andre and Big Boi rose before smoking teepees, prancing proudly through their chart-slaying “Hey Ya!,” the chorus of which is itself evocative of powwow singing. Was it some kind of tribute, or did the winners of the Album of the Year Grammy unwittingly channel Al Jolson‘s “Mammy”?

Read more…



October 1, 2014
by Professor B

MUSC 168 – Movies and Popular Music

Your first writing assignment asks you to consider music within a movie. See my other post about the various roles of music within a movie. Also consider the following about how music functions in a film.

Film music, whether it is a pop song, an improvised accompaniment, or an originally composed cue, can do a variety of things. It can establish setting, specifying a particular time and place; it can fashion a mood and create atmosphere; it can call attention to elements onscreen and offscreen, thus clarifying matters of plot and narrative progression; it can reinforce or foreshadow narrative developments and contribute to the way we respond to them; it can elucidate characters’ motivations and help us to know what they are thinking; it can contribute to the creation  of emotions, sometimes only dimly realized in the images, both for characters to emote and for audiences to feel. Film music can unify a series of images that might seem disconnected on their own and impart a rhythm to their unfolding.

–Kathryn Kalinak, Film Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1

Popular music has been integral to the history of film music, present from nearly its inception. It sometimes features prominently as in the case of a movie like 8 Mile, and at others it only makes brief but important appearances such as the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle and the later scenes that feature jazz music.

As you watch your chosen movie, think about how the music functions. Does it perform any of the functions listed by Kalinak?

If you can think of scenes from a movie that demonstrate one of the functions listed above, leave a description or link to a YouTube video in the comments below.

October 1, 2014
by Professor B
1 Comment

MUSC 168 – Music and the Movies

Your first writing assignment asks you to view a movie and consider the role that music plays in the film. Broadly speaking, music can be diagetic or non-diagetic.

Diagetic music is music that is coming from instruments or playback devices in the story. For example, in the film Blackboard Jungle, the teacher, Mr. Dadier, plays jazz records for the students. That music is diagetic. Diagetic music can be on-screen (as in the Blackboard Jungle example) or off-screen, such as an unseen band playing inside a club while the characters are standing outside the club. The key, to oversimplify a bit, is whether the characters can hear the music.

Conversely, non-diagetic music sets the mood for a scene or helps define a character but is not heard by the characters. Non-diagetic music is often referred to as underscoring. Think about the Star War series. When Darth Vader appears, a particular theme is played.

In Blackboard Jungle, the opening credits and scene are played over Bill Haley and His Comets “Rock Around the Clock.” For most of the credits and scene, the characters are unaware of the music. For a brief moment, though, the boys in the school’s front yard are interacting with the music. During that period, the music becomes diagetic.

I would argue there is a third type of music in film, and that is when music becomes a character in the film. For example, consider the song “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca. After Sam plays the song, Rick says to him, “Sam, I thought I told you never to play…” Then he sees Ilsa, his former lover. The song itself represents the tension between Rick and Ilsa, their past life together, and the complication of the current moment.


In the movie The Pianist, the story of Władysław Szpilman during World War II, the main character plays the music of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and in each instance, the music works as a character in that the other characters interact with it and respond to it and the plot hinges on those moments.

So as you view your movie for your assignment, consider these three roles: diagetic, non-diagetic, and music-as-a-character.

September 25, 2014
by Professor B

MUSC 299 – Cultural Appropriation and The Music Scene

We will talk throughout the semester about cultural appropriation! or the use of Native American symbols and practices in a non-native context. In many cases, there is no recognition or understanding on the part of the borrower of the significance, meaning, or origin of symbols, and thus the practice becomes disrespectful, seen by some as another slap in the face by the privileged few. PJ Rey discusses this in Cultural Appropriation at Burning Man and the Rave/EDM Scene


September 16, 2014
by Professor B
1 Comment

MUSC 299 – Music and Stereotypes

In my kickboxing class this morning, this song came up on the playlist.


Every time I hear this, I wonder how it would feel to be Native American and to hear these musical stereotypes (the drum beat and the melodic motif that are supposed to evoke a war chant) applied to seduction and courtship (okay, I’m stretching the language a bit), as well as to objectification of women. It is in an interesting cross current of cultural concerns that leaves me uncomfortable on many levels.

For a viewpoint from the inside, check out this article: War Chant and Tomahawk Chop: From Seminoles to Republicans (via Braves, Diddy, and a 40-Foot Cow)

The question is does a recording like this have the power to hurt? Does any recording have that kind of agency? If we consume, are we complicit? Share your thoughts.