My Dad was SHOCKED when his students didn’t know who Gershwin was. I was not.

My dad called me a few weeks ago from work to tell me something striking that he had just experienced during a class. He’s a math professor, impeccably rational, logical, and lucid, though not without a few endearing quirks that come with being a professor and father.

He and I constantly argue politely but passionately about the meaning and value of music and art past and present. He grew up in the 60s with a father who was headed towards a professional singing career (cut short by the draft), a mother who sang in local choirs and played the piano, and a grandmother who was a church organist. I grew up in the 90s, but my musical palate was strongly influenced by his, and also by my musical family. I believe that without such musical beginnings, I would not have chosen the path I did. These musical foundations included Glenn Miller, Sarah Vaughan, Mozart, movie scores (The Godfather; Schindler’s List), and musicals (Oliver!; My Fair Lady).

The very first music I recall listening to has got to be that of Glenn Miller, Mozart, or George Gershwin. And my first memories of music are from before I was two years old. Most of this music remains a part of my life to this day.

Back to my dad…whenever he starts a semester, he makes an effort to get to know his students, and not just their names and majors, but also their cultural tastes.

He called that day to tell me that during one of his classes, he had asked his students what kind of music they listened to. He  wanted to get a sense of where the students lay on the cultural timeline, where their musical knowledge started and/or ended. “For instance,” he said, “You all know who George Gershwin is?”

He got blank stares. When he asked how many people knew who George Gershwin was, not a hand went up.

My dad was blown away. This musical icon, active less than a hundred years ago in this very country, was one of which they had never heard.

He expressed his shock to the class, and simply told them to go listen to Rhapsody in Blue.

My response was that while it was unfortunate that his students had never heard of Gershwin (they were missing out on a wealth of ingenious music), when I considered their childhood and adolescent environments, it wasn’t altogether surprising, and certainly not shocking.

I figured his students were probably born in the early to mid 90s. Those students, whose generation overlaps with mine by just a few years, likely grew up in completely different circumstances than I did. Those few years make a lot of difference.

In many aspects, I grew up in unusual circumstances, and my dad’s students grew up in pretty usual ones. I’m probably a more striking story than they are when you think about it! How many other kids do you know who grew up with 1) a parent present in the house at all times, 2) no cable television until 2008, 3) no video games ever, 4) a family with exceptional tastes in music, 5) lots and lots of CDs and a CD player, and 6) no internet. That’s just how it was for me.

I’m also inclined to think that most kids, when they do search for music independently, don’t stumble upon Gershwin, and if they do, they don’t automatically take a liking to his music because, to them, it’s “old” or “boring.”

So unless these students grew up with Gershwin, it’s unlikely that they’ll just find it. This is due to the accessibility of new, free music today, but also due to stigmatization of “old” music (which, depending on who you talk to, is music as few as ten years old).

But beyond that, here’s something else I thought about my dad’s story, something I didn’t think of until after we hung up.

Maybe his students didn’t know who George Gershwin was, but I bet most of them would know the song “Summertime.” It’s be done and redone, modernized, remixed, you name it.

You know it, right?

Do you know who DeBose Heyward is?

He’s the lyricist.

Do you know where the song comes from?

It’s from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, with music by Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin (George’s brother).

Depending on which generation you belong to, it’s not shocking if you don’t know this. I’m not upset or mad. I’m not offended. Not because you don’t know this.

What IS shocking and offensive is this culture of failing to recognize true ownership, and instead unduly ascribing ownership to the latest interpreter. The Christmas season is actually a great time to be talking about this. If you haven’t already, you’re going to start hearing a lot of older holiday songs (think Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong days) that have been modernized. I don’t like that term, because songs about brotherhood, faith, and nostalgia are universal and don’t need “modernizing.” What I mean is that you’ll hear Bing Crosby singing to a techno beat, or Louis Armstrong being cut up and spliced together to create “a whole new song!” The thing is, they aren’t new songs. They don’t belong to the remixer. And while we might like to think that “White Christmas” is Bing Crosby’s, it’s actually Irving Berlin’s. He wrote it.

Finally, my over-arching point is media literacy. It doesn’t matter what generation you come from- we all need to understand where our media comes from. Young people need to learn that pop culture existed before they were born, it was just different. And it’s a two way street- older people need to do the same. Having grown up in “the good old days” doesn’t exempt you from apprising yourself of modern culture- even music, no matter what you might think of it.

As I said, my dad and I talk a lot about modern music, but it’s difficult because my dad isn’t familiar with a lot of it. Case in point: my parents and I went to see Flight. The joke about Cee Lo, which had most of the movie’s audience laughing for a good five seconds, went right over my dad’s head. “Who’s Cee Lo?” he asked, and not too quietly. I pointed out to him that he’s heard “Forget You” before, and that he even pointed out that it had an “oldie” feel to it. He didn’t remember.

All people, especially professors like my dad who deal with college-age people every day and young students who interact with older people every day, need to make an effort to be familiar with current AND past culture. In a way, the idea of culture and society is circular because each is defined by the other. In another way, it’s linear because culture is continually influenced by the past. Even the choice to ignore past art is still a conscious decision and therefore influential in shaping one’s beliefs and tastes.

Who’s Gershwin? Look him up.

Who’s Ke$ha? Look her up.

Don’t like one or either? Fine. But now you’re not ignorant about it.

Admittedly, some things are generational. We can transcend most of them. Especially ignorance, which shouldn’t be, and isn’t, generational. 

But that’s a whole different topic for a whole different post…

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