HIST 385/AMST 385

Sounds of the Century:

Understanding 20th Century US History through Popular Music


Course Description

This course examines 20th century United States history through the lens of popular music, including blues, jazz, rock, R&B, disco, hip-hop and musicals. Thematically speaking, this course explores how our notions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation are reflected in and produced by people’s interactions with music. Special attention is given to the relationship between popular music and social change as well as the role of popular music in shaping the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world.

Required Course Material


Students are required to purchase two books

  • Jack Hamilton, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016)
  • Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of Hip-Hop Generation (New York: Picador, 2005)

All other readings will be available online: on Canvas, JStor, Project Muse, or as ebooks.

Musical Material

Because this is a course on music, you’ll be listening to songs for every class. I have created a playlist on Spotify, named HIST 385, and you can access it on the course website. To listen to all the songs, you need a Spotify account, which you can create for free:

You will be watching many video clips as well, and you can access them through the course website.  


Two movies will be made available online.

  • Flower Drum Song (1961)
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)


Participation: 20%

Attendance at class meetings and active participation in class discussions are critical components of the course. The final 25 minutes of each class will be reserved to going over reading assignments, so please be prepared to discuss them every class.

Ethnographic Essay Assignment: 20%                   Due 9/22 Midnight

Find a music video of your least favorite musician on YouTube, look through the comments section for positive comments, and use these comments to write a 3 to 4-page ethnographic essay that explains why the fans find these artists appealing. Specific guidelines for this assignment will be distributed in class on 9/16.

Midterm Exam: 25%                                                     In class on 10/28

Identifications and one essay on Unit II.

Final Exam: 35%                                                                Due 12/13

There are two options for the final exam.

  1. Take-Home Final (8-10 pages)

Two essays, one on Unit III and one on the course as a whole.

  • Online Exhibition 25% + One Short Essay (3-4 pages) 10%

Online Exhibition: Building on the concepts and methods you have learned in the course, create an online exhibition on the subject of popular music and US history that is not covered in this course. The exhibit will be posted on the course site, and students who choose this option will present their work to class during the final week of the semester. Interested students must identify a topic with the instructor by 11/11 at the latest. 

One Short Essay: students who choose to do an online exhibit will write one final essay on Unit III.

Grading Scale

A         94-100            B+       87-89               C+       77-79

A-        90-93               B          84-86               C         74-76

B-        80-83               C-        70-73

              D         64-66 D+      67-69

F          63 and below

For all written assignments and the online exhibition, I will distribute grading rubrics ahead of time.

Accessibility and Inclusion

This course will make sure that all students feel welcome and receive the necessary accommodations to get the most out of their time in the classroom. This means that all members of the class—the students and instructor—will be respectful of others’ views, backgrounds, and goals.

Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability must register with the Office of Accessibility Services (OAS). Students should contact the OAS as early as possible in the semester to ensure they receive the necessary accommodations. In addition, students should feel free to contact me to let me know if there is anything I can do to facilitate their learning.


Some students will miss classes due to illness, family emergencies or university events. If you miss a class, it is your responsibility to catch up on the material covered during that meeting. Unexcused and unexplained absences will negatively impact your participation grade, so please write me in advance if you cannot attend a class.


All work in the class should be your own and plagiarism from the web (including cutting and pasting of other’s text, but also failure to cite others’ arguments), use of others’ papers, discussion comments, will lead to an honor council referral. Canvasis equipped with plagiarism software and it will be turned on for the class. For an explanation of what constitutes plagiarism, please consult the History Department’s How To Write A Good History Paper page or the Woodruff Library’s “I need help in citing or using sources” page. 


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