Q&A: Paul Wertico on rock and social change

Paul Wertico Drumming

Paul Wertico, an associate professor of jazz studies in Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, is a seven-time Grammy Award-winning drummer. He will teach a new class this fall semester, “Rock Music/Its Role In Society.”

Q. Why did you create this class?

A. I wanted to teach a class on rock. I already teach a class on blues and the students seem to love it. I think it enlightens them on a variety of levels, musically and culturally. I knew I could do the same thing with rock. Rock music has really influenced society in so many ways, everything from language and attitude, to fashion to politics to race relations, etc., so the class will cover a lot of great music and those types of cultural connections.

Q. Can rock music make the world a better place?

A. Sure, in its own way. Besides huge events like The Concert for Bangladesh, Live-Aid, and similar projects that have raised money and awareness for different causes, some rock musicians, like Bruce Springsteen and Bono, are quite vocal about wanting to see the world as a better place. Starting in the ‘60s, during the Vietnam War, you had songs written about the war that definitely changed social mores.

And sometimes rock helped open minds by introducing people to important issues they may not have been exposed to otherwise. Young British musicians in the ‘60s were looking for something new and “discovered” blues music made by black artists from the United States. Consequently, some young people here in the U.S., who may not have known about our own country’s great black blues musicians, discovered them and their music through rock bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin. Generally speaking, rock came from rock ‘n’ roll, rock ‘n’ roll came from R&B (rhythm and blues), and R&B came from jazz—although that’s a very broad overview and we’ll examine the musical lineage in much more detail in the class.

Q. So if this all started with jazz, what is jazz’s connection with social justice?

A. Well, jazz started as a black musical art form, but of course white audiences and white musicians fell in love with it too. That helped open some doors between the races, and there were multiracial bands before blacks were integrated into other white-dominated areas, like professional sports. During the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s, influential jazz artists such as Max Roach and Charles Mingus wrote entire albums about racial equality. So, even though some people may not keep up with the news, or listen to politicians, or trust “the system,” the actual music they listen to can affect public opinions and social values under the radar. That was true of jazz and blues, and it’s certainly been true of rock.

Q. Can you give an example in rock?

A. Well, even though this class will cover a multitude of rock styles from various decades, as well as some musical styles that came before and after rock, I’ll refer to the ‘60s here again, because that particular period of rock music opened up our culture in so many ways. It changed the way people looked at war and drugs and sexual experimentation and became a focal point for young people to express themselves like never before. Some of these movements were more successful than others, but they all changed our culture to varying degrees. So, by 1971, a song like John Lennon’s, “Imagine,” was released, with lyrics like, “Imagine there’s no heaven,” “Imagine there’s no countries,” “Imagine no possessions,” “And no religion too.” That was radical then. But it made people think. That’s what art is supposed to do; to make people think and question, as well as to “feel” something, and perhaps even provide some motivation for action and social change.

Q. Did you experience any of this social change firsthand?

A. I was a teenager when music from the British Invasion and Motown became popular. My dad would have the car’s AM radio on, and I’d hear rock and soul music by bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Temptations, The Supremes, etc. Motown really broke through the color barrier and exposed young white kids like me to a lot of wonderful music. Some music by certain black artists, like The Impressions, with songs like “People Get Ready,” and later Marvin Gaye songs like “What’s Going On,” were more about social issues than just about music and entertainment. All this became the music I loved and still love to this day, and yes, it also helped shape me into the person I am.

Q. Did you know any black people personally then?

A. Not really. I grew up in a white neighborhood in the suburbs of Chicago, but luckily my parents were never prejudiced and were open to all kinds of music regardless of the style or racial origin. But I do think all the music I heard back then introduced me to, and made me aware of, many things I didn’t know about before. I learned about social and economic conditions I didn’t have to live in, and so I wanted to help make the world a better place in my own way.

Q. Does rock music today have that social component?

A. Some of it does. There’s a lot of corporate control over certain types of music and especially over today’s radio. But there are still some bands that keep in touch with the very reason most people start playing music in the first place. It’s not about making money or being famous. It’s about making music as a way to express yourself and to tell your story in a way that hopefully connects with the listeners. Artists like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young are still out there, as well as more recent bands like Foo Fighters, who I think have that same spirit. In many ways, rap has even more cultural influence than rock nowadays. A lot of young people listen to rap and hip-hop, and we’ll look at those styles as well. Still, there’s a lot to learn about rock, especially for young students who didn’t live through the most influential years of the genre, when there were so many great songs and artists. And since everything in music influences what comes later, they’ll learn where some of the music they listen to actually originated.

Q. What songs will you teach?

A. Way too many to mention here, but I plan to teach a lot of different songs from a variety of artists. Some examples of classic songs with “a message” are Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” by James Brown. I’ll talk about “Living For The City” by Stevie Wonder, and “American Idiot” by Green Day, and music from one of rock’s greatest musicians and most prolific social commentators, Frank Zappa, with songs like “I’m The Slime.” And those are just a few examples. We’re covering decades of music; from before rock, all the way up to today’s styles. I’m really looking forward to teaching the class.

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