Roundtable | Teaching Controversial Topics in American Music

Guest Editor’s Introduction: Framing the Discussion

James Deaville
McMaster University

The minstrel show, gangsta rap, Eminem, Flower Drum Song. All of these American musics have one feature in common: they are the source of considerable controversy because of associations with racism, misogyny, homophobia, and/or violence. Performances often lead to protest and heated debate in the local media and to demonstrations at or boycotts of the event, if it is not cancelled beforehand (Deaville). At the same time, the silence of the majority of American society over such musical practices and works reflects our continuing inability to come to terms with the underlying social problems and divisions represented therein.

This discomfort carries over into our problems with certain types of music that in and of themselves do not convey controversial messages, yet are troublesome because of the class or status of their creators and/or consumers. Prejudices within elite audiences have made it controversial to appreciate and promote the music of Appalachia and television music, for example. Such musics have been positioned as inferior, as creations of subaltern cultures or of commercial concerns.

Teaching this “material” in post-secondary institutions is often regarded as transcending the traditional boundaries of appropriateness established within the academy, whereby the instructor must consciously decide about suitability for a given class. A teacher’s decision to include the topic in the lecture or seminar course on American music runs the risk of offending students and facing censure by the university administration.1 Even the possibility of poor course evaluations may suffice to keep the junior (or indeed, senior) faculty member from discussing problematic or discomforting aspects of American music history. Yet each of the musics indicated above represents an important moment in or aspect of that history, reflecting major issues within the society of the time. Ignoring or omitting discussion of minstrelsy or Appalachian music, for example, would limit coverage and comprehension and contribute to an imbalanced representation of the American musical heritage. Some of us also believe that the classroom is just the place to work out the tensions underlying the controversial musical practices and works.

It is crucial that we teachers of music engage students and colleagues around us in a productive dialogue about the controversial or problematic aspects of what we perform and study. Recognizing the difficulty yet importance of the task, this special “symposium” intends to provide insights into how we as teachers can accomplish that in the classroom. The result is open and frank comments about issues that all too rarely enter public discourse. Each contributor draws upon her or his experiences and strategies in negotiating the passage between Scylla and Charybdis, between omitting and offending.

The roundtable arises from the plenary session presented under the same title at the annual meeting of the Society for American Music (SAM) in Cleveland, 10–14 March, 2004.2 The participants were chosen to reflect a diversity of subject positions, above all a variety of sets of teaching experiences: Charles Hiroshi Garrett (University of Michigan), Sandra Graham (University of California, Davis), Carol J. Oja (Harvard University), Ron Pen (University of Kentucky), Guy Ramsey (University of Pennsylvania), Michael Saffle (Virginia Tech), and Josephine Wright (College of Wooster).

Fortunately, most of these participants were in a position to contribute expanded versions of their all-too-brief presentations to this special issue of Echo. In the session, I divided the presenters into five “groups,” according to the topics they had proposed (of course, there was significant overlap between these constructed groupings): I started the session with an examination of university policies regarding academic freedom and controversy in the classroom; Josephine Wright addressed historical perspectives for discussing race in the classroom; Sandra Graham and Guy Ramsey talked about positions they adopted in the classroom with regard to controversial issues and their resultant experiences; Carol Oja and Charles Garrett presented their strategies for engaging students in dialogue about difficult topics from American musical history; and Ron Pen and Michael Saffle discussed and—in the case of Ron—demonstrated how Appalachian music was or was not treated as “other” in post-secondary institutional contexts. This rich array of topics, all thoughtfully prepared and presented, enabled us to open up a wide-ranging public discussion about what does and could/should take place in our classrooms, in perhaps the first plenary session of SAM devoted to the teaching of American music.

The selective bibliography reflects our varied responses to the topic: for some of us it is a matter of the positions we adopt or are forced to adopt in the classroom, for others the question involves how we engage students with this material, and for still others the issues revolve around the material itself (in our case, racially charged or unjustly marginalized musical practices). We unfortunately did not keep a record of the lively discussion that resulted from individual presentations. However, for the purpose of the special issue of Echo, we have invited several respected voices in American music scholarship and pedagogy to add their perspectives to the debate, commenting on whichever aspects of our presentations that they felt needed elaboration, reinforcement, or re-direction.

Next Essay (link to “Academic Freedom in the Post-Secondary Classroom”)

Work Cited

Deaville, James. “The Minstrel Show in the 21st Century.” The Bulletin of the Society for American Music 29 (2003): 35–36.


  1. Even when the music does not offend, such as in the cases of television music and Appalachian music, the instructor may still find the freedom of the classroom limited through complaints of Music majors and faculty that such American music “is not worth studying.”
  2. The original idea for the session had its origins in informal discussions after John Graziano’s work-in-progress session about minstrelsy at the SAM meeting in Tempe, 2003 . It quickly became clear that minstrelsy was a controversial topic in the classrooms of today, and that each of us has a different pedagogical approach to it.
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