During Centre College’s CentreTerm, a three-week January term where students explore unique topics and faraway places through immersive courses, 30 students were able to read, see and hear stories in their cultural context in Alfred P. and Katherine B. Jobson Professor of English Mark Lucas’ course titled “The South in Literature, Music and Film.”
“This class was a three-car collision of literature, film and music from the American South,” Lucas said. “Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Beyoncé are in the Terraplane. The Corvette has Tennessee Williams, Scarlett O’Hara and George Clooney. Edgar Allan Poe, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor and Natasha Trethewey are in the stretch Caddy, Faulkner driving.
“Each class session was a dig through the passengers’ strewn luggage,” he continued.
The music focus of the class ranged from Delta blues to the Dirty South, with an emphasis on Memphis music. Students dug deep into the book-to-movie adaptations of films like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Winter’s Bone.”
“The crowning point of the class was the field trip to iconic Memphis music sites and the Lorraine Motel shrine to Martin Luther King Jr.,” he added.
One goal Lucas had for his students was for them to become semi-professional music critics by the end of the term.
“In addition to touring the legendary Sun and Stax studios and the Beale Street environs of W.C. Handy and Memphis Minnie, we read brilliant music writing by the likes of Greil Marcus and Stanley Booth,” he added. “Then a writing project asked each students to dream up an EP comprised of seven tracks representing the essence of a Southern artist’s or band’s career in order to write liner notes for the album. The resulting annotated EPs ranged from Ma Rainey to My Morning Jacket.”
Lucas also wanted his students to keep their eyes and ears on how art expressions interpenetrate.
“Beyoncé’s visual album Formation was the jumping-off point for a consideration of how the title song’s video is a journey through New Orleans history and a connection point with stories we read by Ernest Gaines, songs we heard by Mahalia Jackson, photos we viewed by E.J Bellocq and experiences we had inside the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel,” he continued.
Lucas explained how the emphasis throughout the course was on active doing, not passive receiving.
“After reading poems Natasha Trethewey wrote in response to vintage photographs, the students followed suit, giving voice to silent pictures by doing verbal translations of iconic shots of Memphis musicians like Elvis, B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis or famous Civil Rights images by photographer Ernest Withers,” he said. “We held a seance in the hotel for performing these.”
Lucas said that during the course he wanted the students to embrace the spirit of Southern gonzo sage Hunter S. Thompson, who says, “Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of fuel. Sentimental people call it inspiration, but what they really mean is fuel. I have always needed fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about 50 more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
February 2, 2018