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Michael Stoff, Director 305 East 23rd St, CLA 2.102, (G3600) Austin, TX 78712-1250 • 512-471-1442

Spring 2009

T C 357 • Social Criticism in Song and Poetry from Homer to Bob Dylan - W

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
42850 TTh
12:30 PM-2:00 PM
CRD 007B

Course Description

"It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there." William Carlos Williams

All cultures aim to perpetuate their power structures. Social criticism is regularly suppressed, marginalized or even forbidden; and it is often dangerous for critics. Nonetheless, social criticism and protest have been a vital part of folk traditions from the early epics of Homer and Hesiod and the poetic books of Old Testament to modern (19th to 21st century) folk, blues and popular music, and 19th- to 20th-century war poets. Criticism in song and poetry is even institutionalized as a mechanism for mainstream society to examine issues that might otherwise grow into much larger problems.

In this course we will look at social criticism in songs and poems in five distinct historical and cultural contexts: Ancient Greece; OT Judaeic culture; 20th-century American blues music; British, Scottish and regional American folk music; 19th and 20th-century American and British war poetry. Our starting point will be the problem areas in contemporary American society that are targets for criticism: war, social and economic problems, cultural values, religion. More time will be given to the modern American experience than to the first two categories. we shall even discuss techniques that are used to mute social criticism in song and poems and address questions about target audiences.

Although the general thrust of course organization will be chronological, every class session will have some comparative element touching upon our modern experience. Students will be required to analyze how and why particular songs or poems are produced and performed in their social and historical contexts. Modern issues in folk music and poetry will include: the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Great Depression, the labor movement, the Cold War, civil rights, Vietnam, foreign policy, economic inequity, and general existential Angst.

Grading Policy

3 short writing assignments (3-5 pages) 15% each: 45%
Final Paper (8-10 pages): 25%
Class direction (Presentation, handout): 30%


(1) Homer, Hesiod, Solon, Euripides and Greek lyric poets (3 weeks); (2) Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (2 weeks); (3) The Blues Line: A Collection of Blues Music from Leadbelly to Muddy Waters (3 weeks); (4) Francis Childs, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads; Hille-Lomax, The People's Song Book; Harry Smith, Anthology of American Folk Music; Bob Dylan, Lyrics (4 weeks); (5) The Oxford Book of War Poetry and Eberhart-Rodman, War and the Poet: An Anthology of Poetry Expressing Man's Attitude to War from Ancient Times to the Present (2 weeks).

About the Professor
Professor Palaima has lectured, written and taught extensively on the subjects of ancient writing systems, the reconstruction of ancient culture, decipherment theory, Greek language, and war and violence studies. He loves music (esp. Bob Dylan and traditional blues) and film, and hopes you do also. He is a regular contributor of editorials to the Austin American-Statesman and reviewer for the Times Higher Education Supplement. He teaches this course so that all involved, including himself, can see things in life more clearly.


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